I remember visiting Paris a number of years ago. Rushing around, gobbling up landmarks like a photo hungry Pac-Man, one of the most memorable parts of that trip happened to be the hour or so I spent sat on a quaint backstreet drinking a glass of red staring at one of the Eiffel Tower’s legs in the distance.
That feeling of blissful serenity rarely left my side during the two days I spent in Bruges. This medieval city may not have the landmarks found in the Paris’, London’s or Rome’s of this world but it hardly matters. At no point do you have to go looking for the picturesque in Bruges, the picturesque comes to you.
On the ferry over (stay away from the devilish onboard casino if you want to keep your sea-sickness down to a minimum) I asked one of the bar staff what Bruges was like. ‘Small and expensive’ came the reply...along with my strawberry woo woo (why not?).
If you’re looking at spending more than a couple of days there and you’re wanting to hit the nice restaurants and bars around the main market square then, yes, pack your wallet as well as your case.
I ate in the Huyze die Mayne the one night I was there; €16 for their soup of the day and a delicious roast chicken fillet with green pea stew and bacon. A snip compared to many of the surrounding restaurants where €30 for a starter and a main is the norm. There is your usual array of fast food options of course for those wanting a quicker, cheaper bite; Pizza Hut, McDonalds etc along with the odd burger stall and cafés where you can pick up a panini and a drink for €5.
Courtesy of Tourism Bruges I was given a city card (€38 for 48 hours) and I could not recommend one of these more. It may not be renowned for its Eiffel Towers or Arc de Triumphs but there’s still plenty to see. And everything I saw while I was there came free under the card.
I stayed at the Floris Hotel Karos, a lovely hotel just on the outskirts of the main centre. Ideally located, just five minutes walk from the centre, the staff were helpful, the room was gorgeous, the breakfast filling and the swimming pool heavenly following a full day of walking.
Even after a few Duvels and a couple of chocolate covered waffles, you can easily cover Bruges by foot. The Belfort (the bell tower of Bruges) should probably be the first thing on the to do list though. The 366 steps aren’t as daunting as they sound but after queuing for half an hour to start your ascent, your feet may just feel like kicking you as the near the summit. The views once you get there though are more than worth it. And if you can time it so the carillon of 47 bells are chiming, the setting becomes even more awe-inspiring.
If you are going at Christmas time then the annual Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival is a must. This year’s theme was based around Disney. A breathtaking winter wonderland of characters carved out of ice and an experience like no other I’ve seen before; make sure you wrap up well and leave time at the end to enjoy something chilled from the ice bar. In keeping with the festive season, the Christmas markets add marvel to the already magical market square and provide another spot for refreshments as well as a selection of local arts and crafts. The one downside about visiting at this time of year is that the canal trips do not run or at least not as frequently. Despite the weather being more than pleasant while I was there, none of the boating tour companies were open. A shame considering the city’s “Venice of the North” title. These watery arteries, which form a memorising maze throughout the city centre, can still be enjoyed by foot though and there’s a seemingly infinite number of walks you can embark upon, each as beautiful as the last.
The city was founded in the 13th Century and unravaged by war its historic buildings are as ‘real’ as you’re ever likely to see elsewhere. With a history steeped in Catholicism, its architecture is characterised by the imposing brick gothic and the two collide majestically in the form of the Church of Our Lady and St Salvator’s Cathedral. Many visitors, religiously devout or not, also visit The Basilica of the Holy Blood, where the chapel inside holds a vial, said to contain the blood of Jesus Christ.
Of course, a trip to Belgium without a trip to a brewery would be like going to the bar at the Christmas party and getting a water. De Halve Man is the city’s last working brewery. Brewing since 1856, it’s one of western Europe’s oldest and the guided tour offers a fascinating insight into all things beer as well as a bottle of the local brew Brugse Zot at its conclusion. If only all tours ended the same way.
If you are planning to visit Bruges, the best advice I can give you (aside from the obvious - beer and waffles) is make sure you stay the night. At night, Bruges becomes something truly special. Each street like something from a medieval fairy tale; the market square a festival of sound and sights; the canals beautifully brought to life by light as the shadows of swans dance on the gorgeous brick buildings that run alongside. Around every corner truly lies the perfect picture.
If somebody was to give me a Christmas card depicting Bruges at night (not entirely sure why anybody would, granted) it would proudly adorn the centre of the mantelpiece. The city is just that stunning and I’d challenge anybody to walk its streets, at any time day or night, and not be drawn to pulling out their camera. It makes the amateurish look professional.
The only downside to my time there was encountering a couple of Belgian natives, while on the ferry returning home. The pair, who were visiting York to watch the snooker UK Championships (not something I ever expected to hear), took great pleasure in dismantling England’s football team ahead of next year’s World Cup.
It should not take the exploits of Lukaku, Hazard, Benteke and co to put this country on the map though. And fortunately, for me, it didn’t.
Visit www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.