There’s No Place Like Bruges
Mainland Europe is famed for its medieval towns and cities, but few can boasts as many architectural wonders as Bruges, the capital and largest city in West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. The cobbled streets and lanes are just as much fun to wander along as are the canals to sail on. With small shopkeepers selling their wares next to international mega-brands, Bruges has somehow managed to hold on to its historic past while embracing the 21st century.
On just about every street you’re sure to come across a store selling either a wide variety of Belgian chocolates, Belgian beers, or Belgian Waffles, but only one type of frites and that’s Belgian frites – not French fries. You see, the Belgians are very proud of their national products and go to great lengths to promote, protect and export everything that’s Belgian to the wider world.
Virtually the entire old city centre is surrounded by water with smaller canals crisscrossing the some of the major thoroughfares. Motorised traffic is very limited in Bruges with the local government introducing strict laws for private vehicles while encouraging travel by bus and horse-drawn carriages.
From the rather ugly, modern main railway station, no where in Bruges is more than a 20 minute walk, but as mentioned earlier, if you have luggage with wheels be prepared for a bumpy journey along those cobbled streets. Luggage aside, walking is the preferred method of getting about in the old city centre and you’ll find surprising discoveries around just about every corner. Of course, like most of Northern Europe, a summer vacation is preferable to a winter tour but travelling outside the main ‘tourist’ season can save you a fortune on accommodation.
Our base for a four-day holiday was the delightful four-star Hotel Academie on Wijngaardstraat 7. From here it’s a short walk to the central Market Place and within a few hundred metres of the front doors were half a dozen restaurants, shops, supermarkets, and places of interest such as the Lake of Love and local brewery Halve Maan. The Lake of Love or Minnewater O Lago del Amor is also where many of the city’s horse-drawn carriages are located and this picturesque place is simply breathtaking whatever season you decide to visit.
The historic centre of Bruges was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2000 and one of the city’s most notable – and highly visible – buildings is the Church of Our Lady, a gothic church founded in the 13th century with a soaring tower. At 122.3 metres it is one of the tallest brick-built buildings in the world and also home to Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child sculpture.
Bruges’ most famous landmark however is the Belfry of Bruges, which overlooks Market Place and for a small entrance fee visitors can climb the 366 steps to the top. At 83 metres high, you are presented with an unrivalled view of all Bruges – and well beyond on a clear day. Adjacent to the belfry is the Provincial Court, a stunning neo-gothic building that no longer serves its original purpose but today features numerous exhibitions.
In the centre of Market Place is a statue dedicated to two men – Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck – who are adored by the majority of Belgians for their passion of Flemish identity and are celebrated as heroes in the fight against the city becoming part of France many centuries ago. Market Place is also a great place to sit and watch the world go by as the area is a mainly traffic free, not forgoing the occasional bus or horse-drawn carriage.
For almost four hundred years, Belgium has had an addiction to chocolate and today it is one of the best places in the world to get a cocoa fix. Although there is no fixed standard for what constitutes Belgian chocolate, every single item sold is produced in Belgium. This has allowed the chocolate industry to become internationally recognised and virtually all visitors to the city will experience a taste sensation at least once a day.
Perhaps the same thing could be said about beer as Belgium has a truly epic selection of beers. A recent survey revealed there were 190 breweries producing a whopping 1,250 beer varieties ranging from a relatively mild 5% Bel Pils to the mind-blowing 26% Black Damnation V, voted the 10th strongest beer in the world. However, most Belgian beers are in the 4-7% ABV (alcohol by volume) range meaning most people can have at least three small beers before falling over drunk.
Nestled between Germany and France, Belgian cuisine has been described as being served in German portions but of distinctly French quality. We had an excellent, value-for-money meal at Moules-Poules restaurant on Simon Stevinplein 9, where we sampled moules-frites, of one of the country’s national dishes. In wintertime, a table next to the open downstairs fireplace is a must. Similarly, ‘T Minnewater Bistro and Grill on Wijngaardstraat is an outstanding dining option if you want to try traditional Flemish food with the carbonade flamande, it’s a great main course.
So, whichever season you find yourself in Northern Europe, make sure to spend a few days exploring the narrow streets, restaurants, bars, churches, and markets of Bruges. From both Paris and Amsterdam, Bruges is easily accessible via the Thalys train, which stops at Brussels from which you take a local service to Bruges.