I had only intended to spend a day in the hamlet left behind as it were in the Middle Ages, but given the conditions of my hostel in Paris, I decided to depart early and escape another night the slums of the City of Lights.
As I staggered from the station on weary legs at 9 p.m., I began walking in the direction of three large church spires that I knew from what little research my travel guide provided made up the old town center. I had a brief moment of pause as I watched the last shuttle roll away from the central station without me on it just as I made me way to the curb.
"I probably should have been on that," I said aloud, breaking a rule I made about not talking to myself aloud while traveling alone. It really is a bit unavoidable when you are on you own for weeks.
Unable to locate a map, I was left to my own devices which essentially amounted to walking toward tall buildings and asking people if they spoke English along the way. As I ambled I began to wonder what language they spoke in Belgium. At no point did it strike me as odd that I had arrived in a small town in a foreign country late in the evening without a reserved place to sleep and having no clue even what language was spoken.
I began to tell myself they spoke Belgian and said it in my head to see if it sounded right.
''Yeah, Frank came over here all teed off about something or another about our dog treating his tulips like an outhouse screaming all these Belgian curse words at me. You know how he gets.''
Sure, they spoke Belgian I decided. I would soon learn Belgians speak German, Dutch, and some English are the languages of Belgium. Also that Belgian has never existed as a language, only as an adjective to describe Waffles.
After a half hour's stumble from the station, I ran into a helpful shop owner who pointed me toward my hostel a mere 10 minute's walk.
In Scotland, arriving without a place to lay my head had been no problem because Edinburgh is a bustling metropolis when compared to Bruges. But in this medieval village essentially untouched since the 12th century the prospects suddenly seemed less hopeful.
Arriving at the hostel one night early, I had to stop and double-check the address. The building in front of me was clearly a bar. I had only limited experience with hostels, but I had enough with various drinking establishments back home to know a bar when I saw one.
"No you're in the right place," said the bartender coming over after watching me scan the room dumbly for signs of a place to sleep. "The beds are all upstairs."
"Ah, perfect," I said suddenly revitalized by the college-age wet dream of actually living at a bar. "Have you got an open bed for the night? My reservations aren't until tomorrow, but I came a day early."
"Oh, no my friend," said the bartender who bared a strong resemblance to Frodo for the Lord of the Rings movies. "We have nothing at all."
I waited for him to throw in a "but" or tap his pen on the bar a bit as if he were actually thinking of a solution to my homelessness, but instead we had a staring contest for the next 20 seconds.
I broke first.
''So that's it then?" I asked, realizing I had gotten myself into this situation and could not afford to be too demanding. "Is there at least another hostel you can call?"
My only friend in Belgium arched his eyebrows and after a brief pause smacked his palms on the bar.
"Yes, sure," he said, invigorated at the idea of getting rid of me, I assumed. "That's a great idea. There is one other hostel in the city."
I had assumed, even in an ancient burg like Bruges, there would be a handful of hostels available. When Mr. Baggins clamored about "one other" I began wondering if I would be sleeping in the park again.
After a brief phone call with plenty of harsh sounding Dutch spouted back and forth, the bartender looked hopeful.
"They have one bed left."
I quickly thanked him and departed for my new-found sanctuary on the opposite side of town. As I stepped back into the night air, I was even more thankful my blind arrival would not end with me snuggling up to a flower bed in the city park. The temperature was a blustery 46F and the wind was howling with gusts of 30 m.p.h. There is something to be said for summer in the low countries and it might be that it does not exist.
A brisk jaunt found me frozen and mumbling to myself about how I was a fool not to dig my rain jacket from my pack, but happily in the doorway of another bar.
Turns out both hostels in Bruges double as bars on the ground floor. My dream would be realized. I gulped down a Trappist ale brewed by one of the famous Belgian monasteries that seem to dot the countryside landscape around Bruges and made for the pillow.
The next morning I transferred residence to my original hostel and after a round of much needed laundry and showering, struck out to discover the canals and medieval homes of Bruges.
It is quite a beautiful town and was once considered a hidden gem of Europe. A few years ago Bruges was a place only travel junkies and neighboring EU citizens knew about. That has changed considerably since Bruges began being listed by practically every travel service available ahead of Brussels and Ghent as the top "'must-see'' in Belgium.
Now tourists outnumber residents 2-to-1 in the peak season and the median age for the camera-toters is in the neighborhood of 55. It was a much different population of travelers than I had found in London or Paris and perhaps the reason there were only two hostels in town.
Bruges is a splendid town for wandering around. Virtually every street offers a fairly pristine glimpse into centuries past and it is small enough that you can just about see every piece of it in a day if so motivated.
I visited the Heilig Bloed Basiliek, or Basilica of the Holy Blood, near the town square. Without prior knowledge you might stroll right past this tiny Romanesque structure without even snapping a photo. It is only a couple of stories high and is tucked in a corner beside one of the most picturesque town halls in all of Europe. It is not the outside, however, that makes this micro-basilica unique.
In 1134 when Bruges was nearing its' heyday an enterprising young Crusader, Thierry of Alsace, built this tiny chapel alongside Oud Steen, which serves as the modern town hall.
What makes this building special is what Thierry placed in it upon returning from the Second Crusade in 1147. According to legend, Thierry brought back the relic of the Precious Blood as a souvenir from the wars. It was a small vile that tradition tells held a small amount of blood and water cleaned from the body of Jesus Christ by Joseph of Arimathea just after the Crucifixion.
During service a priest removes the Precious Blood from the tabernacle and places it on the altar where it changes from coagulated to liquid. This is the only time the relic can be viewed.
I bounded from one timeless corner to another rather taken in by the atmosphere of these antiquated buildings. It is quite the juxtaposition, however, to scan down from the recessing roof of a home constructed in the 1100s and note the fine detail and patina of the stone only to discover at the bottom the ground floor has been made into a souvenir magnet shop.
It is as if the residents have for centuries realized the beauty of these old buildings enough to resist tearing them down, but will be damned if they are going to pretend like magnets aren't a profitable business venture.
The people of Belgium are a bit different than I expected as well. The Dutch are known for being tall and lithe and with Bruges being so close, I assumed the locals would be similar. Quite the opposite. The residents of Bruges are smaller and more cumbersome. The Dutch are known for their athletes and liberal political leanings. The Belgians look as though they know their way around a bar stool and perhaps a waffle. They were some of the most approachable and fun-loving people I had come across on my journey and to get a real feel for them, you must put down the camera and pick up a pint of funny-sounding ale at some alley tavern.
The overriding feeling I was left with on my final walk through town toward the train station and Amsterdam was that it did not seem as though people should or could live here.
The cobbled streets and ancients canals were stunning, but impractical. In a time where everyone seems to be sprinting from one subway platform to the next and the world around is focused on the next biggest, fastest, sleekest gadget or building or automobile, how does Bruges still exist?
How has no corporation plopped themselves down in this town near the coast of Belgium and pulled its' citizens screaming and kicking into the modern age?
The train from Paris might as well have been a time machine, I thought as I scrambled to the station that morning for a three-hour ride to Amsterdam.
I had to change trains in Brussels and was instantly pleased at my decision not to visit. As far as you could see from the elevated platform of the Brussel Midi station stretched abandoned factories, broken windows, and enough graffiti to keep a few paint stores in business through the recession.
I jumped off to change and with a 15-minute layover decided to sprint into the station below and try to find a bathroom. The trains all have bathrooms, but until you have tried to use one while dragging half of your stuff in with you to keep from pickpocket's fingers, you cannot appreciate my refusal to patron them again.
I found a bathroom at the far end of the station and as I popped around the partition to enter, I was met with a turnstile. In Brussels using the restroom in a public place is apparently a privilege reserved for those who have a 50-cent coin. Not two 20-cent coins and a ten. Not a $1 Euro coin. Not five seconds to spare before things get messy. A 50-cent coin.
Suddenly I began to understand why the whole city smelled a bit less than desirable. Too many folks without proper change.
I slumped to the train for Amsterdam, drug half my belongings into the broom closet the Belgian rail service calls a bathroom, and made the best of it.
Amsterdam had been an intriguing destination ever since the initial planning for the trip. I envisioned a place where the streets were cobble-stoned and the people were just stoned.
Well, to be honest, I expected to find tulips, weed, bicycles, and prostitutes - the four things I thought of when someone mentioned Amsterdam with the seedier elements naturally seeping to the forefront of the conversation.
My hostel was one block from Amsterdam Centraal, the main station, and on the four-minute walk I passed three weed shops and a woman attempting to profit from physical acts in way you would not need to be standing or even sitting to accomplish.
For someone raised in the Bible Belt making his first venture abroad, it was all a bit overwhelming.
I checked in at my hostel and learned I was staying in a massive bunk room of 24 beds, a place large enough to house three or four snorers. Breaking from the hostel I was met with an unfamiliar feeling. For the first time all trip I had arrived in a city with no idea whatsoever of what I was going to do first.
I wandered rather aimlessly for much of the first afternoon and night rolling in the stark contrasts the city has to offer at every turn.
Sure there are the brothels and weed shops, euphemistically called, "coffeeshops." But breaking between these dens of sin is the astonishing system of canals Amsterdam is perhaps best known for, flower brokers with their booths full of tulips, amazing 800-year old bricked canal homes leaning precariously in every direction, gorgeous houseboats that cause you to briefly consider living afloat, and more bicyclers than you can reasonably imagine.
The United Kingdom had been a minefield for pedestrians because the cars are continually stalking you form the wrong direction. Paris held tourists under threat of being taken apart at the knees by zooming Frenchmen on scooters who do not follow the agreed upon rules of traffic or human decency. In Amsterdam the threat of death by traffic was almost non-existent, but the chance of mild injury was a virtual certainty.
In theory, all bicycles in Amsterdam are supposed to be equipped with a bell that dings happily when a cyclist happens to arrive upon a group of tourists fumbling with maps, cameras, or stray children as a way of warning them of impending collision.
In reality the bell is the last thing you hear as you fade out of consciousness after being speared to the ground by an eager Dutch woman and her basket full of groceries.
The citizens of the low countries of Belgium and The Netherlands seem absolutely smitten with graffiti. They must. It is everywhere - on garages, building doors, the sides of bridges, road signs, churches, train cars. Nowhere did it seem unusually placed, but there was nowhere reasonable that had been left untagged either.
I reflected on the thousands of pieces of art I had viewed in the galleries of Paris and London, much of which was unsigned and wondered if we were becoming more self-centered as a species.
A thousand years ago it was not uncommon to complete a work and leave it unsigned, trusting word of mouth to spirit up the credit you deserved. Looking at the graffiti art the draped much of the metro areas in the low countries, I gathered around 97-percent was simply a signature. Usually it was illegible, but always it was offering of nothing else. Just the signature of some ambitious Dutch fellow who usually did not bother with multiple colors, economically creating his monochromatic art with a single can of spray paint.
I was content to roam again the second day and began in the area of Dam Square. It was in this vast city space full of street performers and food carts and lined with myriad restaurants, souvenir shops, and coffeeshops that the first dam was built to help create Amsterdam.
The story of Amsterdam's founding is rather benign compared to that of Belfast. It goes that two blokes and their dog were bobbing along the Amstel River, which now cuts through town, when they were overtaken by a great storm. Fearing for their lives and that of their canine companion, the two men promised God if they landed on solid ground again, they would found a city on the site. To form a city they would have to dam the Amstel River to salvage some of the swampland needed for building, thus the site was known as the Amstel Dam.
From Dam Square I continued on to the Oude Kerk or Old Church. It is Amsterdam's oldest standing building, founded in 1306 and cannot be seen without walking past some of the seediest somewhat legal things you are ever likely to encounter.
In the three minute walk from the square to the ancient church you pass a couple of shops selling hallucinogenic mushrooms, the bulk of the Red Light District known locally as De Wallen and the scores of crimson-lighted windows filled with prostitutes, and a handful of marijuana coffeeshops.
After the initial startle to the senses, it begins to form some beautiful contrast between the world of mischief and depravity that many outsiders associate with the city and the magnificent historical sites that rest among those racier exploits.
I began to imagine the troves of sailors who returned from their various deployments abroad. They would return to Amsterdam and joyfully partake in all the lustier venues the city had to offer, only to stumble away in the morning drunk, hungover, and wracked with Catholic guilt to conveniently find before them this massive church.
They do not keep records of these sorts of things, but I would bet the confessions heard in the walls of the Old Church in the heart of the Red Light district are more lurid and ludicrous than those heard in Bruges or Paris or anywhere else for that matter.
At some point during my visit I made it to the old weighing house that had made up part of the medieval gates to the city. This place had a particularly gruesome history. A traveler arriving in Amsterdam in the Middle Ages could be greeted at these imposing gates by heads on spikes and other treats.
This was not only the trophy case for public executions, it was the site of them as well. For a group of Anabaptists who tried to storm a portion of the city completely in the nude, their punishment included being cut open at the chest, having their beating heart ripped form behind their ribs, shown to them ever so briefly I assume, and then flung into their face before the victim could tumble over dead.
Inside the weighing house, public autopsies were held. They were nothing, but just as they sound. Rembrandt, who came to prominence in Amsterdam in this same time, even came down to witness one. He was so moved by what he saw, he captured it in painting in "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp."
In an attempt to preserve the past, the weighing station now serves as a restaurant. Bon Apetit! One can only assume they do not mention the history of the building on the cover of the menu.
There are a pile of misconceptions about Amsterdam to go along with all the harsh truths, however.
For one, weed is not legal. Not even a smidge.
No one has been arrested for a solely marijuana-related offense in decades, but that is not because there are no laws against it. Around 35 years ago the city was awash with hard drug users and vagrants. In an effort to more effectively target what the city viewed as the real problem - hard drug users and the related crimes that accompany them - they decided quite unofficially to stop chasing marijuana enthusiasts.
What has developed since is a city with one of the lowest heroin problems in all of Europe and around 200 coffeeshops that sell their marijuana illegally, but with a wink and nod from local authorities.
Prostitution also has a more recent legal history. Until 13 years ago it wasn't. Now it is highly-regulated and still a controversial issue among local lawmakers who see it as a blight on the city's international reputation.
For $50 a patron gets 15 minutes of attention from his or her chosen sex worker. I know this, I should clarify promptly, thanks to a free map of the city I received at the train station which outlines particular historical places of interest as well as some of the knowledge that might be helpful to the throngs of bachelor parties that wander down from the U.K.
It is estimated that around 60-percent of those who purchase services in the Red Light district are from the United Kingdom, presumably overcome with joy at escaping the British weather and in need of someone with which to celebrate. And quite the choice they have in De Wallen. In Amsterdam the minimum age to proclaim yourself a sex worker is 18, but there are talks of raising that figure to 21. There is no maximum, however. The city's oldest prostitute will celebrate her 85th birthday this year and I shutter to imagine how.
Most of the patrons of the notorious coffeeshops - 95-percent - are tourists. The Dutch themselves are actually rather mild. It is as if you took the population of some quaint suburban neighborhood in Connecticut and moved them to New Orleans.
It is perhaps easier to spot a tourist in Amsterdam than anywhere I have traveled so far. If they are riding a non-rented bike, conservatively dressed, or over six-feet tall - they are Dutch. If they look like extras from a bad pirate movie - they are tourists.
With only a few hours until my morning train to Berlin, I took to the streets in search of ink for my arm and some sizable metal ring to hollow out the lobe of my ear. When traveling it is important to embrace your role as tourist.