Bruges: Chocolates and sweet nothings
The Belfry in the market square. The spectacular medieval bell tower dominates the historic centre
It’s fun to go off the beaten track sometimes, but if all you want is a brief, indulgent break, then the delightful city of Bruges will release your inner lip-smacking, camera-swinging, beer-swilling, sightseeing, chip-guzzling, chocoholic tourist.
Bruges is home to just 20,000 people, yet more than three million tourists visit each year. July and August are the favoured months, but in May and June or September and October when the weather is temperate you can still enjoy that tourist vibe, and walking around this compact city will be more a saunter than a day at the dodgems.
Known locally as the Egg, because it is confined within a series of canals giving it an oval shape, Bruges is far more appealing than the dark comedy, In Bruges, suggests. Traditionally, lovers come here to rekindle their passions. It may be the maze of canals that flow beneath flower-decked, arched stone bridges or the quaint cobbled streets of gabled roofed houses that overlook them. Whatever the reason, this ancient city — just a short hop across the Channel from Dover to Calais and an easy 90-minute drive — exudes romance from every nook and cranny.
Once there ditch the car (there’s an underground car park at Market Square), and take a 20-minute canal boat trip for an orientation tour.
Alternatively, just relax in one of the al fresco cafés that edge Market Square and enjoy the hypnotic clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the quarter-hour chimes of the belfry as it plays Green Sleeves. If you have the energy, climb the tower’s 366 steps to see the bells and enjoy the views.
There’s nowhere to sit in nearby Burg Square, but it does have the city’s most striking architecture. A flamboyant Gothic town hall with lacy white stonework nestles next to the old Public Record Office built in Renaissance style, and beyond it, is the neo-classical former Court of Justice and the mystical looking Gothic/Renaissance Steeghere, whose porched entrance leads to the Basilica of the Holy Blood.
Tha Basilica’s wooden door is modest but it opens on to a vast, complex Basilica. Lighting is moodily dim save the flickering candles, but it’s an apt ambience for its most precious relic — a phial, obtained in Jerusalem, said to contain drops of Jesus’s blood.
If you crave a little culture, pop into the Groeninge art museum (12 Dijver) the best Bruges has to offer. Inside is an impressive display of Flemish art from the 15th century onwards. Alternatively, the nearby Gruuthusemuseum, (17 Dijver) a former medieval merchant’s house, has an interesting collection of tapestries and musical instruments.
Beer drinking is part of the social fabric of Belgium life and so it would be churlish not to visit Bruges’ last remaining working brewery, De Halve Maan (at Walplein 26; www.halvemaan.be) where an entertaining 45-minute tour (5.5 E; £5) ends with a glass of the house beer.
The bar extends into a vibrant al fresco beer garden, made all the better when you find out that at two euros a glass, this is the cheapest place in town to guzzle this hoppy nectar. You’ll find the brewery beside a canal and next to the lovely Begijnhof, a 760-year-old nunnery whose gardens you can loiter in.
You could also visit one of Bruges’ most popular beer bars, Brugs Beertje (Kemelstraat 5; www.brugsbeertje.be). There are over 300 beers including sickly sweet fruit beers and a selection from small Flemish breweries such as De Ranke XX Bitter or De Dolle’s strong, blond Arabier.
But let’s face it, most of us would not be here for the beer, but for the sublime Belgian chocolates. Within walking distance of the centre, there are a staggering 40 chocolateries with enticing shop windows choc-full of pralines, figurines, sweets and slabs.
Two that I particularly enjoyed were Dumon (Simon Stevinplein 11 www.chocolatierdumon.be) that has a small café where you can enjoy a glass of dark or white hot chocolate, and the Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein) where chocolate is not only for eating and drinking, its for inhaling too. It is quite a buzz.
If you still have the stomach, then the Chocolate Museum, (Wijnzakstraat, www.choco-story.be) offers a historical overview of this much-loved confection from its Mayan origins, to the Spanish conquistadores to the chocolate connoisseurs of today.
Displays show utensils and imagery with narrative in English. The tour ends at the chocolate factory with a demonstration and samples to taste. To get there you pass a variety of ornate chocolate statues including an imposing larger-than-life chocolate statue of the US President, Barak Obama.
There is a chip museum but I would miss that in favour of buying the real things at a friterie. This is true Belgian street food, made with Mirabelle potatoes served in a cardboard carton, wooden fork and a dollop of mayo or ketchup to taste.
You can get any type of cuisine in Bruges but for a superb feast of Flemish food make a bee line for De Vlaamash Pot (the Flemish Pot) at Helmstraat 3-5. Plush red walls, ornate chairs, gold trimmings and chandeliers set the scene. Cheese croquettes, asparagus in a sublime butter and egg sauce, and my personal favourite waterzoi a dish of various white fish such as cod and soul served together in a creamy soup, are all on the menu.
A word of warning though: Bruges is all about indulgence, so ditch the diet and prepare to dapple with debauchery, otherwise you will feel that you are missing out.
Bruges is just 90 minutes drive from Calais. We travelled with P&O Ferries who offer 24 daily crossings Dover - Calais from £30 return for a car and up to 9 passengers. See www.poferries.com For further information on Bruges: www.visitflanders.co.uk or call Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738.