The majority of Europe is open to travel from within. Crossing national land borders is often as simple as driving from one state or province to the next inside of our own home countries. Occasionally, though, and within the context of national and continental security, checkpoints are set up at various locations throughout the EU. Considering that Teresa and I were travelling into Belgium from the Netherlands about two weeks after the terrorist attacks in Brussels it wasn’t at all surprising that us along with thousands of other motorists faced a slew of security upon entering the country.
Renting a car in Amsterdam on the day that we left was a simple process, interrupted only by the odd hiccup or two. Rental companies in Europe take nothing but credit card payments, no cash whatsoever. We weren’t anticipating this limitation and had withdrawn all of this cash from a local bank in order to pay, leaving little room on our credit cards for insurance deposits and so forth. After some dealings with our own banks to shift funds around and free up credit space, we were on our way after about an hour of deliberating with Enterprise agents. The Dutch lady helping us insisted that the payment set up was put in place due to high levels of car theft which she unabashedly blamed on Eastern Europeans, citing countries like Poland in the process. I don’t have the knowledge base to accurately comment on that particular situation, but I’m sure by now many of you know what my sentiments are on generalizing the actions and intentions of entire cultures.
We wound up with a Suzuki Swift, a midsized SUV with plenty of room inside and a sturdy feel for some of the longer journeys we’d be taking. After navigating our way out of Amsterdam’s bustling centre, we were soon beyond the city’s borders and on our way westward towards Bruges.
Things began to slow down about ten kilometres or so from the border near Zundert. We assumed right away that it was due to border security as we’d been anticipating, and warned about, possible checkpoints set up.
All in all, the process was merely a slowing down of traffic with the majority of vehicles being waved through by security forces. I only saw one car stopped, a Muslim family in a packed station wagon. I don’t know what the criteria was for vehicles being stopped in this instance. Perhaps they were looking for a specific individual or group, perhaps a specific vehicle. Perhaps they were stopping people who simply fit a certain profile. There is certainly a sense of tension in the air in Europe when it comes to locals and immigrants, a theme that would arise in my discussions with some of the people that we met along the way. A lot of different opinions and viewpoints are floating around the issue at this point in time, as anyone who tunes in to local news there would easily surmise.
As soon as we passed through the border, traffic eased up again and we were on our way to Bruges. The drive out in the countryside, both in the Netherlands and Belgium, is beautiful. The rural and pastoral scenery is stunning and the greens are greener than I’ve ever witnessed in a temperate zone. I don’t know what they put in the soil (perhaps it’s a natural fertility that has evolved over centuries of agricultural practices) but the grass simply stands out in a way I’ve only ever witnessed in New Zealand.
Teresa was our driver for the day and she had no issues until we came near Bruges’s moated-off old city centre. The traffic lights in this part of Europe are a little confusing for a North American. Normally, we are used to seeing our light on the opposite side of the intersection in addition to right next to us at the beginning of the intersection. However, in Amsterdam, Belgium, and Germany at least, the traffic light that is right in front of you at the beginning of the intersection is the light that you follow. Often, there is a little small street or an almost mini-intersection right after which is regulated by a traffic light positioned in a way where, in North America, would be the light to regulate the primary (and larger) intersection. So there could be instances where the light right in front of you turns green, but the light right after that is red. In this case, you would drive to the other side of the intersection but then have to stop right away and wait for the next light to turn green. I hope I’ve explained this in a way that allows you to visualize what I’m talking about, but because of this confusion it caused us run a red light in Bruges and nearly get t-boned by intersecting traffic. This happened as we were about to cross one of the draw bridges that took us across the moat, through two rooks or castle-like structures flanking the entrance.
I booked us a room at St. Christopher’s Inn, a decent hostel on the outer edges of the city centre. Instead of parking inside though, we opted to find a place beyond the moat, about a ten minute walk from our hostel but which would be free for the two nights we’d be staying. Driving around the narrow, often one-way cobblestoned streets would have just been a nuisance; Bruges is the kind of place you want to be walking or cycling in.
Our room at St. Christopher’s was very nice, on the top floor and in the very centre of the building so we could see the roof slanting in on either side, giving it a nice homey feel. Breakfast was included every morning, consisting of the usual variety of grainy breads, jams and peanut butter, boiled eggs, OJ and coffee. Good stuff to get you going for the day.
The town itself is an absolute rustic delight and a great place to spend a couple of peaceful days in if you’re able to make it up to northern Belgium. Tomorrow, I’ll walk you through those romantic cobblestoned streets which, to me, kind of felt like a mini (and calmed-down) Amsterdam to an extent with the snaking canals, quaint restaurants and pubs, and Old World architecture.