Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Bruges

"A great day this has turned out to be. I'm suicidal, me mate tries to kill me, me gun gets nicked and we're still in fucking Bruges." --Ray from In Bruges

My second day in Belgium, I left Brussels behind and hit the mean streets of Bruges. And by "mean streets," I mean "ridiculously charming cobbled streets."

A few years ago, the only thing I knew about Bruges was what I saw in the movie In Bruges. In the film, two hit men who work for an Irish mob boss are banished to Bruges for a few days as penance when they screw up a job. They're told to wait in Bruges...and then basically spend the entire movie talking about what a shithole the town is. So Bruges was never really high on my must visit list.

Then last year, when I made my first trip to Belgium, I started hearing from people "oh, you have to go to Bruges!" It's apparently a wonderland of medieval adorableness. Phrases like "cute European village" and "like if Disney created an actual little city" were bandied about. These didn't fill me with a lot of confidence either, to be perfectly honest. But with so many people talking up Bruges and Rick Steve's guidebook calling it a "heavyweight sightseeing destination, as well as a joy" I figured I had to give it a shot! Getting there couldn't be easier from Brussels; trains run every 30 minutes to/from Brussels and the trip only takes about an hour total. So off to Bruges I went!

As usual, let's talk a bit of history to put everything in context. Bruges (spelled Brugges and pronounced BROO-ghah in Flemish and brooze in French and English) had its big moment in the 14th century. It was a European economic powerhouse with a population as large as London's. Bruges was the center of northern Europe's cloth market and it was ideally situated on the sea between northern and southern Europe. Things also went well in the 15th century, when England and France were slugging it out in the Hundred Years' War and commerce and the arts boomed in Bruges.

But then...the harbor got silty and Bruges became a dead city. Not much happened for the next 500 years or so and the city appears to have escaped WWII pretty much untouched. And along came the tourists. People began to discover that Bruges was a well-preserved town with amazing intact gothic features and lovely canals. And the high times are back for Bruges, what with all those tourists pumping money into the local economy.

My itinerary was going to keep me busy, but also allow me to hit almost all of Bruges main sights in one day. From the center of town I would go on a chocolate and beer scavenger hunt, go for a bit of a walk to see some windmills, and then follow Rick Steve's walking tour of the city hitting the big churches, museums, and photo opportunities.

The heart of Bruges, both for tourists and modern residents, is the Market Square (Markt). Picture your stereotypical European medieval square and that's pretty much it--in a good way. The Markt is dominated by the tall bell tower (Belfort) which dates from 1300. I climbed the 366 steps to the top and was rewarded with stunning views of the city.

The Markt

Belfort, and yep, I climbed all the way to the top!

One of the many panoramic views from the top of the Belfort. I told you it was a beautiful town!

The stairs reminded me a lot of the Statute of Liberty climb, with the twisting staircase growing steeper and more narrow the closer you goe to the top. But the climb was worth it since the panorama (and the up close look at the bells) were amazing.

Also in the Markt is a large statute of two Belgian dudes who led a revolt against French rule in 1302 and ended up winning Flanders its freedom. The Markt is further surrounded by a bunch of neo-gothic "old" buildings that were reconstructed in the 19th century in an exaggerated neo-Gothic style. Add in a ton of cafes, restaurants, and bars with plenty of outdoor seating and chocolate and lace shops, and you're in tourist heaven.

Of course, I always want to find places more off the beaten path so I eschewed these places with my nose held high in the air. I was going to find the more authentic least the ones that are listed in the guidebook. And yes, I am aware that this makes me a pretty giant hypocrite, but whatever.

After snapping some pics of the Markt, I set off to find some chocolate nirvana. Rick Steve, Google, and Yelp all agreed that the best chocolate shop in Bruges was Dumon--a family-owned shop that makes their chocolate daily and is located only a few blocks off the Markt. It was as smooth, creamy, and delicious as it sounds. Another local chocolate shop I visited was De Clerck Confiserie, a third generation-owned store with amazingly affordable homemade chocolate. The shop was a sight in and of itself; it was crammed with vintage chocolates, candy, toys, tins that looked like something out of a movie.

Inside the Dumon chocolate shop. It smelled amazing.

After packing my bag with chocolate (no tasting yet!), I visited the Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum. The displays weren't as sophisticated as the big-city museums you might be used to, but the information was really fascinating. The museum explains the ancient (over 2500 years ago) origins of chocolate from the Aztecs and Mayans, as well as its discovery by the Spanish and its journey across the pond to Europe. The museum also covered the evolution of chocolate from a drink consumed by the Aztecs/Mayans to our modern truffles and pralines. Finally, the museum de-mystified the chocolate making process which is way more time and labor-intensive than I ever imagined.

Now that I had my mental fill of chocolate (the tummy filling would come later), I wandered along the Spiegelrei canal to the tiny alley of Blekersstraat. Just a bit down the alley was the entrance to Herberg Vlissinghe, the oldest pub in Bruges. It dates from 1515 and the decor is pure medieval beer hall. Outside was a lovely sunny garden ande everything is watched over by a cute terrier who roams inside and out looking for big-hearted tourists to share their bar food. I had a glass of one of the local brews, Brugse Zot ("Fool from Bruges") which was a delicious golden ale. It much have been coming on lunchtime, because that one beer definitely made me a bit tipsy.

The tucked away entrance to Herberg Vlissinghe.

Brugsze Zot in the oldest bar in town!

A short 10-15 minute walk later down Bruges' narrow, winding, and charming back streets brought me to some large grassy hills dotted with sunshine and that typical Low Country feature--windmills! This was the perfect place to eat the lunch I packed myself (so healthy and frugal!) and stuff myself with all the chocolate I bought (so not healthy but so amazing!).

I soaked up the sun for a bit and then hit the roads again, wandering my way back to the center of town. Bruges is a great town for wandering--it's not large and as long as you head in the general direction of the Markt and occasionally consult your map to orient yourself, it's fun to "get lost" in the side streets.

Windmill! One of three located along the grassy area.

Once I found my way back to the Markt, it was time to follow Rick Steve's walking tour! At this point, there was nothing to do but go full on tourist--alternating between gaping at the medieval sights around me and keeping me nose buried in the guidebook for the descriptions of what the heck I was looking at.

From the Markt, I proceeded to Burg Square, Bruges historical birthplace. The square contains several buildings representing over six centuries of architecture. Some of the highlights...

The Basilica of the Holy Blood: a church dating from approximately 1150 and built by a Flemish knight of the Second Crusade to house the drops of Christ's blood he brought back from Jerusalem. The relic is preserved in a clear tube of rock crystal and is displayed on Fridays--which means it was out when I visited the church! 

The City Hall, dating from about 1400 (large building in the picture below). It's still in use (and is where you go for a civil marriage ceremony in Bruges). From Burg Square, I walked through a another little alley with some interesting details. On the left wall was an original iron hinge from the city's south gate. And directly across was a patch of wall left to show how dirty Bruges was at the time of a 1960 cleaning.

Burg Square and the City Hall

I walked through a smaller restaurant-lined square (Huidevettersplein) to Rozenhoedkaai street which is where Bruges almost becomes too adorable to be real. Medieval row houses rise directly from the tree-lined canals Venice-style with a view of the Belfort in the background. These postcard perfect views could easily seem too treacle. But in my opinion, Bruges avoids the Disney and Williamsburg comparisons by being completely authentic. It just really is that charming.

Only a few hundred yards down the Dijver canal is the Groeninge Museum. The museum includes paintings dating from 1400 to 1945 and the most extensive collection of Flemish Primitive art in the world.  The paintings date from when Bruges was the richest and most cultured city in Europe.

The Flemish Primitive style commonly features a "primitive" 3D perspective, realism in its subjects (who tend to be members of the merchant class as opposed to nobles and clergy), meticulous details, oil painted on wood, and symbolism, such as a dog symbolizing fidelity. The paintings were fascinating, but I was really glad my guidebook included information and highlights of some of the more famous pieces, because the museum didn't provide any information aside from the name, artist, and year it was painted There wasn't an audio tour or guidebook or anything like that. Weak sauce, Groeninge Museum. Thank goodness for Rick Steve.

By this point, my feet were starting to feel the miles I had put on them today (including a 4 mile run in Brussels that morning), so I made a quick lap around the Church of Our Lady: the church houses a Madonna and Child statue by Michelangelo, said to be the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy during the artist's lifetime. I went inside hoping to get a glimpse. While it used to be out for viewing in a chapel free of charge, apparently Church of Our Lady isn't too pious to gouge us tourists for what they can, and now you have to pay to see the statute. Well, forget that.

I continued on my merry way to De Halve Maan Brewery, where they make the Brugse Zot ale I had earlier in the day!

A few more cobbled streets, some quiet courtyards, and a lovely lake-filled park called the Minnewater ("Water of Love") later, my walking tour ended about 5 minutes from the train station. Perfect! I easily hoppd on a train back to Brussels and was home in time to meet Jonathan and his work friend Martin for a late dinner and drinks!

Church of Our Lady

Outside the brewery.

The Minnewater...complete with swans. OF COURSE.

Coming up next in my Belgian adventure: eating and drinking my way around Brussels, all on a budget. I'll show you the best places to imbibe while not breaking the bank!

More pictures from around Bruges!

 Old (and I mean old) houses abound.

The stairs to the top of the Belfort

 Markt selfie!

 The relic in the Basilica.

 Canal selfie!

 Statute in the Markt.

 View from the Courtyard of the Groeninge Museum looking towards the Belfort.

 Inside a Dumon praline.

Oh, shut up, Chocolate museum.

Jonathan and Martin, back in Brussels.

Chloƫ: There's never been a classic movie made in Bruges until now.
Ray: Of course there hasn't. It's a shithole.
Chloƫ: Bruges is my home town, Ray.
Ray: Well, it's still a shithole.

I beg to differ, Ray. I beg to differ.

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