By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
From the look of the crowds on the streets, it appears everyone has fallen in love with Bruges. And I visited in early April when there were fewer people visiting.
But that’s about the only negative thing you might be able to say about such a beautifully-preserved medieval city. It’s truly a must-see on any tour of Flanders, and you could easily spend several days visiting its wonders.
If Disney could have laid claim to Bruges, he would have: it’s that charming.
Bruges is easily walkable, but beware the cobblestone walks—make sure you have good walking shoes. Also, plenty of horse and buggies are for hire, or you can take a boat tour of the city or ride in a mini-bus.
The whole of the city center is a historical landmark, designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and so it should be. It’s hard not to become enamored with Bruges, its twisting streets and alleyways, its network of canals, and its charm. It’s a complicated network of narrow passageways, brick buildings and waterways, but that’s what makes this city so fascinating. You’ll love it.
VISIT THE BEGUINAGE
In most cases, you’ll cross Minnewater Bridge to enter the Beguinage, founded in 1245. Now populated by nuns from the Order of Saint Benedict, you’ll see the beautiful courtyard garden, where yellow daffodils pop up in spring, the whitewashed house fronts that line the Beguinage, and the peaceful beauty of the area. A posted sign even asks visitors to be quiet and be beware of their surroundings.
In case of war—or fire, or anything—the belfry was where it was first noticed. The marketplace is still dominated by this high tower, and it looks out onto the bustling plaza where life comes together in Bruges. You can climb to the top of the belfry (it will cost you 366 steps), and get a good view of the town as well as the two statues in the square, one of Jan Breydel and one of Pieter de Conick, both heroes who resisted the French in 1302.
The Stadsschouwburg is the royal theater building dating from 1869 and is said to be Europe’s best preserved city theater. Behind the Gothic revival architecture is a palatial auditorium and an elegant foyer.
The Little Bear of Bruges, located in a niche in the Burghers Lodge at Poortersloge, a 15th century private club building, is an important city symbol. I tried finding it, to no avail, but perhaps you’ll have better luck. It’s worth a photograph.
Kempinski Dukes’ Palace, at Prinsenhof 8, now an excellent five-star luxury hotel, was a former 15th century Dukes of Burgundy castle, and features 93 rooms, including 22 palatial suites, of which six are historically listed. Each room contains original features from 1429, but they have been completely modernized with elegant furnishings and marble bathrooms, and the hotel offers the latest technology such as flat screen television and high speed internet. Even just a look from the outside at this hotel is impressive; it’s located at the end of a short street, and is easy to miss.
LAST REMAINING BREWERY
Bruges’ last remaining city brewery is De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), established in 1546; their specialty beer is called Brugse Zot, which refers to the nickname of the townspeople, conferred upon them by Maximilian of Austria. You can take a 45-minute tour of the brewery and museum; cost is 5.50 euros.
Churches are abundant and worthy of a look. There’s the Beguinage Church, the Episcopal Palace, the English Convent, Basilica of the Holy Blood, Church of the Holy Magdalena, the Military Chapel, Church of our Lady of the Pottery, and the Welcome Church of Our Lady (see the art collection inside including Michelangelo’s famous Madonna and Child, and the 15th and 16 century mausoleums of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold). Saint James’ Church benefited from the Dukes of Burgundy and the many foreign merchants, and their gifts have left their glittering marks on the interior of this church. A guidebook, which you can pick up at the local tourism office in town or at the Bruges railway station, will sort out these churches and other points of interest for you. www.brugge.be/tourism
The Frietmuseum is all about the Belgian potato fry, located in the Saaihalle. Here you’ll learn all about the history of potatoes, and fries, and the condiments which are served with them. Kids will especially enjoy the fun things this museum offers, and you can even taste fries in the cellar of this medieval 14th century building.
WHAT ABOUT CHOCOLATE?
Belgian chocolates, and their history, are served up in good measure at the Chocolate Museum, a four-story compilation of everything chocolate. The museum explains chocolate started with the Mayans and Aztec civilizations in pre-Colombian Central America, and after adding sugar, was imported to Europe around 1500 AD. Chocolate as we know it became popular around 1800, and as they say, the rest is history. The museum is a must-see in Bruges at Wijnzakstraat 2.
To taste more fine Belgian chocolate, you’ll want to check out The Chocolate Line at Simon Stevinplein 19. Master chocolatier Dominique Persoone, one of the owners, is a dynamic chef with advanced ideas on the making and blending of chocolates and other flavors. Chef Persoone blends chocolate with such tastes as cigars, fried onions and passion fruit. His shop is one of only three chocolate shops listed in the Michelin Guide, and the shop’s customers include such top-notch restaurants as Comme Chez Soi, Oud Sluis and Hof van Cleve. He even has a new book out where he travels through Mexico in search of the origins of cocoa, visiting Maya settlements and discovering the secret of the first chocolate drink and today’s Pozol. If you happen to get to meet Dominique, you will enjoy his demeanor and his chocolates.
Bruges is also known for its many guild halls, which are scattered throughout the town. Bruges Town Hall, built between 1376 and 1420, is one of the oldest in the Low Countries. A ceremonial staircase leads from the entrance hall to the first floor, where visitors can view the Gothic Chamber. This former council chamber continues to play an important part in the life of the city. The wooden, polychrome ceiling is decorated with a profusion of late-medieval carvings. The murals illustrating Bruges’ past were added during the chamber’s restoration in the late 19th century.
Where to stay? There are dozens of hotels, youth hostels, apartments and bed and breakfasts to choose from. The Bruges Tourist Office can supply a booklet listing these.
Bruges is colorful, inviting and lively, and the food and beer there is some of the best in Europe. You couldn’t find a better combination of history, fun and food. For more information, go to www.visitflanders.us or www.brugge.be