Since I was little I’ve always been fascinated with Europe and dreamed of visiting countries like France and Italy, but for some reason, never Belgium or Germany. Silly, silly me. There are some amazing destinations there that are as captivating as Paris and Florence, and one of them is the medieval city and UNESCO World Heritage Site made more famous by Colin Farrell – Bruges. As good as the film was, you should definitely ignore Ray when he refers to Bruges as hell. This is a summary of our day out in the “Venice of the North” on our pre-Easter European road trip.
After arriving by ferry in Dunkirk, it’s only an hour’s drive to Bruges. Parking at the P Centrum-Station is only €3.50 for the whole day, plus there’s are free buses to the city centre if you’re parked there. Not all the buses are free, so check at the info booth by the bus stop for the exact lines.
A bonus of medieval cities is that many are compact enough to get around on foot. For the romantic, there are 30-minute horse-drawn carriage rides complete with coachman commentary, although the smell might kill the romance and a ride will set you back €39.00. We were content with walking.
Although it was the first day of spring, it was still freezing. (Back in the Midlands, we heard there was some serious snow at knee level.) The only choice was to man up and wrap up warm – hurray for thermals! We got off at Markt, the market square where you’ll find the Belfort (belfry) that was famously featured in the Colin Farrell dark comedy, In Bruges. More about that later; first thing’s first – breakfast.
Seeing the sights
Run by a kind-faced older man and his very blond son, Humpty Dumpty at Sint-Amandstraat 35 is a delightful place serving up waffles, crêpes and even non-breakfasty treats. But you can’t go to Belgium and not have waffles, can you?
The crêpes that come with the set menu (pancakes and a drink for €4.00) come with powdered sugar and are rather plain. I kind of wish I had tried the Bruges coffee, whatever it was. After breakfast, we stopped by The Chocolate Line at Simon Stevinplein to check out the expensive chocolates I’d read about.
A pick-and-mix bag was our best chance of sampling the goodies without breaking the bank. Our half dozen selection contained bacon bits, cannabis, and lemongrass. The bacon variant was pleasantly mild: salty not meaty, with a crunchy texture. Call me old-fashioned, my favourite was the praline with traditional Bruges biscuits.
Our next stop was one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, the Belfry. Although we were all fuelled up, we didn’t climb the 366 steps of the 83 metre-high tower. Our excuse? A tight schedule, overcast skies and we’d seen the view thanks to In Bruges. You can hear the 47 silver-toned bells ringing perfectly fine from the ground.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll notice a few differences, such as the entrance doorway and the placement of the ticket booth. There is no man at the counter to deny you entry for coming up short with the fee, or to assure you that he loves his job.
From the Markt, the Burg square is a very short walk to the east. There you’ll find the Stadhuis (city hall), one of the oldest town halls in the Netherlands and a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. To the right corner is the Basilica of the Holy Blood that houses the blood of Christ. From what I’ve read it’s quite a mishmash of architecture styles having had a facelift as many times as a Hollywood celebrity – the original façade was late Gothic and Renaissance; the lower Basilius chapel is a Romanesque structure that has remain unchanged, whilst the upper chapel built in the Gothic style was renovated several times in the Gothic Revival style. Phew.
Entrance to the church is free but a donation is expected if you plan on checking out the holy relic – you pass the money box on the way up a pedestal where it’s displayed and guarded by a clergyman. What the Holy Blood relic is exactly is a cloth stained with blood kept in a small rock-crystal vial, contained in a larger cylinder capped with a golden crown on each end, stored in a display case.
The Groenerei is a short promenade along the city’s canal system. Even at the start of this winter masquerading as spring, you can imagine how pretty it would be with more sunshine and blue skies. Keep an eye out for a statue of the Madonna and Child on the corner of Groenerei and Peerdenstraat.
Another especially scenic place is the Dijver canal, which according to a promotional leaflet is the most photographed spot in Bruges. On a sunny day a ride down the canal would be a great way to see the city. Along the stretch of water are the College of Europe and the Groeninge Museum, Bruges’ most famous museum that houses many Flemish art masterpieces.
The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) is a 122 metre-high Gothic marvel, Bruges’ tallest structure and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. Inside are Michelangelo’s renowned Madonna and Child, paintings galore, sepulchres and tombs. The surrounding gardens and canals make this a good spot for photos.
Closeby is another good chocolate shop, Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc on Kateliijnestraat 5. The chocolates look like pieces of art… with price tags to match.
A short stroll south will take you to lovely Minnewater Park, the eponym of the lake that used to be a mooring point for barges. Minnewater itself means “water of the water sprite”, which comes from the medieval belief that water sprites lived under the bridges. These days it’s referred to as the Lake of Love because it’s so darned romantic.
Right next to the park is the Begijnhof or Beguines’ court, founded during the Middle Ages and is at a medieval street level (i.e. a metre below the city centre). The Beguines were Christian lay religious orders of women living in semi-monastic communities but did not formally take religious vows, meaning they could opt to return to the world and wed. Being part of the Beguinage gave widowed women (thanks, Crusades) an avenue for income.
From the Minnewater you can get back to the P Centrum-Station in no time by taking a walk down Prof Dr J Sebrechtstraat. What a cool name, right? Take the time to admire the buildings on this street, each with its own character.