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capital of cool
Medieval, modern and retro, all at the same time, Bruges is a city of contrasts not to be missed writes Elizabeth Buchanan
hink Belgium and you’ll probably think ‘chocolate’, ‘beer’, ‘lace’, then ‘how many famous Belgians can I name?’and leave it there. That would be a mistake, however, because these days Belgium is definitely on the list of Europe’s coolest destinations and the city of Bruges is one of Belgium’s best. Bruges makes a great choice for a weekend mini-break. It’s stuffed with gorgeous, gilded medieval buildings, has Venetian-style canals and museums just heaving with Flemish old masters. There are traditional markets and, everywhere you look, gabled gingerbread town houses are tucked away down ancient cobbled streets. But Bruges is a modern city too, with architecture that will make your eyes stand on stalks, wacky retro bars and the trendiest of boutique hotels and jazz clubs… and of course, it has chocolate, beer, lace and one or two famous Belgians for good measure.
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One of Bruges’ great attractions is that it’s very close to home and easy to get to by rail or ferry. What’s more, you can cover the city centre on foot in no time at all. The centre of town is virtually a car-free zone and you can stroll round most of it in under an hour.
Bruges is an ancient place. It was established by the Vikings in the ninth century as a port and, over the next three hundred years, grew into one of Europe’s main trading centres. Despite several attempts by the French to annex the city, Bruges held its own and by the 14th century was a major banking and trading force in Europe. The city had ambassadors from Italy, Scotland, Spain and Germany and dealers in everything from imported spices and pottery, to its famous Flemish cloth. Sadly Bruges’ glory days were not to last. Its power and influence began to slip away as the importance of the textile trade diminished. Despite a brief and wonderful flowering of artistic genius in the 15th century, when the brothers Van Eyck did so much for the Flemish school of painting, by the early 19th century Bruges had become one of
the poorest cities in Europe. Tourism saved the city. All those twiddly gilttopped towers, scenic waterways, neoGothic churches and half timbered houses proved a steady tourist draw and, over the last 100 years, Bruges has re-established itself as one of Europe’s hottest travel spots.
‘...Venice of the North...’
Tranquil in Town
Perhaps Bruges’ best-kept secret is how peaceful this city can be. Potter down any side street and you’ll find yourself in a hidden world of medieval houses and gardens. Saunter a few minutes from the centre and you’ll find the canals that earn Bruges the title ‘the Venice of the North’. Bruges is filled with waterways and it is these silent ‘street’s that create such a feeling of calm. Bruges developed this extensive system in the Middle Ages, to enable large trading vessels to gain access to the city’s warehouses. Nowadays only tourist boats ply the canals and, as in Venice, the ownership of these boats is a matter of tradition and pride. There are just
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Catch the biggest show in town. During May the main event is definitely the Procession of the Holy Blood, which takes place on the ninth at 3pm.This procession dates back over 700 years and attracts thousands of participants and visitors.Tradition dictates that a reliquary, holding a bloodstained cloth (said to have been used by Joseph of Arimathea to tend Christ’s wounds) is paraded through the streets. Over time, this sober religious ritual has turned into one of the biggest street theatre events in Europe. Nearly 2,000 actors take part in the procession re-enacting key scenes from the Bible.You can find out more by visiting www.holyblood.org or www.brugge.be. Everywhere you go in Bruges you’ll be offered ‘moules et frites’.Try the buffet at Moules Poules on Simon Stevenplein. For around €17 you’ll get fantastic mussels, chips and beer and, because it’s a buffet, when you finish, a waiter will come along and top up both your plate and glass. Excellent value. You can’t visit Bruges without tasting the chocolate and the city’s own delicacy is the chocolate swan or Brugsch Swaentje.The filling is a combination of almond paste and spice biscuits, wrapped in dark or white chocolate and stamped with the official swan motif. As with the chocolate; you can’t visit Bruges without tasting the beer.There are hundreds of varieties on offer and most famous are the fruit beers flavoured with cherry or strawberry. The Bottle Shop (Wollestraat 13) has a great selection. Remember though that Belgian beer is often twice as strong as beer in the UK.Take care when sampling, if you want to be able to walk back to your hotel in a straight line.
five families in Bruges allowed to run tour boats and they only have four boats each. In the centre of town, the Spiegelrei has some of the prettiest canals, lined with ancient merchants’ houses, while the Gouden Handrei has fairy-tale summer-houses backing onto the water. Further south, the Minnewater is a particularly well-loved part of the city: a huge canalized lake enclosing a park and hundreds of quaint old houses.
‘...One of Bruges’ great attractions is that it’s very close to home..’
is home to masses of shops, cafes and bars where you can sit and watch the world go by in comfort. The Provincial Court is shown on every postcard and is a great example of the 19th century Gothic revival. Encrusted with towers, turrets and balconies and a-flutter with colourful flags, the building dominates the market square. Market day is Wednesday and the place is transformed with wonderful stalls selling snacks of waffles, ‘Belgian frites’ and chocolate, along with fried chicken, or bread and cheese. Throughout the summer you’ll see a red vintage car parked in front of the Belfry selling ice cream. While the market square is the commercial centre of the city, the administrative centre lies just to the east in Burg Square and is worth visiting for the architecture alone. Here, the lavish excess of the genuine Gothic mixes with the formal restraint of the Renaissance. The old Town Hall was built in 1376 and is dominated by its tall, pale spires,
One of the quietest parts of the city is the Beguinage. To enter it, you have to cross a little bridge and then you find yourself in the cloistered world of the Beguines; 13th century mystics who chose to live apart from the city. Originally built in 1245, the Beguinage is made up of a number of ancient white houses surrounding a church and garden planted with poplar trees. In the 1930’s it was converted into a convent for the Benedictine nuns who still live there today and the whole place conveys a pastoral simplicity and serenity hard to find in most city centres.
Hustle and Bustle
If you’re looking for a bit more excitement, the central market place is the buzzing heart of the city. Surrounded by flamboyantly finial-clad neo-Gothic buildings, the market
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while the Civil Registry is topped with glinting golden statues. Best of all is the Chapel of the Holy Blood, which looks like a heavily worked jewel box.
High Art and Household Goods
If you want to get a feel for what these buildings looked like when they were new, check out the Gruuthuse Museum, just to the south of Burg Square on Dijver 17. This marvellous old town house is filled with pottery, textiles, furniture and silverware and has recreated rooms showing how these various artefacts were used. For sublime Flemish painting head for the Groeninge Museum on Dijver 12. Here you’ll find not just early masters like Van Eyck and Breugal but later Renaissance works, 18th century neo-classicism and surrealist painters such as Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux.
shiny copper vats and Victorian brass pipe work. After the tour try the home brewed ‘Straffe Hendrik’ beer. Finding lace is not difficult in Bruges. In fact every second shop seems to be filled with the stuff: from doilies to aprons, tablecloths to curtains, there is lace everywhere. Be aware though that most of it is not made in Bruges and actually comes from factories in Taiwan and China. Traditional handmade lace will be very expensive. To see the real thing, visit the Kantcentrum (Lace Centre) on Peperstraat 3 A. This non-profit making centre shows old styles including bloemenwerk, rozenkant, and toversesteek and you can buy exquisite lace in the shop.
Cool Nights Out
In the evening most people eat out or have a drink in the numberless cafes and bars in the centre. However if you want an evening of the hippest jazz, head down to De Werf (Werfstrat 108) which features both Belgian and international jazz musicians. Magdalenazaal (The Cactus Club) on Magdalenastraat 27 features live local bands. Whether you want peace and tranquility or the sleekest of trendy bars, Bruges, with its startling contrasts will fit the bill.
Chocolate, Beer and Lace
If you really want to go down the tourist route you have to visit Choco-Story, the chocolate museum Touerisme on Wijnzakstraat 2 (Sint-Jansplein). Here you can discover the history of chocolate before getting down to the real job of tasting it. For the ultimate chocolate expeTouerisme Brugge rience try The Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein 19). Here they treat chocolate like fine wine and you can sample chocolate Belgian snacks of salami, pickles and cheese from single estates or try the exotic choco- surrounded by cosy brown walls festooned with posters of beer. To find out more about late body paint. For the best beer and atmosphere in town, how Belgian beer is made, take in a tour of head for the deservedly famous ‘t Brugs the De Halve Maan, or Half Moon, brewery Beertje, Kemelstraat 5. Here you can try (Walplein 26). The brewery is open daily hundreds of speciality beers along with from 10 – 5pm and is filled with fabulously
‘...Belgian beer is often twice as strong as beer in the UK...’
Where to Stay:
If you’re looking for somewhere super sophisticated, the Pand Hotel (www.pandhotel.com) in the centre of Bruges was recently voted one of the top 101 hotels in the world. This C18th townhouse mixes antiques and objects d’art with sleek, modern chic to stylish effect. Rooms range from E180 for a small double to E465 for a master suite. For a more traditional stay, try the Egmond Hotel (www.egmon.be) on the edge of the Minnewater lake. The rooms are large and comfortable and some have beautiful blue and white tiled detailing. Double garden view rooms start at E140.00 For paired down city-chic the Erasmus (www.hotelerasmus.com) has smart maroon and teak décor and a brasserie that stocks over 200 Belgian beers. Doubles start at E120. TL
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34 The Travel & Leisure Magazine
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