Bruges: not just a pretty place

On our second morning in Bruges I was surprised to hear my friend say that according to the guide book, we’d not yet been to one of the prettiest streets. We’d seen so many pretty streets, canals and squares the previous day it was hard to imagine there was better, though as it turned out there was.

IMG_2805Bruges really is as pretty as a picture which makes it hard not to take lots and lots of them, but there’s much more to the city that that. We were lucky to have mostly glorious weather to discover Bruges, but found there were also some pretty good indoor activities for when the rain came.

When the sun is shining the best way to see the city is definitely by boat and on foot. There are boat landing stages at various places in the centre where relaxing half hour trips drifing along the canals are on offer. Yes there will probably be a queue, but if you walk around the corner you’ll likely find a landing stage with a shorter one, though we didn’t wait long as the boats are so frequent.

IMG_3787Once you’ve done the introductory canal trip I’d really recommend a walking tour. I’m sure there are some guided ones available, but we prefer to do things at our own pace so followed one from the Bruges City Guide. It’s the official city guide, I think produced by the tourist office, but I bought it in advance on Amazon.

We followed walk 1, ‘Bruges, proud World Heritage City’ which took us on a leisurely exploration of the medieval city. At Bruges’ heart is The Markt, a large square where three sides are flanked by tall buildings with pointed gables and the fourth is mostly filled by the Belfort tower. It houses a treasure chamber and 366 steps to what I’m told is an impressive view – we decided it was a bit hot for that amount of climbing.

IMG_2763Nearby is Bruges’ other main square, The Burg, which we became quite familiar with as it always seemed to be on our route to and from the hotel, wherever we were going. There are some lovely buildings here, including the Basilica of the Holy Blood, named after a holy relic from the Middle Ages.  We assumed it was also a venue for outdoor concerts or events as there was tiered seating in place when we were there.

The walk also takes in the Vismarkt (fish market) where in the 1800s the rich bustled around to buy their fish from a covered arcade, while the poor were served around the corner in Huidenvettersplein. Ironically the latter is now lined with rather nice restaurants serving up good food, including fish, though not particularly cheaply – more of that later.

IMG_2784Also near to here (and where we picked up our boat tour) is Rozenhoedkaai, the most photographed spot in Bruges. It used to be a salt port when salt was as expensive as gold. Now its just a really gorgeous place to pause, lean on the wall and enjoy the view before adding a few more snaps to a growing total.

IMG_3801A real Bruges highlight that the walk also meanders to is The Begijnhof, a circle of whitewashed houses around a green, where a community of unmarried women and widows known as Beguines used to live. There was once begijnhofs all over the country but this is one of few that still exists. These days its inhabited by a mix of nuns and elderly ladies as well as occasionally being home to art projects, as is evidenced by the boxes in the trees below. Not entirely sure what they were all about but it we were told it was art!

IMG_2731Facing one of the gates of The Begijnhof is Minnewater, also known as the city”s ‘Lake of Love’. You can walk along the side of it to a footbridge that offers a nice view and crosses to Minnewaterpark if you’re craving more green space than you’ve seen so far.

But if you’re ready for lunch there are lots of cafes and restaurants in nearby Walplein and Wijaardstraat. We opted for the latter and had good omelettes with a glass of Rose sitting in the sun outside De Wijnhaert, before finishing the walk at the former hospital of Saint John, which now houses a museum and a slightly odd shopping arcade.

IMG_2751These are just a few of the highlights of the walk which is only 3km but can easily keep you occupied for several hours, particularly as there are plenty of interesting shops to stop off at along the way. The stores most in evidence are those selling chocolate, it seems like there’s one on every corner and in between too. Some stock high end luxury Belgian chocolates while others have a wider range of more affordable treats. Needless to say we stocked up.

On that note, an excellent activity when the weather isn’t so good is Choco-Story, the Bruges chocolate museum. On Sunday morning we knew the rain was coming so briefly popped up to the lovely Jan van Eyckplein square, just north of the Markt before finding that pretty street featured at the start of this post. It’s called Gouden-Handrei and is in the old Spanish merchants quarter.

IMG_2794Then just in time we escaped the rain at the chocolate museum and were very glad we did. Set over several floors it was surprisingly comprehensive and informative about the history of chocolate, dating back to its discovery by ancient tribes in the Americas as well as explaining how it came to Europe and became so important to Belgium. There’s also quite a few opportunities for tasting along the way, before finishing with a demonstration of truffle making and a visit to the rather nice little shop.

After a lazy lunch in the Markt, the rain was persisting, so our second indoor activity was a tour of the De Halve Maan brewery. As you’ll probably know Belgian beer is just about as famous as the chocolate and this is the only brewery still remaining in Bruges city centre.

IMG_3848I’m not much of a beer fan, but I found the tour of this historic family business really interesting and at the end I even managed to drink the included glass of Brugse Zot – and half of another as one friend couldn’t be persuaded to tackle hers.

IMG_3858Which brings me neatly to food, drink and accommodation in Bruges. There’s plenty of all three on offer but I’d highly recommend our hotel, The Flanders on Langestraat. It was really convenient, had a cool bar with outside seating and great cocktails, comfortable rooms, good breakfast and the nicest, most helpful staff I’ve come across in a while.

I hadn’t found it very easy to book restaurants in advance for Bruges, so when we arrived on Friday we were open to suggestions. The girls on reception recommended Gouden Karpel, one of a row of restaurants in Huidenvettersplein, and called to book us a table outside. Being in the fish market area, the specialty of the house was Waterzooi, probably the best fish stew I’ve ever tasted. It was 26 euros so not super cheap, but was stuffed with so much fish it was well worth it.

IMG_3771For a relatively small city there are quite a lot of high end and in some cases trendy restaurants in Bruges, but a fair few we looked at were closed. Apparently it was because it was the start of the school summer holidays and as I had a similar experience when trying to book for a New Year trip, I concluded that Belgians like their time off during holiday periods.

Luckily plenty of places were open and we had another lovely meal at Gruuthuse Hof in Mariastraat on Saturday evening and tapas on the terrace at Uilenspiegel on Langestraat on Sunday.

IMG_2698Places to drink were plentiful too. Winjbar Est is a great small wine bar in Braambergstraat, Punta Est has a big terrace on the canal just along from Uilenspiegel and L’Estaminet in Park serves what my friend said was the best gin and tonic she’s ever had. There was actually a three day music festival going on in the park opposite, so its also worth checking out the events calendar before you plan your visit. And of course we had to go somewhere to try more of the Belgian beer. De Garre is tucked down a tiny alley between the Markt and Burg and offers a huge range of beers, as well as other drinks if the local specialty doesn’t appeal.

Though I think it’s unlikely you’ll find much about Bruges that doesn’t appeal. Only 90 minutes drive from Calais it’s perfect for a short break from the UK via the Eurotunnel or ferry. Or you can fly or get the train to Brussels and then a train from there. Though if you do drive you can do as we did and stop off at a Belgian beach on the way home, but that’ll be the subject of another, albeit much shorter, blog post coming soon.

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