Cobblestone lanes lined with gabled houses. Swans drifting slowly along quiet canals. Wandering through Bruges you definitely get the sense of having stepped back in time.
It’s no wonder why: the town centre has been left relatively untouched since its hey day in the 15th Century. It was at this time that the town’s arterial link to the sea silted up and left Bruges cut off from the world trade routes so vital to its economic success. The traders and merchants that had once called Bruges home packed up their possessions and moved to other centres, often leaving their homes abandoned.
Bruges remained a forgotten town for centuries until it inspired Belgian author, Georges Rodenbach, to write Bruges-la-Morte (Bruges the Dead). Many well to do travellers subsequently came in search of the peaceful and sombre town so poetically portrayed by Rodenbach. Their arrival brought the funds required to awaken Bruges from its slumber and assert itself as one of Belgium’s most frequented destinations.
The now World Heritage site is centred around the bustling Grote Markt, or market square. Flanked by gabled guildhalls, the square is dominated by the impressive Belfort. The stunning panorama from the top of the 866 step climb is definitely worth the €8 fee. Just make sure that you beat the crowds and arrive early!
Adjacent to the main square is the smaller, yet arguably more beautiful Burg. The square takes its name from the fortress built here by the First Count of Flanders in the early ninth century. Although it no longer stands, the Gothic Stadhuis (City Hall) and the Romanesque Heilig Bloed Basiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) have ensured that the Burg has remained the political and ecclesiastical heart of Bruges throughout the centuries.
As our visit coincided with the Bruges Winter Festival, the Burg was abuzz with locals and tourists alike who had gathered to watch the evenings entertainment. We were lucky enough to catch a magical aerobatic display where performers were hoisted high into the centre of the square by a crane. Watching them float and tumble through the air whilst casting shadows across their gothic backdrop is an experience I will not soon forget.
The Rozenhoedkaai, one of the most photographed sites in Bruges, can be found a short stroll from the Burg. Here you can find one of the many boat tour platforms. However, due to its location it also tends to be the most busy! Try another one of the five platforms scattered around the city for a slightly shorter queue. The tour lasts for about half an hour and provides an insight into the way the canals have shaped Bruges’ history.
Art lovers will adore Bruges. The Groeninge Museum houses one of the most exquisite collections of early Flemish painting in the world. Its permanent display includes works by the likes of Jan van Eyck, who lived in Bruges during the last eleven years of his life, as well as Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Provoost.
The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), with its juxtaposition of different architectural styles, is home to one of the only works by Michelangelo to have left Italy during his lifetime; the marble Madonna and Child. Much to my disappointment, the church was closed for maintenance during our visit. However, it gives me a pretty good reason to return in the not so distant future!
And I’m definitely not complaining- Bruges is a culinary delight. There are chocolate shops aplenty, which is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on your viewpoint! Two of the best are the Chocolate Line and Dumon. Both offer a wide selection of the standard varieties as well as some more adventurous combinations; wasabi infused ganache, anyone? More substantial local specialities include moules et frites (mussels and chips), carbonnades flamandes (Flemish beer and beef stew) and konijn met pruimen (rabbit, prune and beer stew). Try Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, just off the Grote Markt at 19 Philipstockstraat, for excellent examples of all three. The beer menu is also sure to impress with over 400 varieties to choose from.
If beer is your thing, head straight to Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan, the town’s last working brewery. The 45 minute guided tour will have you navigating your way through tight passageways, down steep stairwells (backwards!) and up to the roof for a spectacular view over the city. The € 7.50 ticket price also includes a glass of their award winning brew, Brugse Zot. My favourite pub in Bruges, however, would have to be t’Brugs Beerje. With its eclectic interior and homely atmosphere, I could have spent hours perusing their menu of over 300 beers. Thankfully their knowledgeable staff were able to talk me through its many pages and offer welcome suggestions.
The best thing about Bruges is that it is so easy to get to. The Eurostar will take you from London to Brussels in about two hours and twenty minutes. From there, simply change platforms and catch the regional InterCity to Bruges. The onward journey is included in your Eurostar ticket if you select your destination as “Any Belgian Station” at time of purchase.
We stayed at the delightfully named Hotel Bla Bla. Set just behind the main street on a quiet passageway, it is perfectly situated for an easy stroll to the Grote Markt. Rooms range from €85 – 165.