This Flemish town is easily one of the most picturesque spots in Europe.
To say I was charmed is putting it mildly. My boutique hotel stood next to the huge St. Salvatore Cathedral. Every time I opened the curtains, the dun-coloured stone of the church walls took on a new hue; partly because my window panes were of different-coloured glass, a Belgian specialty. Downstairs, I got to chuck the laconic hotel cat Speedy, the fattest tomcat I had ever seen, under his indifferent chin. And in a triple bonanza, I was informed I had won a surprise gift: a free drink at the bar. Which was why I was nursing a glass of fine Belgian Pinot Noir red at a hotel bar in Bruges, musing on how good life is.
I was in Bruges to climb the 13th century belfry like Brendan Gleeson in That Movie. Did you ask which movie? Why, the 2008 cult classic In Bruges, of course. It’s a great dark comedy, dealing with a set of hitmen who are sent to Bruges to lie low; one of them (Brendan Gleeson) pragmatic about the situation and the place, the other (Colin Farrell) tetchy and unable to see anything appealing in this one-horse town. I climbed all 366 steps one blustery morning and, as I gazed on the stunning view, it was a pure Zen moment. If Bruges is a tourist trap, I was a tourist happy to be trapped thusly.
The F&B scene in town, let me tell you, leaves gourmands and gourmets stuffed and happy. Belgium has 600 (and counting) brands of beer, which is all very well if you like to guzzle the stuff. I don’t, so I stuck to wine, while trying local delights like waterzooi, some soul-satisfying Flemish stew with fries and, once, a whole pail full of moules or mussels. Apparently the best Flemish stew is to be had only at the left-hand stall just in front of the belfry. Those in the know will tell you it has to be the left-hand stall, not the right-hand one. Call it luck or a foodie’s instinct; that was where I ordered my stew, and what’s more, thoroughly enjoyed it, too; the meaty broth poured atop a bed of fat fries, which absorb and flavour the dish beautifully.
Other gustatory delights included a visit to the potato museum. Were you labouring under the impression that fries originated in France? Perish the thought. Frites are fully Belgian, thank you. The Frietmuseum is the first and only museum in the world dedicated to potato chips. It’s where you will get the answers to things you have always wanted to know; like: where does the potato come from? Was the fry invented in Belgium? What is the secret of making good fries? After this slew of information, I dug face-first into a whole lot of potato fries. Well, yolo, right?
The town has more than 50 chocolatiers as well as a Chocolate Museum. Tracking down the finest Belgian chocolate among world renowned candidates like Neuhaus, Leonidas, Godiva et al is a chocoholic’s dream come true. Day after day, I browsed the many delightful chocolate shops but eventually struck my kind of pay dirt (dark, nutty chocolate) in the cramped confines of the somewhat brusque Marlene’s shop, Chocolaterie de Burg, in a corner of the Burg square. This was on a tip from People Who Knew and I’m still sending them silent thanks. When I surfaced from the random sampling of more kinds of the stuff than I had dreamt of, I also tried speculoos, the local waffle biscuits with caramelised brown sugar in the middle.
Bruges has many churches of note but a visit to the Basilica of the Holy Blood is a must. Inside, for a fee, you get to see the vial purportedly containing a few drops of Christ’s blood brought to this Flemish town by the Crusaders. A short walk down to the Church of Our Lady yields another treasure: the only statue by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime — a beautiful statue of the Madonna and Child dating back to 1504. Jaw-droppingly lovely, I assure you, as are the other stunning paintings that decorate the interiors of this church.
Next on my itinerary was to see how the legendary Belgian lace is made at the Lace Centre. Just as I observed in Burano, too, almost all the lace-makers are women of a certain age (the young don’t do lace?) and their dexterity with the spindles is eye-poppingly amazing. Just about every second shop in Bruges sells lace (much ‘Made in China’ stuff abounds, I’m told) but again following an insider’s tip, I bought sundry samples at the Lace Centre itself. It nearly cost me an arm and a leg but it sure is worth it. Of course, it is another matter that I may never ever use it in my lifetime, in case it gets soiled!
The weather turned decidedly squally on the day I had earmarked for a boat ride on the picturesque canals. So okay, it’s touristy as hell but then, I am a tourist, right? Believe me when I tell you, seeing Bruges from the water is seeing it in a whole new light., even though there were spells of rain and we were handed sturdy black brollies, the kind we Mallus carry in God’s Own. And yes, the guide on the boat showed us the hotel where the crucial final scenes of That Film were shot…!
Finally, I signed up for a one-and-a-half-hour walk of this most charming town. It was leisurely paced and packed with info, though laced with much irreverent American humour if your guide is from the U.S., as mine was. The entire city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, canals wind their way most prettily alongside places overhung with flowery creepers, the streets are cobble stoned, the buildings are medieval…does one need to say more? And if one is lucky, (well, I was, but then, he never seems to move from his favourite spot at the open window of his house) one gets to see Fidel, a gorgeous dog that had a walk-on part in That Movie.
And as I prepared to leave Bruges, I learned to pronounce Bruges properly. You see, it’s also known as Brugge to confuse the poor tourists further. Further, one hears Brugguh/Bruje/Brughz being bandied about, mainly by the tourists. Apparently the right way is: Bruhuh. Go figure.
(I take no responsibility for the anticipated surge of people trying to get their hands on the movieIn Bruges.)