Copyright 2021 Stories & Photography by John Vijlbrief
Lots of mahogany and the scent of bee wax
Three years ago I visited the cosy and beautiful Belgian city of Bruges for the first time. Through a well-known booking site, I had selected a hotel close to one of the gates to this old city, which dates back to around and near 864. I could also park my car close to the hotel. The total package, not really cheaply priced, but for a few days of grandeur and old chic, I like to pay a little more. I am sensitive to it and I have the age: a senior. My stay at the hotel was not disappointing. Lots of mahogany and the scent of bee wax. Generously set tables with antique silverware, fine crockery and beautiful glassware. And an elderly hotel couple who know what it’s like to be host and hostess. At the rear of the hotel overlooking a beautiful pond, a well-kept garden with a raised terrace. Here and there art objects have been placed. The days spending there were very pleasant. So I resolved to return here again. That opportunity arose in 2020 …
Orange coloured areas
It’s September 2020. COVID-19 pandemic. Via a detour, so not via Antwerp to avoid an ‘orange-coloured area’, but via Zeeland and the Westerscheldetunnel in the Netherlands. If you are out, Bruges is quickly found. As well as the hotel. The parking lot, good for ten cars, was empty. The old wooden doors of the hotel were closed. Which surprised me. I rang the bell. Through the crackling speaker sound of the communication system, I was asked “what I came to do and whether I had booked?” After my “yes, I booked this morning” there was a moment’s silence. “Oh … we haven’t seen a booking,” it sounded a bit stuttering on the other side. “Oh well… I now see it on my iPhone. Yeah, uh … we’re coming. Sorry. Give us an hour and we’ll be there …
Hardly any bookings
To pass the time, I picked up a book and started reading.
Less than half an hour later, a black Lexus SUV stopped were an elderly couple got out. ” They hurried to the front door. I shouted “the owner is not there, he will arrive in half an hour.” “We are the owners,” the couple shouted. He turned around. Now I recognized him too. “Again, our apology for standing in front of a locked door, please come in.” The story soon followed. There had been hardly any bookings since COVID-19. Normally the hotel mainly runs on British and Germans. And Americans who love this old grandeur. I was the first guest in weeks. “It’s a drama sir …. My colleague hoteliers… many are not going to make it. We’ve been here for 46 years and thank God we have a buffer… If you want to follow me, I’ll take you to your room.” After telling him that I had already been here in 2017, I followed him to the first floor and, perhaps purely by accident, ended up again in the same room, number 5. “Our most beautiful room with a view of the garden.” He handed over the key and wished me a pleasant stay and asked “what time would I like to have breakfast the next morning?”
I like to return to places where I have fond memories and had a good time. Also to this place, this room. But… on one of the two armchairs was a dead bee who, it looks like, has not belonged to the living species for a while. In a TV program like “Bed & Breakfast” this would immediately break out and the room price would drop by at least half. Not with me. The bee was given a temporary resting place in one of the two wastebaskets. The bedspread was also the same. There are still photos from 2017 of this room on my iPhone. When I looked at it, I realized that nothing has changed here at all. If I took a picture now and put it next to the one from 2017, I wouldn’t see any difference. No new bedspread, wallpaper, curtains or chairs… Also no new kind of lighting. Everything was, how shall I put it,… the same. Surely something has changed after three years? Yes, one bee had died…
Fear of contamination
Overdue maintenance was especially visible in the bathroom. Clean, certainly. The paint and the sealant could be dealt with. I always think the bedspread in a hotel or B&B is questionable anyway… It goes off first and goes into the closet. The bedding was clean and did not smell musty. In COVID-19 time, a hotel or B&B has gotten something threatening. At least, that’s how it feels to me. I felt suddenly “dirty” in that room. Setting up the TV with the remote control… no! So I first wrapped a tissue around the remote, so that I didn’t have to touch the buttons with my bare fingers. I also no longer dared to touch the light switches in the room and bathroom. Walking on the laminate with my bare feet… No! What have I started? That’s how I get infected, right ?! And it’s cold in the room … Is the heating working? The radiator was as cold as the bee.
After a wonderful night, I entered the restaurant with that still wonderful atmosphere. Unfortunately, I did not smell the scent of floor wax. Not a beautiful and lavishly displayed buffet, but a simply laid table at which I sat down. With a breakfast which is not worth the amount I pay for this. Okay, it’s COVID-19 time. What shocked me was the yoghurt that had passed its freshness date for a week, which was indicated on the lid. My mood changed. I started to feel bad. A cold room, a dead bee, old yoghurt… am I paying for this? “Well, for one guest the hotelier doesn’t turn up the CV,” I thought. No working Wi-Fi either… After that complaint, the man asked me if I had entered “the correct password”? “And” if I wanted to check that again? “The Wi-Fi remained just as dead as the bee in the trash can.
Clutter around the hotel
From one moment to the next I looked at the hotel with completely different eyes and saw things that I had not noticed before. On the side of the hotel was a paint tray with a used, dried paint roller. How long had it been there? Judging by the dried and discoloured paint, a few months? Ahead were two broken roof tiles, one of which was on the garden path you walk over as a guest on the way to your room. Behind some bushes, I discovered piles of discarded steel garden furniture that wouldn’t look out of place on a scrap iron heap. The stair coverings looked quite “walked on” in slightly more daylight. I hadn’t noticed before either.
That’s not how you receive guests?!
My warm feelings for this hotel and this place had turned into coldness and bewilderment. So recently I was in love with this hotel, I felt at home. But what it looks like now… that’s not how you receive guests, do you? Although, what am I getting involved with? It’s not up to me to bring this up, is it? Nor to disclose this in an “affliction review”. In addition, the daily rate was adjusted to a lower one. Because of COVID-19.
The blue barrel
I investigated further and found a blue plastic barrel behind another bush. One we know when dumped waste from a drug lab is found in nature. Does the hotelier make money by making drugs in the basement of this large hotel ?! Or are the remains of non-paying guests in the blue barrel… Who knows? My imagination ran wild… I urged myself not to go too far and especially to complain about the cold room and the non-working wifi.
Time of check-out. I paid. Then my mood erupted …
“Sir, I paid first to prevent you from thinking I’m complaining in order to get a discount on my stay here. But I am quite shocked, and here’s why: I was looking forward to staying at your hotel with great pleasure. I understand that because of COVID-19 everything is different, but for that I don’t have to stay in a cold room without a properly working WiFi? With a dead bee on one of the armchairs. “
My “cloudburst” was followed by a heavy downpour from the hotelier. “Sir, we are barely making any turnover here, the restaurant is closed and I have had to send my staff home. We can hardly keep our heads above water. “The crying was visibly closer to him than the laughter. “We almost always have 100% occupation and now… it’s a disaster! How long will this take…? “
Leaning up the mess
Should I get pity now? Spontaneously offer my help to clean up the mess around the hotel? That almost happened. However, the couple drives an expensive Lexus SUV.
Then why don’t they sell it…? When I stood in front of the closed door, the couple was sitting on the coast in Oostende. So there is money for that and not for the CV, some renovation work and the removal of dead insects …
My speech had triggered something
I decided to leave it at that and leave. I wished the man “good luck” with his beautiful real estate, because that is it! When I put my things in the car, I saw the man cleaning up the mess I had pointed out to him. In any case, my speech had triggered something. And, thanks to me, they made some money again. A large part of that will go to Booking.com, and the shareholders …
Later that month, the area in which Bruges is located also went orange. A week later all over Belgium… What a drama for the hospitality industry!