Filmed in 2007, In Bruges is a British crime-comedy following two hit men as they head to Belgium. Ray, played by Colin Farrell accidentally killed a young boy in a botched murder back in England. This resulted in Harry Waters – the boss – sending Ray and his partner in crime Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson, over to Bruges awaiting further instruction. Ray’s descriptions of Bruges in the film won’t be featuring in the city’s tourist handbooks, but they certainly fell wide of the mark. In contrasting style, Ken and Harry marvelled over the place referring to it as a “fairytale town”.
Of course, I wasn’t heading to Bruges because I had murdered a child. I didn’t even visit the place because I wanted to visit a film setting. In fact, I don’t even watch that many films as I’m usually too busy traipsing around the non-league grounds of Northern England. Matt and I were off to Belgium to tick off at least one football ground, in this instance we managed to tick off three grounds in Bruges, Ostend and Ghent respectively.
While many of mates from college were off to celebrate their A-Level results in the likes of Magaluf and Ayia Napa I had opted to go for a cultural trip around Belgium. It was the perfect way to celebrate getting into University as less than 24 hours after receiving confirmation of my place at York we were on a plane from Manchester to Charleroi in the south of Belgium.
It wasn’t long at all until we touched down in the early morning. With our suitcase picked up from baggage reclaim we headed to the information desk where we asked a typically looking European bloke the best way of getting to Bruges. This epitomises how well planned out our trip was – we had travelled without researching in depth how to reach Bruges. This sums up our rather laid back approach to ground hopping and travelling in general. We could get the train up to Brussels and then hop on another service to Bruges or we could wait an hour for a coach which would take us to Bruges train station via Ghent train station. The second option seemed easier and it was a few euros cheaper, costing just 20 euros to get to the other side of the country.
The coach arrived as we looked through the list of possible destinations from the bus stand. For around 10 euros more we could have sacked the whole trip to Bruges off and spent a few days in Luxembourg, but we’ll save that for another time. Surprisingly there were only a handful of passengers on our service, with half of those opting to get off in Ghent, our destination in a couple of days.
We were dropped off in a construction site at the rear of Bruges Train Station and guessed that we should make our way through to the other side. It was the correct decision and we were soon dragging our luggage across the most suitcase repellant surfaces known to man. After watching In Bruges I expected there to be lots of main roads and infrastructure due to this quote: “When he first arrived he wasn’t that keen. The big dual carriageway when you get off the train. As soon as he got into the old town proper and he saw the canal and the bridges and the swans, he loved it then. He couldn’t get enough of it, the medieval part of town. It was just that original dual carriageway that put him off.” I was gagging for a dual carriageway and my wish came true just a minute away from the station as promised.
However, that was as good as it got for us as I poorly navigated us through the cobbled streets of Bruges with the help of Google Maps. I probably took us around in a circle at least twice, but I’ve only now plucked up the courage to tell Matt this.
More by luck than judgement we arrived at our hostel for the next two nights; The Hotel Passage. The entrance – surprisingly – was down a small passage. If this hostel was back home in Wigan it would have been named The Hotel Ginnel and I am sure if I would have run this idea past the eccentric manager of the hostel he would have understood me straight away. Hilke, a man who probably hosts the Belgian equivalent of Bargain Hunt, greeted us as he emerged from behind the plethora of ornaments and old maps that he had scattered around his office and adjoining restaurant area.
Bearded and with glasses he possessed a peculiar accent, so naturally we asked him what country he came from. “My country played cricket in the English County Championship”. He certainly wasn’t Scottish as he wasn’t wearing a kilt or playing the bagpipes and he wasn’t Welsh like my companion as he wasn’t wearing a traditional flat cap. I eventually clicked and guessed correctly at Dutch (after Matt had somehow guessed South Africa). Perhaps the reason we were so confused by Hilke was the fact he spoke seven languages fluently. When Matt revealed that he was Welsh, Hilke proceeded to speak fluently in the native language. Impressive indeed.
Up some very steep stairs we were shown to our room which was found through a door which had a large gap above it. It felt a bit like a peeping hole found in Strangeways Prison, but apart from that it was a decent hostel (according to Matt). I had never stayed in a foreign hostel before so hadn’t got a clue what to expect. Luggage dumped in the room, window opened despite a large sign telling us not to and having ascertained which toilets worked and which didn’t we set off into the nearby square to catch a bus to the football ground.
It was only around 14:00 at this stage, so our trip to Jan Breydel Stadium was purely to do a recce ahead of the match as well as trying to purchase some tickets. We caught the number 5 bus and punched our day travel passes in the machine with help from the pleasant bus driver. He showed us where to get off the bus as we arrived in area down a long road from the city.
Down a side street we turned and the stadium was in front of us. Green and blue banners with past players decorated the street, showing the best players from both clubs respective histories. This was a theme that carried on throughout the area, with every single thing split into green and blue to illustrate the fact the two rivals share the same ground.
A solitary steward was leaning against a wall as we approached him to enquire about getting hold of the all important tickets. He chuckled to himself before informing us that we would only be able to buy them in the two hours leading up to kick off, which we thought may have been the case. Not to worry though as we could still have a wander around the concrete monstrosity that up until last year boasted being the newest stadium in Belgium, having been opened in 1975!
We were now becoming thirsty. It had been over 12 hours since we had been drinking in the clubhouse at Atherton Collieries. We had been watching a relegation six pointer between ourselves and another pub in the local darts and dominoes league but we were now in more romantic settings as we awaited the arrival of the bus at a stop which doubled as a small chapel.
There was a distinct lack of supermarkets and food shops in Bruges. Granted, I didn’t expect a Tesco Extra to have been erected down a cobbled alleyway, but I did at least think there’d be a sizeable Carrefour. Half an hour of wandering around and we arrived at a small Carrefour Express which seemed to cater for the whole entire city. All sorts of weird and wonderful beer was on sale but we played it safe to begin with and bought eight cans of Jupiler; the beer that sponsors the Belgian League. We feel in love with the drink immediately and from that point on we were never the same.
Our anti-social tendencies from being brought up in Merthyr Tidfil and Atherton took over as we strolled around the cobbled streets and canals of the city drinking beer. It was all well and good doing some sightseeing but we had another day to do all of that, so we headed back to the hostel for a lie down and more beer before exploring the local pubs with the Club fans.
Matt was in touch with Club fan Jonas via Facebook having struck up a connection with him on the Facebook page ‘European Football Weekends’. A fantastic hub of European football information, advice and more importantly fans, meaning that no matter where you are going in Europe you will find a native. Jonas told us to go to the t’Zand, which rather peculiarly is what people from Fleetwood call Blackpool. Heading down Gledmundstraat we arrived in t’Zand Square which was awash with Club fans as they congregated in numbers.
Cafe Deja Vu doesn’t sound like a place where football fans would get leathered before a match but I soon learned not to judge an establishment on it’s name. The pre-match atmosphere was incredibly laid back. Juplier upon Jupiler were supped by Matt amd I. Droves of fans arrived via horse drawn carts and bicycle. Flags were draped across any available space in the square and even the urinals were in full view of everybody else who had the misfortune to be passing. If this was in England this would have police everywhere. Not in Belgium where the clubs ask fans to volunteer to keep everybody in control and maintain order.
Matt and I informed the fans who we had been mixing with that we would be catching the bus back to the ground imminently and that we would meet up with them in the ground. This did not go down well. Puzzled looks ensued. “Come on the march!” exclaimed one woman. “You have to come on the march!” stated another. We had no idea that there would be a march but apparently every time that the Bruges derby takes place the Club fans all meet in t’Zand Square and walk the 3.5km to the ground.
Black and blue face paint was slashed across our faces and we were hooked. We had to stay with all of our brand new friends. They were amazed that we had travelled from Manchester on the morning of the game to watch them and basically treated us like royalty. We were even given Club Brugge wristbands so I decided to give a bloke my Bolton Wanderers one in some sort of swap deal. One thing that the locals weren’t too keen on was the purple stripe on my jacket which incidentally represents the hated Anderlecht. I may as well have just turned up at a Wigan match with my Bolton shirt on; it was deemed to be that bad.
Luckily I survived and with two hours to go until kick off we were on the march with the fans… and what a time we had. It is certainly the best experience I have had on my travels so far. Jupiler was being passed around for free by the fans so we carried on drinking on the march, which again was completely fine. A large collection of flags had been dished out by the organising committee so we had a go at waving those while dodging numerous blue smoke bombs which were being set off. The residents in all the houses crowded at windows to cheer on the fans as they headed to the game. It felt like we were in the midst of something important, traditional and proud.
Sitting down in the middle of the road which we had travelled up on the bus before seemed a bit odd, but the deafening chants of “Sit down if you hate Cercle!” ensured that nobody cared. A whole catalogue of Club songs had now been imprinted in our minds and we began to chant along with everything… and the locals loved us for it. ‘No Sweat, No Glory’ is the club’s motto and every time Matt shouted that we got a cheer. So important is this motto to the club that when a player signs for them they have to sign an extra contract where they pledge to try their best in everything they do.
A few Cercle fans were enjoying a quiet beer at the front of a cafe. They obviously knew that the march would be passing them and sat there representing their club, opting simply to laugh it off. Everything was lovely, we had fallen in love with Club Brugge and had a little soft spot for their much, much smaller neighbours who had the same following as a Northern Premier side back at home.
As the Blue Army approached the ground we jogged out of the march and headed to the Ticket Office. It cost just 25 euros each for a ticket which made it around £14 to watch a top flight Belgian derby. We opted to sit in the Nord Stand after consulting with our brand new Belgian friends. Understandably the more vocal area had sold out but we were still in that end of the ground, with our seats found in the uncovered top left hand corner.
Having done so well on time we still had an hour left until kick off, so topped up our beer cards which had been issued to us for 1 euro. The cashless system was a bit of a pain when we experienced at Hertha Berlin but it worked superbly at Brugge and with beer priced at just 2 euros it was going to be a good night ahead. The girls who worked at the beer stands served us very quickly on each occasion we popped down and I can only put this down to the pair of us trying to ‘woo them’ with our limited Flemish; they loved it.
In September 2013, I had watched Wigan Athletic play their first European tie on a live steam on my laptop. The match against Zulte Waregem took place at the Jan Breydel Stadium in front of just 8,000 fans which made me wonder how dull and quiet it must have been as this was a local derby and the fans didn’t do much to send the senses into overdrive. I admit though, the major problem is that the stadium really is quite crap.
The venue was originally opened in 1975 it was expanded in 1998 which allowed it to stage four matches during Euro 2000. Four large stands which offer no character are composed of a variety of different coloured seats which just look unplanned and amateur. Red, black, grey, blue, green, white and yellow seats; take your pick.
On the pitch the match was as inspiring as the architecture which surrounded us. Going into the fixture everybody would have expected Club to beat their opponents who would eventually be relegated well before the end of the season. However, a 1-1 draw was the outcome and it was the Club fans who left the ground more disappointed following the full time whistle, with the Cercle fans celebrating like they had won the league title.
I had seen Club Brugge once before in rather ridiculous circumstances at a hotel in Cheshire. The summer of 2013 saw Radcliffe Borough announce a prestigious match at their Stainton Park home between Club and Romanian side Otelul Galati. We turned up at Radcliffe to see former Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen perched on the wall by the tunnel. No sooner had we had photographs with the now Bolton man the two teams had shot off to an unknown location as the grass was apparently too long. To cut a long story short, we tracked Club Brugge down at Mottram Hall Hotel and formed part of a crowd of around 20 as the full first team got some game time. We joked that we’d have to go and watch them in Bruges but did not think things would escalate to such a level.
Club dominated possession in the first half but didn’t do an awful lot with it. They did however open the scoring on the half hour mark when Nicolas Castillo controlled a floated cross and fired home from six yards out. Matt, as ever, had got right into the spirit of the occasion as celebrated by kicking one of his beers over the floor. Jonas did the honours and went to get the next round in.
Australian goalkeeper Matthew Ryan was performing well for Club and I’d say it is only a matter of time before he comes over and makes a name for himself in the Premier League. The majority of action was still down at the Cercle end of the pitch and the team in blue and black could have extended their lead but it remained 1-0 at half time.
Cercle performed better in the second half with Ryan having to keep out a strong shot from N’Diaye in the opening exchanges. An equaliser arrived on 66 minutes when a misplaced pass from Fernando Menegazzo allowed Cercle to break. Junior Kabananga duly slotted the ball under Ryan.
The referee to put it quite bluntly was atrocious and this resulted in a rather sour atmosphere being generated by the Club faithful. This anger transferred through to the players who started to fly in with late challenges and the match was slowly descending into a typical derby match. The referee calmed everything down and even found time to use his ‘magic spray’ which I had now seen in use for the first time following it’s trial during the World Cup in Brazil.
A match winning chance arrived for Club Brugge with the final kick of the match. A long ball was hoofed over the top to Castillo who found himself one-on-one with the Cercle goalkeeper. The pressure got to the striker and he blazed his effort over the bar much to the despair of the majority of the crowd. With that miss living long into the night it definitely felt like a loss for Club’s fans who looked both frustrated and deflated. It was time for us to say our goodbyes to Jonas and Joren who we had got speaking to in the second half as we embarked upon the walk back into the city centre.
In a drunken haze we arrived back at our hostel at around midnight and Hilke was that pleased to see us he kept his bar open for another hour. It topped off what had quite simply been an incredible day in what I now consider to be my favourite city I have ever visited… and I have been to Preston on numerous occasions. Everybody was lovely and the atmosphere and architecture of the place was faultless. Matt and I stumbled off to bed and prepared ourselves for the following days trip to Oostende v Mechelen…
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 383 miles
- ADMISSION: 25 euros
- PROGRAMME PRICE: N/A