Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A Weekend in Bruges

Despite what you may have seen on film, you're pretty unlikely to meet a couple of hit men in Bruges. Or a dwarf. You might, however, stumble upon a moustache convention, as we did on a previous trip - yes, a moustache convention, i.e. big groups of men walking around the city with incredibly coiffured facial hair. But that, I have to say, is about as edgy as things get in this most genteel of northern European cities. 

I love Bruges. I've visited the city countless times over the years, first on a school coach trip, then at regular intervals throughout my twenties as my boyfriend's dad lived in the city for 10 years. I know it pretty well, but that's not a difficult task given its size and manageability. And that's the first thing that makes Bruges the perfect place for a long weekend - you can easily cover it in 3 days. Add to that the fact that it's regarded as 'The Venice of the North' thanks to its pretty network of canals and elegant architecture, as well as a being a famed producer of some of the world's most delicious chocolate, and you have two more reasons for planning a visit. And did I mention the beer?

You won't find Bruges listed on the EasyJet destinations list; the nearest airport is Brussels, but most people arrive in the city via cross-channel transport. The Hull to Zeebrugge crossing makes the city accessible if you're travelling without a car; Bruges is about 25 minutes away from the port by shuttle bus. We usually travel on the Tunnel as the journey from Calais is quick and easy. The motorway deposits you in Bruges in just over an hour when traffic is clear. We financed this trip thanks to our Tesco Clubcard Vouchers, a brilliant way to make your money go further and redeeming your vouchers is really simple. And it's so wonderful to get some payback on all those long hours spent trawling the supermarket.

Hotels and B&Bs can be expensive in Bruges so I wouldn't even bother looking into these if you're travelling with children. One thing to note when choosing your Airbnb accommodation is that if you're based in the heart of the old city, parking might be an issue. Staying just outside the main hub, as we did, should mean you can find street parking (but you'll still need a permit or blue badge; our host supplied the latter)

We stayed at a brilliant Airbnb about 10 minutes from the city centre - owned by a super friendly and efficient host, it was the best accommodation of this sort we've stayed in. Modern, incredibly well equipped, sparkling clean and spacious. I can't recommend this place highly enough - take a look here.

As I've mentioned, Bruges is a supremely walkable, accessible city. You won't need your car to get around - walking and cycling are the preferred modes of transport here (cycle hire is readily available across the city.) The main sights are in a small cluster, running form the Markt and Belfort (the main square and bell tower), through the Burg (a smaller, picturesque square) and across to the canals. There are no expensive, must-see sights here - Bruges is more about strolling through squares, crossing bridges and finding quiet corners to drink in the typically Flemish ambiance of the city. 

It's a place to visit throughout the year; summers can be very pleasant and warm, and tend to be more reliable than the UK. The winters can get very cold - I've visited when temperatures have dipped so much that the canals have frozen over. Autumn is a lovely time to visit; during our stay we had bright, chilly days, which ended each evening with a spectacular sunset. When night rolls in, Bruges' special atmosphere really comes to life in its cosy bars, cafes and restaurants. You'll always find a log fire burning somewhere, the perfect accompaniment to enjoying a glass of Belgian beer.

Start by getting your bearings at the Markt, the city's main hub which is lined with colourful buildings, overlooked by the towering Belfort (bell tower) which you can ascend for unbeatable views across Bruges. The city's key shopping streets lead off this square. You won't really find cutting-edge fashion, or hipster cafes here; the vibe in Bruges is rather conventional and unchallenging. I always refer to it as more staid but no less charming Amsterdam. 

But what Bruges lacks in the hipster stakes, it makes up for in chocolate - virtually every other shop features mouthwatering displays of the sweet stuff to tempt you in. Be warned that some are very much tourist fodder and don't really offer the most authentic creations. Try The Chocolate Line, The Old Chocolate House and Depla for a more interesting experience. The Chocolate Line is an amazing shrine to all things cocoa-based and you can also see chocolates being made here. Everything from chocolate pills to chocolate lipstick is on offer, as well as a sublime selection of imaginatively flavoured truffles.

Other stores worth a visit include Hema, a sort of Tiger meets H&M meets Ikea, with a bit of Wilkos thrown in. It's great for good value stationery, homeware and kids clothing. And don't miss Be in Bruges, a collection of rooms dedicated to all things Belgian. As well as housing a beer wall and bar, it's a must-visit if you have children in tow - you'll find the 'Tin Tin Chapel' here, a lovely collection of models, books, posters and other memorabilia dedicated to Herve's legendary creation. Including obscenely expensive collectibles, it's perhaps not a place to spend your pocket money but you're free to browse (Belgium's other big names - the Smurfs and Rene Magritte - also feature.)

A little more tranquil than the bustling Markt is the Burg, my favourite square in Bruges. This picturesque spot is lined with ornate buildings, including the spectacular town hall (Stadhuis), a gold-encrusted gem of a building (and the venue of my sister-in-law's wedding) that epitomises the golden age of the Low Countries. But my favourite building in this square is the small but perfectly formed Church of the Holy Blood, particularly the beautiful Romanesque lower church, a simple, unadorned but atmospheric place that offers some respite from the bustle of the city. It's a truly lovely place.

Carry on beyond the Burg and you'll soon hit the canals, a defining feature of this pretty city. Crowds tend to monopolise the most picturesque views, eager for selfies overlooking the water, but Bruges never feels too invaded with tourists. I particularly love to wander around the canals in the evening, when the buildings are spot lit, casting stunning reflections on the water. I also love the stretch on the Djiver, a tranquil, tree-lined street where you'll find a flea market at weekends.

As I mentioned, the beauty of Bruges is in the wandering and seeing where you end up; if you pass the Fish Market and just keep on going, you'll eventually wind up near the pretty Astrid Park, a lovely haven, particularly in the summer. My father-in-law used to live in this area and it's one of Bruges' loveliest quarters - a little off the beaten track, you'll find some authentic bars and restaurants here, including the cosy L'Estaminet (one of my favourite bars in the city) and the Belleman Pub. 
A little further on again is a bit of a locals' secret - the excellent Bistro De Schaar. It's not cheap but the food here is delicious, with expertly cooked meats and seafood the speciality. Small and intimate, it's one of my favourite places to eat in Bruges. Also recommended, and in the same area of town, is the Nieuw Museum, another authentic place to eat in cosy surroundings.

You can, of course, see all the main sights from the comfort of a canal boat - these operate in key locations along the river and aren't expensive. It's a must-do during any trip to Bruges, taking in all the main historic buildings. Other must-sees include the fairytale-esque Bonfaciusbridge which can't fail to make you feel like you've been transported to medieval times, and the Beginhof, a collection of exquisite traditional white houses, once home to the city's unmarried, pious women and currently inhabited by an order of nuns. This quiet corner of Bruges leads onwards to the lovely Minnewater park, where the Lac d'Amour provides the city's most romantic beauty spot. 

To complete the Flemish idyll, you'll also find a collection of windmills on the edge of the city. At the other end of the scale, the busy Zand offers a more modern perspective - it's a large square lined at one end with restaurants and is home to a bustling weekend market. But it's the quieter corners of the city I enjoy most, particularly when it's a lovely day and you've found the perfect cafe where you can sit back and soak it all up. 

There are literally hundreds to choose from, from traditional creperies and pancake houses, to more contemporary espresso bars. We liked the quirky Li o Lait and the gorgeous Juliette, the perfect place to enjoy a waffle in the sunshine. Incredible patisseries and bakeries are also in abundance - Bruges isn't an easy place to watch your waistline. 

Museums and more churches vie for your attention amid the chocolate and beer shops but it's the latter we spent more time indulging in on this trip. Bruges isn't the cheapest of cities for eating out but you'll find plenty of places to refuel hungry kids - think cones of 'fritures' (rather than the French 'frites' - this is the Flemish part of the Belgium) served with a dollop of mayonnaise to keep them going. We also found a brilliant takeaway pasta place called Bocca - brilliant for cheap and tasty food on the go. There are also plenty of supermarkets across the city. For restaurant dining that won't break the bank, try the quirky The Hobbit - you can enjoy hearty meat dishes, including all-you-can-eat ribs and delicious kebabs. 

If you have room for beer, directly opposite lies the atmospheric Brugs Beerjte, the perfect place to sink a Brugse Tripel or two. In my days of visiting Bruges pre-kids, trawling the city's bars featured heavily, but it's not a place to come expecting much in the way of nightlife. But that's what's so appealing about Bruges - it doesn't demand anything too energetic of you. I can't recommend it highly enough for a truly laid-back city break. 

For more information about Bruges, take a look at the Visit Bruges website.
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