Bruges vs. Brussels: Battle Royale

Champignons in Brussels.

I used to think that Bruges and Brussels were the same city, that the former was the French way of saying the latter’s name.

Everyone says Brussels is ugly. It’s only because Bruges is so beautiful, with its Gothic churches and low brick houses, and the Van Eycks and Michelangelo’s spectacular Madonna. But the Northern European beauty that is found in small towns such as Delft and Bruges is usually encountered on a larger scale in the capitals. There are cathedrals in Brussels too, and while they don’t have any masterpieces inside, there’s also the Royal Palace, and some art nouveau gems, which are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But yes, the romantic nature is gone. The sounds of scaffolding going up replace the coos of mourning doves. Brussels is a big city, however, and with big cities comes big deals, like Celtica’s 2 euro trappist beers, and lots of different people– let’s not forget it’s the capital of Europe.

Bruges is special and small and they speak Flemish, so it’s obvious who is a tourist. The prices at most bars and restaurants reflect that. It’s common to see people posing in front of the four hundred year old canal-side homes eating four euro Belgian waffles with strawberries and powdered sugar. The natives ride their bikes on the cobbled streets (which must be uncomfortable, right?), probably scoffing at how I kept saying danke vell, which is actually Netherlandish Dutch, and not Flemish Dutch; in Bruges the dialect prefers, ironically, the French, merci.

All I’ve been eating the past three days are pommes frittes, breads, oranges, fruit spreads and beer. The curry sauce for the frittes is very popular, halfway between mustard and ketchup with a bit of a curry kick. I can’t do the mayo globs, although a little is tasty. I’m surprised Belgians maintain a positive reputation despite valuing beer, chocolate and french fries. Or perhaps that is exactly why they maintain a positive reputation. I can’t help thinking of Romania’s processed foods and hard liquor sold everywhere and I wonder why the romance is missing in Bucharest.

But seriously, this is a world city. Of course there’s more to Belgian delicacies than curry ketchup. I walked to St. Catherine’s square, past a boulangerie with lines outside and mushroom varieties in the window, past a seafood restaurant where everyone stood waiting for fresh escargot while  drinking chablis; mussels carts offer zinfandel, with young and old Belgians standing and talking or sitting in the square listening to the music playing from MacBooks.

Bruges has it over Brussels if you want a lover’s getaway, an art history lesson or Venetian beauty. But if you want to blend in at the bars, shop for the latest styles or make locals wonder what French-speaking country you’re from, Brussels is worth a visit. It’s the capital of Europe for a reason. I don’t know how I ever confused one with the other.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.

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