As Christmas descended on the medieval buildings and canals of Bruges, so did Omega. Omega teambuilders soon found out that Bruges knows Christmas, just as well as it knows its beer, chocolate and history.
Shortly after our arrival at Hotel Crowne Plaza, we walked past a Christmas market, in the final stages of preparation, before the pre-Christmas festivities opened Bruges that evening. Less than ideal weather put no damper on the otherwise warm Christmas atmosphere in the city's many inviting streets and alleyways.
"This was no excessive 'plastic-fantastic' Christmas. The atmosphere and the Christmas market was so genuine and lovely, there was no Christmas stress or shopping pressure. Although there were some small and chilly rain showers we kept the Christmas spirit intact for the whole trip," summarized Brit Helen Nerheim Opstad, who visited the "Venice of Belgium" for the first time as the Christmas rush began.
- Belgium is not what I first think of as a destination for adventure, so I was rather curious about how this trip would be, says Knut Knutsen, one of many new employees who participated in an Omega teambuilding abroad for the first time.
But on the way to lunch shortly after arrival Friday he and the rest of the Omega group got their first taste of the distinctive skyline of Bruges, as we walked along the streets and past the markets.
- Bruges is a charming and timeless city. As we walked through the old, crooked streets paved with worn cobblestones, between houses and walls from the Middle Ages, it was almost like we heard an echo of centuries past. There was no doubt as to why this city was chosen as a destination, said Knutsen.
When in Belgium there are two things you cannot avoid: chocolate and beer. Friday evening we all received an introduction to the local art of brewing, while tasting the traditional and most famous beer - Brugse Zot at De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) - the only active family brewery remaining in the city. Today, the brewery produces more than 4 million litres of beer per year, most of which is for export. In addition to brewing, De Halve Maan runs a restaurant. Our team was treated to the full package and started with a tour of the brewery's production facilities.
We climbed through the old brewery via a maze of passageways and ladder-like stairs, past vats, taps, barrels and tanks. The story of the brewery included everything from grain selection, alcohol percentage, surviving a downturn in the market, finally breaking through in the USA and family development of the now highly acclaimed product.
After our stomachs were full from partaking of the brewery’s own menu, and we all were ready for a break before dessert, we had no choice: it was time to play ! The hosts at the De Halve Maan had set up their own small "casino" in the basement, but instead of card games and roulette, one could choose between old traditional Flemish board games.
Competition was fierce, with everyone fighting for themselves. We received points for each of the games we tried, but it turned out the winners were pulled straight from the stack, so the effort seemed somewhat in vain. Three proud ladies from Omega’s group proudly took home respectively 1st , 2nd and 3rd prize. Evil tongues would have it that all of the male participants were removed from the stack of names before the winners were drawn, but it did not seem to have any effect on the mood in general.
- Friday evening was a highlight! Belgian beer lived up to its expectations, and the games were fabulous. But the icing on the cake was the funny and talented house orchestra that strolled between the tables during our meal, it may sound strange with a saxophone, clarinet, accordion, bass and drums together, but it was outstanding ! The musicians were in good form, and their enthusiasm infected us all, summarizes Knutsen.
Saturday turned out to be the coldest day weather-wise, but also the most informative when it came to the history of Bruges. Local guides took us on a tour through the medieval city, and showed us some of the treasures from the city's heyday as a European power- and trading center during the Middle Ages.
- We were accompanied by some incredibly knowledgeable guides around the city, and it was a powerful story they told as we walked between the churches, cathedrals, castles and channels. Despite some uncooperative weather, the tour was great and it was perfect to end up in a warm restaurant, complete with a blazing fireplace afterwards, says Opstad.
The tour made an impression on several others.
- Taking the time for some cultural immersion in an ancient European city like Bruges is to give oneself the chance to set the clock back, and that can be a good thing for us busy modern people. I think we need to be reminded that there are places where time has almost come to a standstill, as in Bruges, said Knutsen.
And of course there was time for shopping during the weekend. An abundance of chocolate in all shapes and sizes could be bought on every street corner. And many took the opportunity to take care of some Christmas shopping at the many "Chocolatieres».
- Did we get any shopping done? Oh yes. There were a few kilos of chocolate in our luggage on the way home, which was to be wrapped and given away as Christmas gifts. But I must admit that the amount decreased ever so slightly after I got home. Belgian chocolate is not so easy to leave in peace, laughs Opstad.