Living in a Fairy Tale: Bruges

An hour from Brussels is the magical city of Bruges. With a population of about 117,000, it is a small but lively place with amazing people, fairy-tale-like streets and great eats.

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Bruges is situated in the Flemish region of Belgium and is the largest city in the West Flanders area. Due to its port, it was once the main commercial city in the world. Seeing it now for all it’s quaint charm, it is hard to imagine just how important for trade this area once was. These days, it is probably best known from the 2008 movie, In Bruges.

 

The oval shaped city centre is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site which may partly explain why it has been so well maintained and also reminded us of Bath.

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To get to Bruges, we flew 45 minutes into Brussels and caught a train first into central Brussels and then onwards to Bruges. The weekend was very relaxing with minimal activity but maximum enjoyment. After checking in, we went to a small shop called Lizzie’s Waffles. As the name would suggest, we ordered some waffles. They were fluffy, perfect and HUGE.

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Richard also enjoyed a hot chocolate with more than a dash of rum. The drink arrived as a steaming and foamy glass of milk with the smell of rum wafting up to greet us. Beside it was a small bowl made of chocolate filled with chocolate shavings. With great delight, Richard dropped the chocolate bowl and it’s contents into the milk.

 

It was a little cooler than we had hoped, but the rain that was forecast was holding off. We happily wandered through the cobbled streets and across the many picturesque bridges over the canals. Now that it’s spring time, the trees are full of lush young leaves.

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After midday we stopped by a famous shop called Chez Vincent. They’re famous for their fries but also serve a variety of small meat and salad dishes. We got a cone of fries and a Flemish stew to share which wasn’t very healthy but sure was delicious. The fries are amazing – better than Amsterdam! The stew reminded us instantly of perfect pie filling from home.

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After more wandering along the canal and through the main square, we decided to join a canal cruise. The sun was out and it seemed perfect for it. Our guide was a funny guy who gave entertaining commentary while taking us around the various canals and pointing out key landmarks. For only €8 per person, it was totally worth it.

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In the afternoon we went to a famous local brewery called De Halve Maan where we had booked a short tour. It was an informative tour following the beer making process and also included parts of the brewery which are no longer in use such as a large copper cooling pipes.

We also got to go up to the roof to see two of their large fermentation tanks, and great views across the city. The bottling plant is outside the city and the company uses tankers to take the finished product out to be bottled. They are about to finish an underground pipeline however, which will take the beer directly from the brewery all the way out to the bottling plant! The pipeline goes under the canals and showed how important beer is to Bruges – and Belgium.

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The tour included a free glass of their blond beer, so Richard got to enjoy two. He reports that it is a nice beer which is ideally enjoyed ice cold on a warm afternoon. One thing about beer in Bruges, is that they serve it very very cold.

 

That night we had a nice dinner of black mussels and really superb steak. Fortified, we spent a while walking around in the sunset light taking photos. The streets were quiet with only a few other tourists seeking photo opportunities and some locals cycling past or walking their dogs. The photos we got capture the magical peace and tranquility Bruges seems to ooze for all its cobbly stones.

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On Sunday morning the weather was decidedly worse and we lazed in bed. Eventually we went out to a great breakfast spot called Gingerbread Tea Room where we had bagels with a ridiculous amount of toppings. Richard had what looked like 5 scrambled eggs with copious amounts of salmon, and I had a huge punnet of strawberries with ricotta, honey and lemon. Unfortunately I was so hungry I forgot to take a photo. It’s good though and I would recommend the place if you’re there! Afterwards we waited in a fairly long line to climb the Belfry of Bruges. Despite what it looks like, it is not a church or cathedral but rather, used to be a treasury and where the municipal archives were. Due to it’s height (83m), it was also a good observation point to spot fires or other dangers to the city. We climbed the 366 steps to the top, but I don’t want to overstate our fitness levels – there were breaks throughout the journey up! About three quarters of the way up we had the opportunity to have an Alice in Wonderland moment and step into an enlarged music box. The room contained the rotating wheel which creates the various melodies of the bells.

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At the top we had views across the city and stood beside a truly enormous bell. Thankfully it didn’t ring because I think I would have been hearing that for days afterwards!

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Following this journey we decided to rent a couple of bikes for an hour and get on board with this cycling business. I didn’t have the courage to cycle in Amsterdam because I was fairly certain I would fall into a canal. Something about Bruges made me feel like it would be okay. What proceeded was an incredibly frightening hour where I gripped the handlebars so hard my arms ached for the next two days. For those who don’t know and in case I wasn’t clear enough, I can’t really ride a bike. I briefly learned to ride a bike about 18 years ago and haven’t touched a bike since then. I was wobbling about and bouncing like crazy on the no-longer-romantic cobbled roads and frightening myself silly whenever a horse and carriage came by. I survived without having an accident or causing any damage so overall it could be considered a success, even if I was totally mortified when the guy we rented the bikes from had to teach me how to ride it. Where was Richard you ask? Laughing so hard he had to stop and get off his bike.

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Having felt like I earned some indulgence (but let’s be real, the whole weekend was an indulgence!), we went to the chocolate museum. The reviews weren’t astounding for this attraction but still, how can you resist a chocolate museum? Spread over four floors, we followed a handy guide which told you the order of rooms to go through. The displays included notes about the origins of chocolate and early uses along with Western adoption and obsession with it. In fairness, it was a boring museum. However, at the end we also saw a demonstration of how small filled chocolates are made and even got to have one when we left – delicious!

 

That evening for dinner, we went to a place called Gruuthuse Hof. It was a great little restaurant where Richard enjoyed more Flemish stew and I had a half poussin. The sun sets quite late in the northern hemisphere now so we enjoyed a brief after-dinner walk before heading back to the hotel.

 

On our final day in Bruges, we had an enormous breakfast at a cafe called Tearoom Carpe Diem. An entire basket of bread showed up along with a plate of ham and cheese, spreads, tea and juice. It was a mammoth amount of food but we leisurely picked our way through and basically finished everything. Amazing huh?

 

It was raining in earnest by that point so we sought indoor activities. A surprisingly fun attraction was the Historium. Initially I thought this was a history museum, but it’s actually an interactive experience highlighting the golden era of Bruges. We were given audio guides which corresponded with a tour through seven themed rooms, highlighting a day in 15th century Bruges. I was really impressed with the coordination of audio, film, immersive surroundings and special effects – including falling “snow” and even the smell of chemicals in painter Jan Van Eyck’s studio.

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To escape the rain and evidently because we hadn’t had enough rich food over the course of the weekend, we stopped at The Old Chocolate House for amazing hot chocolate. Their menu included a variety of flavours and strengths, including a list of single origin chocolates to submerge in your bowl/cup of warm milk. Super duper recommend this, regardless of how much chocolate you’ve already had.

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As we rode a direct train from Bruges to Brussels airport, the rain got steadily worse in what would become torrential flooding across the region. I am very thankful we got a good day in Bruges and that we escaped the worst of the weather with minor delays to our flight.

 

Finally, I wanted to highlight the amazing people in Bruges. Having travelled to almost every country in Scandinavian Europe, I found these people the most proficient with languages. Everywhere in Northern Europe we came across fluent English speakers which made us feel pretty ignorant. But Bruges takes it a step further; all the shop owners, restaurant staff and workers at attractions easily switched from Dutch to German to English to Spanish to French etc. It was amazing to watch them as they greeted people at the door first with an array of “English? Francais? Español?” and once you confirm your language of choice, they will break into warm greetings or instructions without pause. They’re always friendly and polite, seem totally laid back and cheerful. Along with the stunning scenery and excellent food, this made Bruges one of our favourite destinations to date.

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