Weekendje weg: Bruges
ruges or Brugge, depends on what language you are speaking, prides itself in being a well-preserved medieval town and one of the many Unesco’s World Heritage site in Belgium. Stripped off tourists that floods Brugge everyday, it can actually be just a ghost town, as if time stood still in there and you can expect to meet a man in cloak and a woman in kirtle while taking a midnight walk in one of its dark alleyways. Probably that’s why director Martin McDonagh chose it as the setting of his dark comedy film In Bruges.
“The problem with Brugge is that nobody lives there anymore. The locals have moved out of town because of the influx of tourists and the town is just one big tourist trap,” said a rather critical colleague about Brugge.
The locals must have indeed moved out of town but thar doesn’t make Brugge any less charming. On a weekend trip in this medieval city, I drank into its lovely architecture (that spans 700 hundred years) and its Old World charm of Brugge while getting tipsy on Belgian beers and chocolates.
Walk – This is the only way to appreciate the beauty of Brugge, the town is so small that going around it will probably just take half of your day. Brugge has some of the world’s most amazing architectural designs, from Medieval to Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Romanesque and Classic, sort of an architectural porn hub for a design student. To be able to see all of them you need a pair of comfortable sneakers (don’t make a mistake of wearing heeled shoes unless you’re a masochist) and “stroll around town.”
Start from the Big Market Square and challenge yourself to climb the 366-steps of the Belfry Tower and if you get the chance, listen to the 48-bell carillion. Afterward proceed to another square called Burg where the Provincial House, St Donatius church, the Holy Blood Chapel, the Basilius church and the Old Civil Registry are located, all of which have been built with different architectural styles.
If you get tired of walking, take the tourist boat for one-hour canal tour, relax and enjoy taking photos of the old houses and charming little gardens at the river bank, the very low bridges above your head (don’t forget to duck), sights which are exclusive when you take the boat. But before hopping on one, browse first through paintings and photographs of vendors near the boat terminal.
If you are staying on a Sunday, wake up early and attend church services in any of the many churches in Brugge, like in the Church of Our Lady where Michaelangelo’s Madonna and the tombstone of Mary of Burgandy are located, or in the Cathedral (but don’t get distracted by the lovely stained glasses), in St. Anne’s church or in the Church of St. Walburga.
Visit a museum and a gallery. There are five big museums and galleries in Bruges, which exhibit/sell paintings and even diamonds. Of course, like almost every Belgian city, Bruges also have a Chocolate Museum which will surely be a hit for travelling families with kids.
You might also want to go shopping at the Braderie during the summer when they close off some of the streets and everything is up to 70% off. Or visit one their flee markets and maybe you’d find a medieval treasure if you’re lucky.
For couples, the most obvious thing to do is spend the sunset at the Lake of Love or the Minnewater and watch the lovely swans fight over pieces of bread thrown by tourists. Parents can let your kids run and roam at the park nearby.
Eat what and where?
You can’t leave Brugge (or any other Belgian city) without indulging in their national prides, beers and chocolates. Beer lovers can head over to De Stoepa, an almost secret bar and bistro at Oostmeers street. Have a mug of Duvel at the backyard garden during the summer but best to bring your friends on a cozy autumn evening.
For lunch or high tea, you can try the Meridian where I had a an indulgent afternoon meal of Brussels waffles and espresso. There are a lot of restaurants serving international cuisine in Bruges but since you are in the Flanders part of the country, sample a serving of rabbit dish or other meaty Flemish meals.
If you somehow ends up in a small square where they have those restaurants and walked into a restaurant called Aquarel avoid ordering their roasted chicken if you don’t want to feel that you got ripped-off. For chocolates, the best place to go to is Chocolatier Dumon, one of the oldest chocolate houses in the city. They have three stores in Bruges, in Eiermarkt, Walplein and the original atelier and store is located in Torhout.
Bruges, being a popular tourist spot, does not have a shortage of hotels and inns that are up to your budget, from budget hotels to five-star and even a castle. For a budget traveller like myself, I would recommend Hotel Keizershof, Brugge because of its affordability and homey ambiance. A double room, with two single beds only cost €44 but that’s with a communal bath and toilet. They also have rooms with their own toilet and bath.
But if you are looking for comfort, luxury and a little bit of Hollywood fame, book yourself a room at Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel. This is the “dingy-looking” hotel (at least in the movies) where Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson stayed while on a break from their criminal activities. A standard room costs €182-240 and a superior classic room ranges from €350-450. It’s located at the banks of the canal and for that price, you can wake up to a beautiful sunrise spreading over the medieval buildings of this beautiful city. You can also have a cup at the restaurant but that will already cost you €5.
And finally, if you want to make somebody feel like a genuine royalty, treat them to a room at Kasteel ten Berghe, a Gothic castle located just 3km away from Brugge. It might even be cheaper than Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel at 140,00 €/night and even cheaper if you are staying for more than three nights.
Bruges is a perfect city for a weekend travel. It is not very big and has everything you’d want to see in an old European city. There is no shortage of things to do and it is very much accessible by public transport especially by train. It’s also ideal for couples who have kids because there are parks where children can play, have fun and learn about history. However be aware that there might be another 7.8 million people who also wants to see Bruges as you do.