The first time I stumbled on Bruges, I’d been driving across Europe for many hours and simply needed to stop somewhere for a break. My eyes were bleary. I was struggling to concentrate on the road. I spotted a big car park on the edge of an unfamiliar town in western Belgium. I just wanted a short stroll and to pick up something quick to eat. But what I discovered was an extraordinary town that had seemingly dropped from the pages of a gothic fairy tale into the middle of the flat Flemish marshland. Bruges looks like it was designed by Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.
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It’s full of ancient buildings with impossibly ornate facades that appear as if Hansel & Gretel used to live there. In immaculate cobbled streets and squares I saw lavishly decorated churches and landmarks round every corner. I half expected to see the Pied Piper of Hamelin skipping down the street at any moment. And all the while I was crossing one of scores of pretty historic bridges over the tangled network of neat canals between overhanging houses. Was that the Tin Soldier sailing past in a paper boat?
I walked across the compact city centre with a paper cone of Belgian chips and mayonnaise, eyes wide with amazement. Bruges looks like a film set, or the picture on the top of a tin of biscuits. When I got back to my car and drove off into the night I was wondering whether I’d dreamt the whole thing.
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The next October I went back to check. Is Bruges real? Surely my memories were exaggerated. If anything, my autumn visit was even more spectacular. I couldn’t stop taking photos. I can still remember how my feet crunched brown leaves on the shiny wet cobbles and the vivid red, orange, and yellow of the autumnal trees reflected in the canals. This time the weather wasn’t so good but somehow the medieval alleyways, church spires and turrets seem even more romantic in the morning mist and fading afternoon light.
If you fancy trying it for yourself, you’ll find that Bruges is a doddle to get to. It’s near all the major motorways, airports and channel ferry ports. But once you get there, traffic is discouraged. Instead it’s easy to park in big, cheap car parks on the edge of town, like the one next to the station. There are free buses into town but don’t bother, it only takes a few minutes to walk.
In fact, it’s easy to walk everywhere. You’re much more likely to unearth hidden gardens and secret stretches of canals if you’re on foot. Alternatively, Bruges and its surroundings are so flat that cycling is easy. Even I could do it. There are plenty of places to hire bikes and plenty of cycle trails to follow. I cycled five miles along a canal to Damme – an unspoilt medieval village famous for its second-hand bookshops. If that’s too energetic, you can relax on a canal cruise or tour by horse-drawn carriage.
For me Bruges is all about the atmosphere but if you’re looking for special sights there are plenty. When I looked at the online guides, every building seemed to be historically important.
Start in the bustling Market Square. It is lined by intact medieval architecture, including the 13th-century cloth-workers hall and its bell tower. Fans of the 2008 film ‘In Bruges’ will remember this spot. If you’ve seen the film I’ll understand why you wouldn’t want to climb to the top, but seriously, there is a great view. Up in the tower you’ll get a close encounter with the municipal ‘carillion’ of 47 bells. The council’s full-time bell-ringer regularly puts on free ‘concerts’ heard across the whole town.
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Stroll a few yards into the next plaza. Burg Square is dominated by its beautiful 14th century gothic City Hall. Nearby, the 900 year old St John’s Hospital displays some of local Renaissance painter Hans Memling’s greatest works and alongside is the medieval Church of Notre Dame, whose 122m brick spire is Europe’s highest brick building. Inside are the tombs of Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Michelangelo’s statue of The Virgin.
See what I mean about the sheer amount of history here? You’ll soon realise that Bruges was the cradle of Flemish art during the northern Renaissance. Works of master painters like Jan van Eyck and Gerard David are dotted around Bruges’ churches, public buildings, and museums. I thought that the Groeninge Art Museum has the best collection.
As I settled into the fact that Bruges does really exist and isn’t part of a Disney cartoon, I found it’s actually a busy regional centre with stylish boutiques and interesting antique and craft shops. Anything modern and unsightly, like supermarkets however, is situated outside the city.
Wandering those old streets you can look out for cheesy local souvenirs like hand-made lace and chocolates. There are markets almost every day somewhere in the city. The best are the weekend flea markets.
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The locals joke about Bruges’ non-existent nightlife. Admittedly, it’s pretty quiet considering how lively it is by day. Visitors take a stroll by the canal or evening boat trip. But ask around and you’ll find there are regular concerts and live shows – particularly at the city’s new concert hall, the arts centre and some of the livelier bars.
Amid the standard chips and burgers, check menus for Flemish delicacies like ‘hochepot’ (duck or rabbit stew) and ‘waterzooi’ (fish or chicken soup). There are many local desserts too – and most of them involve some version of local chocolate.
On my first visit I just ate chips. On my second, I made up for that by feasting at every opportunity. You’ll find teahouses, bars, cafes and restaurants everywhere. I’ve never seen so many places to eat. In fact, as I sat in one Bruges square I started counting. I almost choked on my chocolate when I realised that I was a sitting among 23 different cafes side-by-side.
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