Where Suman Tarafdar discovered that no amount of walking on cobbled streets can walk away Belgian chocolate and fries
“It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How's a fairytale town not somebody's f***ing thing” If you’ve seen In Bruges, a noir thriller set in this picturesque town, you will know that Harry Waters, the person speaking the lines, is a violent crime boss who can’t understand how Ray, his henchman and on-the-run killer, played by Colin Farrell in arguably one of his best roles, can possibly fail to like this historic town.
There’s logic to choosing Bruges over others in a region known for its overdose of prettiness. Now a smallish town, from the 12th to 15th centuries, Bruges was a major trade centre in West Europe. It possibly had the world’s first stock exchange in 1309. Trade brought riches and culture; it became known for its fine spinners and artists.
For history fans, Bruges is a treasure trove, with centuries of architecture and sculpture making it practically an open museum. Medieval Gothic houses, churches, cobbled streets, a lovely canal with quaint boats that pass under charming, flower-decked bridges, an occasional horse-drawn carriage, old windmills, gardens with fountains... It’s not surprising that Bruges, tucked away in a north-western corner of Flanders, attracts hordes of tourists, especially in summer.
Walking is simply the best way to see Bruges. There are walking tours available but you can make up your own. In this egg-shaped town, start at the Grote Markt or great market, the main square. Very picturesque, it is boxed in by medieval Gothic buildings now fronted by cafes and boutiques. Climb up the 13th century belfry for a panoramic view — 366 steps, no elevator, but totally worth it! Catch your breath and take plenty of photos, including for FB!
Many cobbled streets lead out of Markt. Steenstraat has the best shopping, especially for European brands. Begijnhof is traditionally a women-only area. Heilige Bloed Basiliek, or the Basilica of the Holy Blood, in the majestic Burg square is said to contain Jesus’ blood and dates back to the 12th century. There’s a lot of history here, so make a list of what you want to see. For those who wish to get an idea of how the city would have looked in medieval times, step outside the tourist zone and you will find areas that have hardly changed over centuries. A walk along St Annarei and continuing north to Langerei and then walking along the canal by turning right to the windmills can be magical.
Museums abound in Bruges. You will find one of the most important collections of art in Groeninge Museum. At the other end of the spectrum is the Choco Story, a museum dedicated to chocolates, where you get chocolate’s history and traditions, a thousand chocolate-related objects, the manufacturing process and, if course, free samples! Chocolate is big in this tiny town, which has about 40 chocolate, each with collections guaranteed to dazzle. They come in all shapes, sizes, flavours and combos. Many are artisanal and handcrafted. Leading brands such as Godiva have boutiques but local names like Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc or Chocolatier Van Oost are as good if you are in a mood to splurge. Stef’s is a popular and more budget-friendly option. Another popular museum is dedicated to that other Belgian staple – fries. Called Frietmuseum, and just a short distance from Markt, Belgians claim fries originated here and that they still make the best. Every dish here comes with a helping of fat, succulent, golden fries. For anyone who has that rare disorder of being unable to put on weight fast, this is the place (I can vouch for the adding weight part!). Also popular are the Lumina Domestica, a museum to lamps, and the Diamantmuseum or diamond museum.
As for food and drink, there is plenty around every corner. The Bruges special is smoked eel and mussels steamed in Riesling wine with, yes, fries. It has lamb and beef versions as well. The cuisine is a mix of German/Dutch staples with French sauces. Almost anywhere is very good, and there are lots of cafes, especially in the older areas. Beer is famous here and available in great variety, including the Trappist ales, made traditionally by monks. Gulden Vlies and Cambrinus are two excellent night clubs. The Brewery De Halve Maan doubles as a beer museum and is a popular way to learn about beer-making, especially as it involves quaffing down Brugse Zot or Straffe Hendrik! Bruges was lucky to escape the two wars almost unscathed. This and the newer conservation projects make the entire city a charming destination. It is indeed a trip to fairyland.
Getting there: There are direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Brussels, which is also connected by air and train with every major European city. From Brussels, Bruges is about an hour by train.
Getting around: Walking is easiest and prettiest option. Most places are within ten minutes of the city centre. Cycling is the other excellent option, and bike rental stores are everywhere. Get a Bruges card, which will get you into many museums on a discount.
Must Do: A boat ride, a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, a visit to Choco Story, and lots of walking
Must Visit: Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk, a stunning church with Romanesque architecture; Lucifernum, an excellent bar with attached art gallery; the four 18th century windmills strung along a canalside park.
Must Eat: Chocolates, smoked eel, fries (with mayo), and waffles with cream. Wash it all down with Trappist ale or the famous local Brugse Zot (Bruges Fool)