It can’t be Bruges imitating Disney. That’s the truth, simply based on the fact that Bruges exists some 500 (plus) years by now.
It’s a picture perfect town, one that seems to have popped-out from a child’s pop-up fairytale book with sparkles that comes along with it and an imaginary twinkling sound in your head.
It somehow has (in my humble opinion) the most even cobbled street that doesn’t try to twist your ankle at every other step you take forward or sideways or backwards (in case you wanted to fit everything into your camera’s view finder or had one too many drinks).
It’s steep-roofed medieval houses does not have roof tiles that threatens to go for your throat should the wind blows, sending down a pitch fork like aerial or an out of place satellite dish crashing.
Heck, there is nothing out of place in Bruges – even if every even store in the market square sells hand-spun lace, and every odd store sold chocolates … it’s truly pretty with no other city who has aged that well or is better favoured for 200 years, until it was decided that the silting River Zwyn was best abandoned.
But there are TWO PROBLEMS with Bruges.
The first problem with Bruges is it has one of the most appalling sounding name when pronounced out loud: “brooguh“
For the life of me, I can’t quite phantom why anyone would call it so … or why anyone did not bother to change it, given that cities and even countries around the world have gone through modernisation and changes to remain relevant and contemporary.
And when you have two Irish (hit-men) calling it repeatedly … “brooguh” just sounds vulgar. Lucky me, I like Colin Farrel. And by that I mean I am nuts over Colin Farrel (let’s not get me started) and would watch his movie even if he was a featured as a ferret. So, the somewhat dark, oppressive, violent and cynical In Bruges really didn’t spoil it for me, but it did get me thinking deeply about my personal experience in Bruges.
Let’s just say, Bruges is best left for a 1-1/2 day (2 days max)-1 night trip. Any more (particularly if you are a restless cynic like me), you’ll plunge into depression and have suicidal tendencies from an overdose of ‘sweet, nice, perfect manicured Bruges’.
It’s just 30 miles from Brussels and is easily accessible by train. From Brussel-Zuid (a.k.a. Bruxelles-Midi if you prefer French to Flemish), it’s a smooth 50 minutes ride to the fringe of the city. (** Not to be confused, Bruges does not have a terminus of it’s own, so head for either Oostende or Blankenberge.)
A night stay is recommended purely to allow yourself the opportunity to view the reflection of lights on the canals that creates an illusion of a floating fairyland …
See, Bruges is just about a right size for a city to contain interesting bookshops and some off the track type restaurant joints. In terms of places of interests, there’s:
(1) the Groeninge Museum ( ‘The city museum of Fine Arts’),
(2) the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilige Bloed Basiliek) with it’s lovely Romanesque-styled chapel that contrast the light Gothic feel of the overall Basilica above ground level,
(3) the Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk with one of the few Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy – the “Madonna with child”, and
(4) my all time favourite – The Begijnhof – a convent with white painted small houses and fine plane trees surrounding it. Visited at the right time of the year, you’d be walking through a sea of daffodils. Visited at the right time of the day, you’ll see nuns hustling around in their full robes and reciting their Hail Mary’s in the church.
Since the streets and market place can be circled twice, yes two times, in a day with places of interest above completed leisurely and the lace-chocolate-lace-chocolate-lace window shopping done with a good measure of coffee breaks thrown in between, the 83 meters high 366-steps Grote Markt and Belfry Climb at the Grote Markt (the big square) is worth more than some calories burn.
If the view of the city is not stunning enough from the Belfry Climb effort, the elevation gives you first hand experience of what it feels to be Brendan Gleeson as he plunged down with Ralph Fiennes hot on his heels.
However, if you’re an epicurean, there are a few places that will get you into the same mood as Pavlov’s dog;
Brewery De Halve Maan, Walplein 26, ☎ +31 50 332-697 | Apr-Oct M-Sa 11:00-16:00, Su 11:00-17:00
This brewery annex beer museum offers a tour of the beer making process. A history of the brewery is provided, as well as an overview of the city from its tower. The tour lasts for 45 minutes and is a good way to get a feel for Belgian beer making. The tours start at the exact turn of the hour, be at least fifteen minutes early as there is a maximum amount of people that can join. The entrance price includes one drink of Brugse Zot or Straffe Hendrik and is served after the tour at the outside terrace or indoor bar. €7.00 including 1 beer
Choco-Story Museum, Wijnzakstraat 2 (Sint-Jansplein), ☎ 050/61.22.37 | 10AM-5PM
This museum, on several floors of a period house, describes chocolate’s transition from cocoa into chocolate. It is run by the Belgian chocolate manufacturer Belcolade. Stay for the chocolate making exhibition to get some excellent samples. €6 with Bruges card / €7.
The Friet Museum, Vlamingstraat (opposite Academiestraat), ☎ +32 50 34 01 50 | 10AM-5PM
Check out the world’s only frites (fries or chips) museum which tells the story of the humble potato from South America and how it has evolved into a fry. Don’t forget to try the tastiest fries cooked by the guy who cooked for the Belgian Royal Family. 6 € : adult 5 € : group (from 15 people, reservation required) 5 € : students, 65+ 4 € : children from 6 to 11 years.
OK. I lied on the last one, but it’s really good fun little peeps observing, and if you have some little peeps of your own, it’s great amusement for them.
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But in all, that’s about all Bruges has to offer to a tourist.
As for a local, all the walkways of overgrown nasturtium, pots bursting with geraniums, cozy and homely pubs does not make up for the fact that 8 out of 12 months Bruges is swamped by Germans and Japanese gawking at their ‘perfect’ streets and trespassing their homes to pose in their lawns or take a peek at their kitchen in wonderment if Bruges-es (people who lives in Bruges – I just made this term up) actually eat chocolate and drink beer only. And hence, the second problem with Bruges as a place teemed with strangers is enough to convince me this place is seriously not ‘real’ in the real sense.
But contrary to believe, Bruges-es do not go into a reverberating cultural and architectural shock when they step foot at Brussels. I suspect the relieve of being away from 8 strangers around you at any one time is enough to make concrete-steel-grey Brussels a heaven.