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Travel: Bruges

LONG thought of as a Sleeping Beauty reawakened, Bruges is an unspoiled late medieval fairytale made up of tangled streets, narrow canals, handsome squares and charming old gabled houses.

Unfortunately the secret got out many years ago—tourism has long been the principal industry here – encouraging a constant crush of admirers, but the preservation orders and bylaws very strictly ensure that the centre maintains its ancient allure.

Brussels may be the bustling gateway capital thirty miles away, but Bruges was once the artistic and commercial hub of the whole European continent, controlling the rates of exchange until its fortunes declined around 1490, when the Zwyn River linking it to the North Sea silted up.

Despite attempts to build another canal, the city’s economic lifeline was gone. When the headquarters of the Hanseatic League moved from Bruges to Antwerp at the end of the 15th century, many merchants followed, leaving abandoned houses, deserted streets and empty canals. Bruges, a former hub of Europe, slept for 400 years.

The loss of Bruges’ status as marketplace of Europe is posterity’s gain. Picturesque cobbled lanes and dreamy canals link exceptionally photogenic market squares lined with soaring towers, historic churches and old whitewashed almshouses. It is like Amsterdam, but smaller and less cosmopolitan. Everything is contained within the embrace of the encircling canal and the old gates that once defended the city. A car is a liability; Bruges is a place for walking or cycling. The centre of the wide main square, the Burg, is a corral for thousands of stacked bicycles.

The Market Square is dominated by a graceful bell tower, soaring above the covered market. Both have been there since the 1300’s. Bruges is a city of bells. Their syncopated, plangent clangour spills out every quarter of an hour, and after the first thrill you come to expect it; there seems to be a hole in the air just before each carillon is due, which only that wild sound can fill.

Bruges is not, however, a wild town. It is in West Flanders, which is Flemish-speaking. The people are solid and sensible-looking. They are dedicated beer drinkers. Yet this is a spiritual city, and the art it produced in its heyday is exquisite. Bruges is full of contradictions. It is characteristic that its artisans discovered both the technique of oil painting and the best way to preserve herring.

The holy and the gross, the tender and the brutal, coexist here naturally. This part of Belgium, for all its northern phlegm, is fiercely Roman Catholic. In the 15th-century, Basilica of the Holy Blood was Bruges’s greatest treasure, concealed within a gold and silver reliquary. In medieval days the congealed fluid, in its cylindrical flask, was said to liquefy and boil every Good Friday, and for centuries pilgrims have come to venerate what they believe to be Christ’s blood. This sacred relic is brought out for veneration still, and on Ascension Day is carried in procession through the city.

Like Venice, Bruges is a city of canals. Its name in Flemish, Brugge, means bridge. But it is wrong to call it, as almost everyone does, the Venice of the North. Canals alone do not make Venice and the comparison diminishes Bruges. While Venice is a lateral waterscape of pale dreamy tones, Bruges is vertical and verdant, built in warm brick and of the earth. Another thing the cities have in common, of course, is an extraordinary artistic heritage; that of Bruges is the more powerful, perhaps, because Hans Memling and Jan van Eyck are less familiar to most of us than Titian and Tintoretto.

The less nostalgic may accuse the West Flanders capital of a certain dull brand of tranquility, with sleepy swans gliding alongside cobblestone lanes consumed with ubiquitous lace shops and quiet cafes.

But Bruges has much more to offer than striking preservation. Its stint as European City of Culture in 2002 proved that it’s more than just a medieval showpiece. A daring red concert hall, the Concertgebouw, was built to celebrate the event, and contemporary came to the historic centre in the form of the Toyo Ito pavilion.

Ambitious restaurants are run by talented young chefs and creative chocolatiers stock experimental creations along with the traditional. New and renovated museums are opening their doors and, after dark, local beer pubs offer mind-boggling selections of rare Belgian beers from the region’s celebrated breweries.

Markets

Start the day as the locals do, at the street market on ‘t Zand square. During winter, traditional stalls sell anything from Christmas handmade gifts to Flemish brews, hot chocolate, pastries and multi-coloured gloves, scarves and hats. It is tradition to enjoy a fresh, hot waffle and mulled wine as you wander around the stalls or take a twirl on the man-made ice rink in the centre of the Market Square. For foodies looking to skip the bric-a-brac and skates, head to the northern end of the square to shop for Belgian cheeses, smoked herring and freshly baked loaves of raisin-and-nut bread. During the summer, check out the weekend flea market along the Dijver canal, considered to be one of Europe’s best offering an incredible wealth of antiques, art deco objects, old books and plain old interesting junk.

Walking in Wonderland

Bruges’s succession of visual treasures are concentrated in such a small area that it is entirely possible to arrive by train, spend a day or two walking around the city, and never have any need for a car.

To see the prettiest parts of this medieval wonderland, wander along the Dijver canal, which snakes through town, making sure to end your stroll at Markt, the main square dominated by a 13th-century belfry. The energetic can spiral up the bell tower’s lung-busting 366 steps for a view over the city, but first exercise the panoramic capability on your camera at ground level: the neo-Gothic courthouse, the belfry itself and the quaint gabled buildings ringing the square.

When your feet give out, there are horse-drawn carriages, tour buses and, of course, the canal boats. From May through September everything is illuminated until midnight, including the canals, so it is possible to see a great deal in a relatively short time.

Primitive Painters

Take your time to admire paintings by the Flemish Primitives, a group of influential artists who flourished in the city in the 15th century including Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo Van der Goes, Gerard David, Roger Van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Hieronymus Bosch, and a score of minor masters. Van Eyck, credited as the inventor of oil painting, is the master of optical realism, whether he is painting his thin-lipped wife with her cruelly complicated coiffure, or the dead Jesus.

Start at the Memling in Sint-Jan Hospitaal Museum (Mariastraat 38; 32-50-44-87-71; museabrugge.be), where six captivating works by Hans Memling adorn a small chapel. Then cross the canal to the Groeninge Museum (Dijver 12; 32-50-44-87-51; museabrugge.be), which reopened in 2011 after major renovations. Studying the stunning realism of Jan van Eyck’s “Madonna With Canon Joris van der Paele” in person is worth the price of admission (8 euros) alone.

Chocolate

With the ludicrously high concentration of chocolate shops in town, it may seem as if every other storefront is peddling piles of pralines and trays of truffles. When succumbing to this temptation, seek out Bruges’s most innovative spots like Dominique Persoone’s shop, the Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein 19; 32-50-34-10-90; thechocolateline.be), packed with creative confections and fanciful flavour combinations like bitter ganache with vodka, passion fruit and lime. At the newcomer BbyB (Sint-Amandsstraat 39; 32-50-70-57-60; bbyb.be), however, the emphasis is on taste without tricks. Opened in October 2010, the sleek, all-white store is stocked with simple bars of fine Belgian chocolate wrapped in Pantone-style numbered boxes; try No. 15 with milk chocolate, hazelnut and babelutte (a regional caramel-like candy) or No. 50 with dark chocolate, tonka beans and lemon.

Beer

No other country boasts a beer brewing tradition more richly diverse than Belgium. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, yet each one is served in its own glass, uniquely embossed and specially shaped to enhance the taste and aroma. Standard Belgian lagers are world class exports, but what really gets connoisseurs excited are the ‘angels and demons’ – big bold brews that often derive from old monastery recipes and compete for outlandish names (Duvel, which means devil; Forbidden Fruit; Judas). The most famous of all, the six Trappist beers, are still brewed in active abbeys. Widely considered the epitome of the Belgian beer experience, these brews come in varying colours and strengths, but all are rich, smooth and intriguingly complex. Mythic Westvleteren consistently tops the list with Orval, Rochefort 10 and Westmalle Triple just behind.

Established in 1564 and source of the famous Straffe Hendrick beer, a tour of Brewery De Halve Maan, Brugge Walplein 26, 8000 Brugge, showcases the process involved in brewing a premium Belgian beer.  Legend has it the name of the main beer, Bruges Zot, came from a visit of Maximilian of Austria to the town, when the people of Bruges organised a colourful parade of merrymakers and fools. When they asked him at the end of the day to provide money for a new madhouse he replied: “Today I have seen nothing but fools. Bruges is already one large madhouse.” Since then the Bruges residents are called “Bruges Zotten” (Fools of Bruges).

Once you’ve had your fill of fools, head to ‘t Brugs Beertje, Kemelstraat 5, B-8000 Brugge, a beerhouse institution with over 300 specialities on offer and where the real spirit of beer is celebrated by both locals and tourists.

Wine

Beer may be the national drink in Belgium, but wine is not neglected. There is no shortage of good Bordeaux and the Burgundy lists in the better Bruges restaurants are just too hard to resist. Est Wijnbarest, Braambergstraat 7, 8000 Brugge, is an attractive little wine bar – the building dates back to 1637 –  and an especially lively spot on Sunday nights, when you can catch live jazz and blues from 8.30pm. It’s also a pleasantly informal supper spot, with raclette, pasta, snacks and salads on the menu, and tasty desserts.

Dine

Belgium may be world famous for its calorific caramelised waffles and mayonnaise smothered frites, but it is also an understated gastronome’s paradise with one of the highest densities of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. The French influence is paramount, in Bruges as it is in Brussels. Not surprisingly, then, the nouvelle cuisine is much in evidence at the better places.

If you can snag a table in the minimalist dining room at Hertog Jan, Torhoutsesteenweg 479, expect a stunning selection of simplistic plates, ranging from thin slices of Jerusalem artichoke and tiny dollops of herring eggs to luscious Limousin lamb served candied with turnips and lemon myrtle. The restaurant was recently awarded a third Michelin star, becoming only the third restaurant in the country to earn this honour. The five-course set menu is €115, excluding drinks.

Gruuthuse Hof , Mariastraat 36, 8000 Brugge is one of the oldest restaurants in Bruges, serving traditional dishes and generous portions to locals and tourists since 1751, tucked away at the historic central crossroads between Gruuthuse Museum and Steenstraat. Try the grey shrimps salad or rich North Sea bouillabaisse followed by Belgium’s classic sole meunière soaked in rich brown parsley butter before finishing with a warm apple pie flamed with calvados. The three-course set menu is €30, excluding drinks.

The rustic atmosphere and modern style keep Restaurant De Stove, Kleine St. Amandsstraat 4, 8000 Brugge, an intimate favourite with locals. Fish caught daily is the house speciality and the hearty Flemish fish stew combines tradition with some of their best served up in the comfort of a warming cauldron. The shrimp croquettes make an ideal overstuffed appetiser or the salmon tartare with huge, tender scallops provides an equally satisfying warm-up. Everything from the bread to the ice cream is homemade and despite perennially rave reviews, this calm, one-room family restaurant remains friendly, reliable and inventive. The five-course set menu is €48, excluding drinks.

Stay

There are dozens of hotels to choose from in Bruges covering every kind of budget.

Hotel Fevery Collaert Mansionstraat 3, 8000 Brugge is a small, family-run hotel set in Bruges, a 10-minute walk from the centrally located Market Square and the Belfry. Rewarded with a European Eco label for environmentally friendly hotels, it offers free WiFi and bicycle rental services. Doubles start from €69 per night.

Hotel Duke’s Palace Prinsenhof 8, 8000 Bruges is the former residence of the Burgundian aristocracy and perfectly located only 280 metres from the Markt. The 110 rooms, of which 18 suites and 5 family rooms, are all unique and combine contemporary comfort with authentic 15th century elegance including carefully restored frescoes and wall and ceiling ornaments. The lively hotel breakfast includes slabs of chocolate decadence nestled between buckets of champagne for an indulgent kick-start to your day and the beautifully lit building adds a majestic end to the evening. The new wellness centre has a sauna, hammam, infrared cabin, fitness room and spa offering a range of holistic treatments. Suites start at €385.00 per night.

Get There

Avoid the airport hustle and slip into this beguiling Flemish capital in just 3h30 from St Pancras International via Brussels or with one slick change at any Belgian station including Antwerp, Ghent and stations along the Belgian Coast. Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels Midi and from there passengers use their any Belgian station ticket to connect on to local services to their final destination. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 2hrs. Eurostar prices start at £79 return and are available from  http://www.eurostar.com/uk-en/eurostar-deals/eurostar-train-deals/trains-belgium/trains-bruges

For further information on Bruges, visit Tourism Flanders-Brussels