In Bruges: Tripping Around
Every Euro away trip has it’s own unique story, usually one small incident that defines the trip or makes it memorable. Whether it’s the formation of a new chant in a bar, a run in with over zealous police or a lost pair of trainers, we’ve seen a mix of them all. Unfortunately the trip over to Bruges will be ‘that trip’ where my dad, my regular travel partner, went head first down a flight of stairs, smashing a fair few bones and leaving his spleen behind. Not quite what we make these trips abroad for, certainly not what I’d like to be writing about, but as of this being published he’s out of hospital in Belgium (after a 2 week extended stay) and recovering well at home.
So, back a couple of weeks to the play off draw; the weekend before this was made there were 8 potential opponents that United could have faced in this quick turnaround two-legged tie. We’d planned out our routes for each and so we knew in advance which combo of plane, train and boat we’d be taking depending on which opponent was drawn. It was with much delight that FC Brugge of Belgium was the name out of the hat, not only was this a fairly straightforward destination to get to to, it was a new country for me to visit on my football travels (with United last travelling there in 2000 to play Anderlecht) – I’d also heard a thing or two about the country’s selection of beer. Our pre-planned route was to take the ferry across from Hull direct to Zebrugge.
The way United’s European ticketing allocation works means that we were guaranteed one for the game having attended 4 out of the 5 European away games played in 2013/14. With a ground that holds less than 30,000 we could only expect around 1,500 tickets for the match, in line with UEFA’s 5% rule. For some it means a bit of a gamble on booking travel whilst it’s still cheap before even having a match ticket confirmed. Whilst some would be happy to take a risk, or have a nervous wait, no one really wants to travel all the way to anywhere only to have to watch the game in a bar.
It’s always useful to have done the research on travel so that trips can be booked as soon as draws are made to keep costs down; we all know how flight providers in particular like to boost prices when demand spikes. Despite having the P&O ferry to Zebrugge ready to purchase seconds after finding out our opponents, the inevitable happened and their website crashed. By the time we got through the overnight return ferry for the dates we needed was completely sold out. Fortunately there was a backup option in the way of a 170 quid (twin room) ferry to Rotterdam, 120 miles to the north. Our European trips often take in a few stops with airport transfers and this route gave us the opportunity to briefly take in a few additional cities between Holland and Belgium, the 3 hour return train journey the best part of 55 quid (€77).
The overnight ferry itself was another new experience for me, having only ever travelled across the channel from Dover to Calais, and I don’t think I’d ever want to spend any more than 12 hours on a boat again. The crossing itself was fairly comfortable, departing Hull at 8pm and arriving to Rotterdam at 8am local time. Given how secluded we were in the North sea I’d expected that pints would be pricey, but the Irish bar (which appear to be inescapable) was reasonably priced at £3.80 for a Stella. These were well needed along with a whiskey chaser in order to negotiate the cosy fold out bunk bed; the bar shut around 1am but it only felt like a few hours later that we docked into Holland. Minimal sleep is always great ahead of a day of negotiating foreign train stations.
Whilst a ferry to Zebrugge would have worked out only slightly cheaper (though much more convenient), it would have prevented us from a few additional glimpses of Rotterdam, Antwerp, Gent and Brussels (on the return leg), the highlight being Antwerp train station. This can only be described as something out of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, with 4 sets of platforms amazingly stacked on top of each other and set inside some magnificent architecture. With less than half an hour changeover here there wasn’t a huge amount of time to go and see the city, something I’ll no doubt do in the future, but there was enough time to take in this great sight at least.
Arriving at Bruges train station after our whistle stop tour, the next leg of the journey was to get to our Air BnB accommodation which was fortunately just a short taxi ride. Whilst located 2 miles outside of the city centre, which meant that we relied on taxi’s to ferry us about, the flat we had was bordering on luxurious! It was sat in a quiet neighbourhood populated by friendly locals other than the bar at the end of the road which was home to the Brugge ultras, something we were warned to avoid by any Belgian who had our ear. The flat slept 4 of us for £35/night each, though you could have easily have fit twice as many people in to bring the cost per person down a little more. More ideal was the proximity to the football ground, though the policing post-game scuppered any chance of us having a short walk back. Naively I failed to take any good photos of the apartment which has subsequently been removed from AirBnB. There are probably better options closer to the city centre but the price and quality of this place would have made it a good option for anyone taking a trip to Bruges.
Before making the trip I’d had recommendations from numerous friends on decent bars to try and shops to visit, the rest of insight I gained from the fantastic film starring Colin Farrell. Bruges itself seemed relatively small with the centre seemingly all surrounded by canals and the city wall. It’s a place full of history, with small churches and spires all over and cobbled streets going branching off in all directions. It was just a shame that for the majority of our trip the rain was as relentless as in Manchester. None-the-less our first port of call was the old St Johns Hospital, one of Europe’s oldest hospital buildings dating back to the 11th century; we headed there with passports to pick up our match tickets, such is the nature of United’s European ticketing policy.
Next onto a square, any square would do as United fans will congregate everywhere and anywhere, but we ended up in what seemed to be the main Market Square under the watch of the famous Belfry Tower. It’s never hard to find groups of United even in a much larger city, often you only have to follow the sound of familiar songs or look for the tri-colour flags which adorn the local bars, fences and statues. It’s also no coincidence that these are the areas always inhabit a large choice of bars. Having already kicked off with a few bottles of 8.5% Duvel in the apartment we were more than ready to sample the next Belgian beer, opting for a stein of Tongerlo Blond, which claimed to have been shortlisted at the World Beer awards. There was no better supplement to these drinks than Belgium’s famous dish, Moules et frites. For €20 we were each treated to a small haul, what must have been a pan of 30-odd mussels each and cooked Belle Vue style, potentially the dogs bollocks. No half measures here, just another stein of beer.
Much of the evening was spent in the Market Square, moving from bar to bar with United fans in good voice all night. The club had warned us of potential trouble and even advised we avoid particular hot spots, but despite the levels of beer consumed there were no incidents and no groups of Brugge fans coming looking for trouble. This may have been aided by the small army of police riot vans who had parked up in the square earlier in the evening. It was probably around 2.30am that the Leffe and later wheat beers finally took their toll and we moved on, no doubt the party continued much later on into the night for other reds with none of the bars seeming keen to close.
Next was the point at which the incident covered in the first paragraph occurred and so much of the next 15 hours were spent around A&E at the local hospital, which cut into any further sightseeing. Without dwelling on it too much, the staff and facilities at the hospital were excellent and certainly helped patch my dad up. On doctors orders we headed to the game without him.
A little subdued by events the night before we opted against drinking in the Market Square in the build up to kick off, instead having a few beers back at our apartment close to the ground. From the sounds of things most reds were drinking there during the day and many hundreds more stayed to watch the match in bars; I’ve not seen any consistent numbers in reports but we had just short of 1,700 tickets and probably the same number again of ticketless fans. A little bit of trouble was inevitable with a few reds arrested, some for trying to jib into the ground and the rest for trouble sparked by the Belgians.
On approach to the ground, which was less than half a mile from our apartment, we were stopped at various checkpoints to confirm we had tickets, no less than 8 times in total. The police and stewards were massively on top which is probably why the arrest count was so high outside the ground. We finally made it in after the standard European full-body search just in time to see the glorious sun set over the top of the stands. The Jan Breydel Stadium is located just under 3 miles due west of Bruges city centre with a capacity of 29,000 – the reason behind the relatively low ticket allocation. There was nothing too impressive about the ground from the outside, just a huge concrete mass, and the facilities inside weren’t much to shout about either. Despite the rain which had lingered for much of the trip, the sun was out and it stayed dry during the match which was great as half the away end was uncovered.
After a late goal in the first leg at Old Trafford to give us a cushion at 3-1, this 2nd leg was relatively straightforward with Rooney easily slotting away a hat trick before Herrera added a 4th. The 3 second half goals (and Hernandez’ terrible penalty effort) were all in front of the boisterous away end, with the only real “incident” being Club Brugge fans continuing their attempts to wind us up by singing YNWA a few times. United fans have heard it all from clubs all over, so the Belgians were probably a little disappointed that we weren’t frothing at the mouth in response.
As is standard in Europe we were kept behind for about 30 minutes after the game for the police to clear our the home fans. To avoid any trouble near the ground we were then escorted and slowly marched what felt like the most long winded route all the way back to the city centre. It must have added a further mile onto the walk, and seemed to take a good hour until we were finally free from the mounted officers, vans and robo-coppers.
After an eventful few days I had to drag myself back home the same route via train and ferry, leaving my dad in intensive care whilst my mum stopped with him. I took in much less of the scenery on the way home, exhausted by the lack of sleep that started with the ferry ride over a few days earlier. Given a day of sightseeing was lost I’d certainly like to revisit Bruges, hopefully without the rain next time too, and probably with accommodation a little big closer to the city centre. It did create another unique story and United did the business meaning there’s more European football and trips to be enjoyed this season (though circumstances meant I’ve already missed the game in Eindhoven).
Total travel costs: £225 (not inc. the drive to/from Hull)
Miles travelled: 912
Accommodation: £35/night (shared apartment)
Match ticket: €30 (£22)
Average cost of pint: €5 (£3.60)
United allocation: 1,675
Result: Club Brugge 0: United 4 (1-7 on aggregate)
Match played 26/08/15