“Bruges is a shit hole.”
This is probably the most memorable line in the 2008 movie In Bruges, a dark comedy film set in the city of Brugge (pronounced bru-kke), Belgium. The movie is about two professional killers, Ray (played by Colin Farrell) and Ken (played by Brendan Gleeson), who after a botched job, are sent by their handler (Ralph Fiennes) to the city to await their fate.
Enchanted by the night scenes in the film, I trooped down to Brugge for a weekend.
On the first day, I almost agreed with Ray (who uttered the memorable line) about his first impression of the city, considered the Venice of the North.
It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon and what greeted me was the “braderie,” the time of the year when they close the city to car traffic for two weekends and stores set up shop outside, offering 10 to 70-percent off the regular prices. People from all parts of the world littered the streets, shopping, sightseeing and leaving their trash on the beautiful medieval streets.
Away from the shops, I discovered what made Brugge one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium. I was able to completely immerse myself in the sights and sound of the city, with its century-old churches, romantic canals, numerous towers and all the reminders of history from the medieval era until 1907, which must have been the period when time stood still in Brugge.
Because my primary reason was to see the locations in the movie, I planned my itinerary around this. Brugge doesn’t disappoint and even had little surprises along the narrow cobbled stone pathways that one wouldn’t discover unless they are prepared to go on foot.
I started the tour with the Belfry Tower, where Ken jump off to save the life of his friend. At first I thought it was the wrong decision to climb the 366 narrow winding steps of the tower and get stuck on top, one foot away from the big bells clanging the hourly reminder. But at the top of the 88-meter high tower, I was rewarded with a magnificent 360-degree view of the skyline, with the typical Dutch roofs, the canal and the sea and the Big Market Square. On one of the landings is the 48-bell carillon that plays to the tourists on some days.
Walking around Brugge while squeezing yourself between the thousands of tourists was exhausting so I head back to the hotel for a nap. When I woke, the city was already bath in faint orange glow, giving it a much more romantic atmosphere than reality.
The next day was spent walking around the city. I went past the Big Market Square, where Ray and Ken spent hours analyzing their lives as killers. I marveled once more at the neo-gothic lines of the Provincial Court, the medieval houses and the statues of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, leaders from the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302.
I proceeded to the next square, the Burg, which is even more beautiful and artistically built than the Big Market because of the different architectural styles. This was where the former castle and courtyard of Count Baldwin I once stood. It is now the center of administration and politics in Brugge. The former medieval church of St. Donatius used to be here, but was replaced by a Romanesque church in the 12th century. There’s the gothic-style town hall with six gothic windows in front, the Old Civil Registry in renaissance style with its gold accents and statues and the former Court of Justice built in the neo-classicist style. Two more religious buildings make the square a postcard of history, the Basilius church and the Chapel of the Holy Blood.
With aching feet and grumbling stomach, I head down to Wollestraat for breakfast and a cup of espresso. I finally discovered the hotel where the killers were booked, the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel. Unlike its trashy manifestation in the film, the boutique hotel is actually very chic and expensive too. A cup of espresso cost almost €5. The hotel has a half-timbered façade and stained glass windows which you can only appreciate from the other side of the canal or when you take the boat tour.
I finally took the canal tour with 20 other people and enjoyed a 30-minute glide through more medieval houses, rustic gardens and old bridges. The tour ended at the Minnewater or the Lake of Love. It was one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, where the killers watched two swans swim together on a romantic night in Brugge. I did see swans, about 20 of them in fact, but it was far less romantic because it was mid-afternoon and tourists were all over the place.
On the way back to the hotel, I passed the Gruuthuse, the mansion of a rich Belgian family, on the way to the Our Lady’s Church, where Michaelangelo’s Madonna sculpture and the tombstone of Mary of Burgandy flickers all throughout the day from the flashes of cameras. The somber and dimly-lit Madonna evokes a sense of peace and spirituality when not being photographed all the time.
Shopping, eating, lodging
If you’re a shopaholic, the best time to visit Brugge is always in the summer during the Braderie season. The shops are on sale frenzy and everything can go as much as 75-percent off. Facing the Belfry, you can find all the modern shops on the streets on the right side, with all the designer boutiques and stores carrying European and American brands.
Booking a room online in one of the many hotels, hostels and bed and breakfasts is a breeze and range from backpacker to five-star accommodations, depending on your budget, the view of the hotel and amenities. Most hotels are situated near the city so walking to the center is no problem at all, unless you are not so fond of it, in which case you can take the bus going around the city. Rooms can cost as low at 25 euro (about P1,700) per person, per night.
When it comes to dining, Brugge also has a range of snack bars (eet cafes), bistros, tearooms, diners and restaurants. If you want to sample the local dish, try ordering something of Flemish origin. Since Belgium’s culture is largely influenced by two countries, the variety of dishes range from the bland Dutch food to the more palatable French cuisine. Its touristy reputation also brought international restaurants into Brugge, from Asian to European cuisines.
Chocolate and beer are two things that you shouldn’t miss when you visit Brugge. Chocolate stores are scattered in every corner of the city like 7/11 convenience stores. For those who can’t get enough of the sweet stuff, authentic Belgian waffles with rich dark chocolate or fruit sauces can be had for about five euro or less if you are buying from street vendors.
Meanwhile, local restaurants and bistros serve all kinds of Belgian beer, from the spicy Duvel blondes to the Bellevue kriek (cherry beers). They cost really cheap per bottle and can be enjoyed thoroughly with a plate of tapas. Young locals hang out in the De Stoepa, a quaint restaurant which lights up and becomes lively during the night.
I left Brugge the same hour that I arrived. The Brugge Centraal Station, where the chase scene was filmed, was not as busy as the day before. Most tourists leave early. A weekend is really enough to see Brugge. I was glad to have walked through European history and see one of the Unesco’s World Heritage site. Curiosity satisfied, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Brugge, as there are other European cities, as lovely and as historical, waiting to be discovered.
Originally published in Manila Standard Today, August 13, 2009