Beautiful Bruges

 

Brugge

Not even Winter’s icy grip could shield the fairy-tale city of Bruges from waves of tourists.  Long known in Europe as the most intact and well-preserved medieval town, its popularity skyrocketed after the film In Bruges was released.  So, when I found myself spending a weekend in Brussels, I naturally drifted towards Bruges like a moth to a flame.

70 minutes from central Brussels via train, Bruges is probably the most common day trip from the EU capitol.  The train drops its passengers off outside of Bruges’ outer canal ring.  From the station, visitors can spot the town’s distinctive clock tower based in its medieval center.  Walking towards the tower, I crossed through cobblestones, softly rounded by centuries of wear.  The streets were small, quaint and full of beautiful shops selling the Belgian favorites such as chocolate, lace and beer.

Bruges Town Square – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

After 15 minutes of navigating through picturesque winding roads, I reached Bruges’ Markt – meaning market in Dutch, it’s more often translated as town square in English. Standing in the middle of this perfectly preserved medieval market square and UNESCO World Heritage Site was a pretty powerful experience. Bruges was at one point in its history considered to be the commercial capitol of the world, making this the middle age equivalent of Wall Street.

As the temperature dropped and the rain began to fall, the tourists began to scatter and the clip-clop of horses hooves around the square became more evident. In some respects, seeing Bruges covered in the dreary  grey of Winter provided a more authentic experience for me.  While the visitor numbers were still healthy, there was enough room to breathe and space to explore.  I could smell the horses as they pulled their carriages around the square, hear the distinctive Germanic tones some of the residents and for I second I caught a glimpse of life here 500 or 600 years ago.

Bruges Stathuis

Rounding the corner from the main square, we ran into Bruges’ old town hall, called “Stadhuis” in Dutch (city house).  Like the rest of the town, it was remarkably well preserved.  A modest 2 euros gained us entrance into the main meeting room and adjacent museum.  The Stadhuis’ main room was an impressive example of Bruges’ former wealth and prominence as a commercial hub.  It was covered floor to ceiling with ornate decorations and paintings, all helping to tell of tale of the most powerful city in Belgium.

Through with our history lesson, we decided to spend the rest of our time in town freely exploring its nooks and crannies.  We followed the path of one of its many canals, which took us through idyllic residential districts and gorgeous shophouses.  The sweet tooth in me couldn’t help but stop and gawk at each chocolate or candy store we passed.  After finally giving in and indulging in some of Belgium’s specialties – chocolate, waffles, fries, and beer – I must admit that this little country ranks very highly on my best-food list.

Belgian Sweets and Chocolates

As the day wound down and the cold air crept in, we made out way past the canal along Bruges’ medieval border towards the train station.  We made it back into Brussels for dinner with a camera loaded with pictures and my head full of memories.  Easily one of the best day trip towns I’ve ever visited, it is every bit the fairy-tale village it claims to be.

The Ruins of Ayutthaya

 

As the only Southeast Asian nation to successfully withstand European colonization attempts, Thailand’s history as a unified kingdom stretches back into the Middle Ages. Today, Bangkok stands as the kingdom’s vibrant capital. 11,000,000+ inhabitants strong, the city is a powerhouse in this region of the world and attracts visitors from all corners of the globe. Visit Bangkok today and its size, density and centuries-old temples make it hard to believe that there was a ever a time when the country’s capital laid elsewhere.

150 years before Columbus set sail for India, Bangkok was merely a fishing village and Thailand’s King U-Thong made his way to the Valley of the Chao Praya River after fleeing an outbreak of smallpox. It was there that he founded the kingdom’s capital of Ayutthaya 80km north of modern-day Bangkok. Named after the birthplace of Rama in India, Ayutthaya rose to become one of the most powerful cities in Asia over the next 400 years.

Set amongst a lush valley with excellent waterway access, Ayutthaya flourished thanks in part to an open and friendly trade policy with the Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese. By the year 1600 there were an estimated 300,000 people living within its borders – 100,000 more than London at the time. Over the next 150 years the city thrived and its population ballooned to over 1,000,000 in the mid-1700s, asserting Ayutthaya as the strongest power within Southeast Asia. French ambassadors likened the city’s size and wealth to that of Paris and at the height of its influence it was poised to become a major contender in a rapidly globalizing world. Then, in 1767, after series of long battles with the Burmese, the walls of the city were breached and Ayutthaya was burned to the ground. With the city destroyed and the king murdered, Ayutthaya was abandoned and construction of a new capital to the south began.

Today, only a trace of once was remains, but the ruins of Ayutthaya still evoke a sense of grandeur and elegance. Distinctive prangs knocked out of alignment from fierce battles and centuries of rainfall jut out organically from the grassy lawns of the Ayutthaya Historical Park. With their protective sheaths eroded, their original brickwork is exposed, allowing you to peer into the very heart of each structure. Sculptures of Buddha dot the landscape and are carefully tended to by locals as many Thai nationals still come to Ayutthaya to pray.

On the ground you can feel the crunch of broken bricks beneath your feet, perhaps shattered in the bloody war that took place here 250 years ago. In the air dragonflies buzz in dense clusters and effortlessly navigate their way around ancient temple spires partially painted with the green of clinging plants. In the distance are several mighty Asian elephants. Though they’re carrying tourists, these magnificent beasts still add to the mystique of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ayutthaya may no longer be compared to Paris, but I would argue that its ruins are as fascinating as those of the Roman Empire. Left mostly unpreserved, the physical condition of the ancient city has become a spectacle in its own right. Partially reclaimed by nature, the ancient temples feel more organic than man made and are reminiscent of Incan or Mayan ruins.

Easily accessible from Bangkok via a cruise along the Chao Praya River or car, the ruins of Ayutthaya can be easily explored in a day with plenty of time leftover for elephant rides and viewing the city’s old Portuguese settlement. For those staying in Bangkok, this is a day trip that cannot be missed.