Kalpana Sunder savours the sights and smells of Bruges as gently as she would a praline
The aroma of freshly-made chocolate and delicious waffles mingling with that of just- fried frites and mayonnaise; and the constant clip-clop of horses on cobblestone and the bells tolling from soaring belfries. If Bruges was breathtaking on celluloid, it's even more breathtaking in real. Chocolates and canals, carillons and arched bridges, brick facades painted a salmon pink – Bruges, in the Flanders region of Belgium, is in fact a fairy tale.
Our guide educates us about the rise and fall of this glorious town. It used to be one of the wealthiest towns in Europe, and the centre of a lucrative cloth trade. The Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled over Bruges, were great patrons of art, and under them paintings, lace making and tapestries flourished. Long ago, wool and flax came up the canals and finished goods used to be carried away. From the 16th century, the river connecting the town to the North Sea silted up, and the city languished, till its revival many centuries later as a tourist town.
Bruges has two main squares and streets where walking is a pleasure. We start at the pretty-as-a-postcard Grote Markt, dominated by a belfry. This was once the site of jousts and executions; today, its tourist attraction. You can still climb the vertiginous 366 steps to get a panoramic view from the belfry. At the centre of the square are the statues of two heroes of Bruges – Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who resisted the French oppression in the famous Battle of the Golden Spurs.
We take a boat tour on the canals, looking at palaces, churches, houses with gables and ‘spy windows'. Weeping willows overhang and ducks frolic. We pass under many of the city's 50-plus mossy bridges, some so low that we have to duck. Many houses have no windows or have covered panes, and our guide tells us the reason: a ‘window tax' once imposed on the town's people!
The other square is The Burg, flanked by the Renaissance law court and the Gothic city hall – a sandstone fantasy of statues, crests and heraldry. On the first floor of the city hall is a cavernous room, ablaze with colourful wall murals offering a quick history lesson and a vaulted oak ceiling. Today, it's a venue for wedding ceremonies and political meetings. The double-chapelled basilica of the Holy Blood, built by a crusader in the 12th century, is said to house a piece of cloth soaked with the blood of Jesus. Each year, the Ascension Day witnesses a Procession of the Holy Blood, when locals dress up as knights and ladies of that era and venerate the holy relic.
Modest family-run restaurants dot the town; there are almost no global chains. My friends feast on large pails of steamed mussels in garlic cream sauce and white wine while I enjoy hearty meals of goat's cheese on bread with honey and quaff some local beer. The beer menus are longer than the food menus: each beer even has its own special glass!
Chocolate is the other grand passion of the town. Chocolate is intertwined with the town's history – the Spanish explorers had bought cocoa. Locals buy their chocolate daily, fresh, like we buy vegetables. There is white chocolate, dark chocolate and chocolate with a twist: including quirky ingredients like wasabi, onions and even ginger! We visit Sukerbuyc, one of the oldest chocolateries of the town, and talk to the chocolate maker, Kristoff Deryckere. He explains why Belgian chocolate is so special: the cocoa is ground down to the minutest micron. The shop creates its own blends, and the town has chocolate markets and guilds. The show stoppers are the edible chocolate boxes with designs of the local gabled houses.
Walking through skeins of canals and arched bridges, we come to the majestic Church of Our Lady, with a rocket like spire and hallowed candlelit interiors. There's a masterpiece inside, which eclipses all the other art: Michelangelo's Madonna and Child in white Carrara marble, which was once stolen during the French rule and which survived the Second World War.
Come nightfall, the doll-like houses are painted with a golden glow, the arched floodlit bridges are wispy reflections in the glassy canals, and romance lurks in the alleyways. I find my defining moments in the bottom of a beer mug and in the last bite of a praline.
Keywords: Belgium tourism