Bruges was first on our list of excursions from Brussels. This charming small Bruges canal One of the canals city is about an hour's train ride from Brussels. In Belgium, seniors and students get a good discount on train fares. Bruges' curving cobblestone streets are bordered by rows of houses, each with its own color and roof type. The center of the old walled city appears on the UNESCO World Heritage list, because most of the central buildings, with their ornate Gothic architecture, are still intact. Canals wind through Bruges, nowadays mostly carrying tour boats or pleasure craft although in previous centuries barges moved Bruges products to and from markets near and far. After walking through the town square we stopped at the "i" (which always means tourist information) and obtained a brochure for a walking tour of the city. We found ourselves intrigued by the beautiful architecture and narrow winding streets.

Our walk took us past cathedrals and parish churches, museums and markets, A Gothic building Building near Grote Markt guildhouses and parks. It was delightful that citizens were still living in the old homes throughout the city. The Bruges canals are just as lovely as they look in the posters, although the sightseeing boats don't seem to travel very far. We were becoming used to cobblestones by then -- a good thing because much of Belgium is still paved with them! When we started walking, the neighborhoods were still in their morning rhythm, with not very many people visible, except for a work crew or two busily replacing ... broken cobblestones. We enjoyed looking down passages leading from the larger streets, passages which curve enticingly, promising yet more decorated house fronts and carved images.

Bruges is the heart of Belgian lace-making, so after learning that demonstrations would be held in the afternoon, we found an open-air restaurant which served Flemish specialties, such as waterzooi, a kind of creamy chicken stew, and rabbit A Bruges byway A quiet street in Bruges -- or this may have been the day Emily and Bob were served bacon salad, which was mostly bacon and escarole!

Then it was on to the lace-making. We stopped in a small shop which displayed beautiful, intricate pieces, some centuries old and some new, and also sold thread (as fine as human hair, boasted one collection), small wooden bobbins and packages of pins. The lace-making classroom, in a nearby building, contained a dozen or so chairs for students, each with a stand in front which would hold the lace-maker's lap pad. Three women were working away at their projects; they were evidently the teachers.

This craft is unlike any other handwork we have seen. The pattern is drawn in detail on a piece of thin leather, and the pinholes planned in advance. This guide is then placed under the work so that the placement of pins in the lacework The Lace Shop Display in the Lace Shop matches the plan exactly. There can be dozens to over a hundred bobbins, each with thread carefully wound and knotted to prevent slippage. Working with a small set of bobbins at a time, the lace-maker winds threads together, to form a delicate strand of the desired shape between pairs of pins. New pins are added as the work progresses, but many pins are left in so the lace is securely held while new work is done. This bobbin-braiding process is worked so quickly that the woman's fingers seem to fly. Women from England had come to Bruges to pick up some fine points of the practice. Incidentally, the price of Belgian lace does not reflect the amount of time required to produce it!

The rest of our walk took us past an old wooden windmill perched on a high levee near the town wall, back through the center of town and finally through the grounds of the Beguinage of Bruges, founded in 1245 by the Countess of Flanders, A lace maker demonstrates her art Lace demonstrationdaughter of the Crusader Count Baldwin who conquered Constantinople. Beguines were women who adopted a purer and more mystical form of religion than that followed by the more materialistic leaders of the established Church. They lived a life of (relative) poverty, simplicity, and preaching, isolating themselves throughout the lowlands in Beguinages.

The Beguinages were protected from interference by City or Church for seven centuries, but in the twentieth century the last of the Beguines died out. In 1937 the Bruges Beguinage became a monastery for Benedictine nuns, who also provide housing for the elderly poor.

Even though Brussels stands for internationalism and the political union of Europe, Belgium itself is slowly (and deliberately) fracturing, to provide a greater measure of self-government to its cultural and linguistic minorities. Sample lace work A sample of the lace art The two principal districts are Flanders and Wallonia; the latter includes a small German-speaking district in the far East. Flemish is linguistically a dialect of Dutch, but Flemings (with typical human pride and independence) wouldn't say so. Perhaps the best step towards political peace has been the introduction of bilingual education. French-speaking Belgians are all learning some Flemish in school.

Travelling abroad brings one's awareness of foreign languages to the front. On the one hand it might be wonderful if all humans spoke the same language and so could understand one another; yet on the other hand think of all the regional flavor and fascinating ethnic customs and ceremonies that would fade away under the grey uniformity of a common tongue. Different languages evolved as humans spread over the earth; what will be their future in a global society? Certainly our travels have repeatedly brought us to know and love people of many different cultures and languages, and to respect their desire to keep their language alive -- as long as they can.