Bruges – the City of Indulgence

Aisling Foley headed off to Bruges and tells us all about it.

‘When choosing where to go on holiday, I have several criteria: there must be lots to explore within walking distance of the hotel; it must be accessible by public transport (I love seeing new countries from the comfort of a train or a bus); and (most importantly) I must be able to indulge.

Bruges.  Museums, historical monuments and the famous city gates all within walking distance whether you like short sharp bursts or prefer longer peaceful strolls.  An hour and a half through the pretty Belgium countryside direct from Brussels Airport.  Beer, chocolate, chips and waffles – the quartet of Belgium treats.

For this particular trip I was challenged to a “Top Gear” style race by friends.  I was travelling by train, plane and train, they were travelling by car, ferry and car.  The first to the famous Bruges Bear bar would win (but also then have to buy the first round of beers).

If ferries are your thing then Bruges is an easy hour’s drive from Dunkirk, after sailing from Dover.  If you prefer to fly, there are regular flights from many British airports to Brussels, from there trains go direct to Bruges.  Or if you prefer trains all the way, the Eurostar goes to Brussels, with your onward travel on the Belgian railway included in the price of your ticket if you continue your journey within 24 hours.

Just in case you were wondering, I won by 30 minutes (despite my friends getting an earlier ferry than planned) and was safely installed in a cosy corner of the Bruges Bear, sipping on a glass of Kwak, when my friends arrived.

Bruges has an abundance of accommodation for any taste and any budget.  The options range from bed and breakfast, to grand hotels and include everything in between such as guest houses and apartments.

Going back to my final requirement for a holiday destination – indulgence – a hotel stay is a must.  I want to roll out of a comfortable bed that I don’t have to make, take a nice long shower and head downstairs to an excellent breakfast.  And Hotel Karel de Stoute is the perfect option.

A small hotel right in the centre of Bruges, it is run by a lady and her two daughters and gives you the feeling of staying with your favourite relatives.  The hotel is in an old town house, with only a small number of rooms (so book early).  The continental breakfast is in the lovely high-ceilinged dining room.  Fresh fruit juice and fruit cocktail is brought to your table as you sit down, along with your choice of tea or coffee.  A cooked egg dish of the day is brought a few minutes later and then you are free to indulge in pastries, meats, cheeses, cereals and yoghurts to your heart’s content.

Venturing out after breakfast, we decided to start with the museums – Bruges has many museums on many different subjects.  All museums charge entry fees but hotels often give out discount cards on check-in.

Some of the museums you would expect Historium Brugge takes you back to the golden age of Bruges when the Royal House of Burgandy moved to the city through to its decline in the 15th century and its revival in the 19th century.

And others you wouldn’t expect – like the Frietmuseum.  Belgium is fiercely proud of its fries.  Ask any Belgian the origin of the French Fry, and they’ll tell you the story of the first American troops during World War 2 to discover the fry – reading their maps incorrectly they thought they were in France, and so the biggest geographical mistake in modern gastronomic history was created.  But the Belgians take it all in good humour and the museum proudly traces the history of the potato and the fry.

And for a snack while you wander the cobbled streets, there are an abundance of friet shops.  But for the ultimate fry experience in Bruges, the mobile friet cart outside the Belfry on Markt Square is a must.  Open until 4am every day to catch the last stragglers from the many bars, there is often a little wait before your fries are served.  But it is worth it.

Next was the Choco-Story, tracing the history of another of Belgium’s quartet of treats.  Once you’ve learnt the story of cocoa and chocolate there’s a live demonstration of hand-made chocolates, which of course can be sampled afterwards.

For chocolates to take home for presents or to continue your indulgence after your holiday, explore the streets of Bruges to pick your favourite shop – ranging from small independent shops to national and international chains.  The chocolates come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with intricate moulds creating chocolate versions of key historical buildings in Bruges, Disney characters and Christmas decorations.

After a morning of fries and chocolates we decided to work off some calories with a walk around the outskirts of the city.  The city is almost completely surrounded by ramparts along the canal.  Along the ramparts are four medieval town gates and the four remaining windmills in Bruges.

Back in the heart of the city, most bars are of course open from around 12pm.  However, as night falls in the city, the bars and restaurants come alive.  The main concentration of restaurants are along t’Zand, where the modern concert hall is located.  However, take a stroll around the back streets and you’ll find little treasures tucked into corners and down side alleys.

For true Belgian cuisine, De Vlaamsche Pot won’t disappoint.  A tiny little restaurant, its menu contains all the favourites – beef stew, mussels and fries and a full range of Belgian beer.  It’s a restaurant to relax in and watch the world go by – so don’t expect lightning quick service.  There’s a McDonalds on the main shopping street if that’s your expectation.

Bruges

View from the top of The Belfry

After a long, lazy dinner it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before the next day’s challenge – the Belfry and its 366 steps.  Built in the 13th century it houses 47 bells, which play a variety of music throughout the day.  Beware – the steps to the top do narrow considerably the higher you go and often you have to manoeuvre to pass people coming down, but it is worth it.  At the top you are greeted with a panoramic view of the city.

To recover after our epic climb, we relaxed on a tour of the city along its canals.  The name Bruges derives from the old German word “brugj” which means mooring place.  And back in the 11th century Bruges had a direct link to the sea.  A new port was created for Bruges in the 19th century and now the only boats seen in the city centre canals are the tour boats.  You can get on at 5 points throughout the city and the tour guides will treat you to half an hour of comedic history.

For our final day, we headed to Brouwerij De Halve Maan – the last working brewery in Bruges, brewing two of the most popular Belgian Beers – Straffe Hendriks and Bruges Zot.  Your tour guide takes you from the basement right up to the roof describing brewing methods and recounting the history of the family who own the brewery.  He waits until the end of the tour to tell you the disappointing news – the beer is brewed on site but bottled elsewhere.  To cheer up the disappointed tourists there is a perfectly chilled bottle of Bruges Zot waiting for everybody at the end of the tour.

And so we board the train back to Brussels and wave goodbye to the city of indulgence.’