A Medieval Masterpiece

Chris Hurley takes a whirlwind tour of Bruges in Belgium

Canal with Boat

Canal Boat

The Town Square

The Town Square

Horse Drawn Carriage

Horse Drawn Carriage

Reflections on the Canal

Reflections on the Canal

The Church of our Lady

The Spire of the Church of our Lady

Church of Our Lady

The Church of Our Lady

The Tomb of Mary of Burgundy

The Tomb of Mary of Burgundy

A Chocolatier

A Chocolatier

Entrance to the Arentshuis

Entrance to the Arentshuis

Medieval Architecture

Medieval Architecture

Den Gouden Harynck Restaurant

Den Gouden Harynck Restaurant

Dessert at De Florentijnen

Dessert at De Florentijnen

Toerisme Brugge OLV-kerk, beeld van Michelangelo© Jan D'Hondt

Toerisme Brugge OLV-kerk, beeld van Michelangelo© Jan D'Hondt

Toerisme Brugge Apotheek Sint-Janshospitaal © Stad Brugge

Toerisme Brugge Apotheek Sint-Janshospitaal © Stad Brugge

Toerisme Brugge Burg © Jan D'Hondt

Toerisme Brugge Burg © Jan D'Hondt

It’s hard to imagine that I was in London less than four hours ago. Arriving in Bruges’ pretty market square, with its gabled medieval buildings and horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping over the cobbles, it seems as if I have travelled back at least 400 years. 

I’m here to check out a special deal from the ferry company DFDS that gives you the chance to cross the Channel for free when you book a two-night winter break in this Belgian city.

Toerisme Brugge Burg © Jan D'Hondt

Getting here is easy enough. Sailing from Dover to Dunkirk took a couple of hours. Just enough time to enjoy a very hearty English breakfast and relax with a cappuccino and the morning papers in one of the comfy lounges. The drive from the port was fairly effortless and in little more than an hour we were negotiating our way through the narrow, winding streets of Bruges where it’s evident that the easiest way to get around is by bicycle or on foot.  There was an audible sigh of relief as the keys were handed to the concierge for valet parking at our home for the night – The Heritage Hotel

This boutique hotel is certainly well located – slap bang in the middle of town and a short stroll from shops, restaurants and all the major sights and attractions. Originally a mansion, built in 1869, it has been beautifully restored to reflect its former glory by the current owners, Johan and Isabelle Creytens. The welcome is warm and the place is a charming fusion of elegance and comfort with thoughtful attention to detail. Our room, (a superior grade) was tastefully decorated with rich Italian and French fabrics and a crystal chandelier was the centrepiece. But for all its period charm the facilities are bang up to date with a sparkling white bathroom, a huge flat screen TV, free wiFi and complimentary use of an iPad loaded with entertaining films and lots of useful information.

However, with so much to do in Bruges I wasn’t planning on spending a lot of time in my room. Armed with a 48 hour City Pass, that provided us with discounts and free entry to most of the local attractions, we set off to explore. Our starting point was a boat trip on one of the canals lacing through Bruges that have earned it the title ‘Venice of the North’. The blended reflection of quaint buildings, bridges, medieval architecture and swans bobbing on the sparkling water really shows off the picture book charm of the city and, with the driver giving a narrative in no less than three languages, it’s also good way to get an overview of its history.

The canals linking to the sea were in fact the source of the city’s historic wealth, attracting international trade and the establishment of a weaving industry that saw Bruges prosper back in the fifteenth century.   The Burgundian period that started in 1384, encouraged rich merchants to take up residence in grand mansions and palaces and the art scene flourished. Sadly the city’s fortunes changed after Mary of Burgundy met an untimely death in a riding accident but the legacy of the Golden Age lives on. Much of the city remains in tact and it has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

Toerisme Brugge OLV-kerk, beeld van Michelangelo© Jan D'Hondt

The magnificent tombs of Mary of Burgundy and her family can be seen in the Church of our Lady that is a veritable treasure chest of carvings and paintings -  the highlight being the world famous Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.  At some 122 metres the church tower is among the highest of its kind in Europe and one of three spires that dominates the skyline.

Another is the Belfry Tower where, if you can climb the 366 steps to the top, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Bruges and the surrounding countryside.  On the way up you can discover other treasures including an exhibition of works by Salvador Dali, the carillon with 47 bells and the impressive clockwork mechanism. 

The third spire belongs to St. Saviour’s Cathedral Bruges’ oldest parish church which, again, is full of frescos and fine art.

It seems that Bruges is full of artistic gems waiting to be discovered at every turn. Some are in well-known tourist spots such as the Groeninge Museum which is an overview of the history of Flemish art. Here you will find masterpieces from the 15th Century right up to expressionism and post war modern art, including works by the Flemish Primitives Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Others are lesser known, such as the 18th Century Arentshuis next door that houses a rich collection of prints and drawings and an exhibition of work by British artist, Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956).

Another amazing find was an exhibition of work by Pablo Picasso at the Sint-Jan congress centre, in the heart of the old quarters of Bruges. As well as over a hundred rare illustrations and engravings by the man himself there are works by friends such as Matisse. We were fascinated to find a letter to Picasso from Rene Magritte showing a rough sketch for the his renown painting ‘Son of Man’. 

However, there’s more to Bruges than fine art, tapestries and old lace. It’s a chocoholic’s paradise. The city doesn’t just look like a picture on a chocolate box, it is a chocolate box. There are over fifty chocolatiers in Bruges and the aroma of chocolate wafts along streets lined with shops displaying exquisite, hand-crafted confections.  The products of these beautiful shops do not come cheaply but there are plenty of free samples to tempt you inside. Bruges lives and breathes chocolate and there’s even a museum –Choco-Story – dedicated to its history.

Toerisme Brugge Apotheek Sint-Janshospitaal © Stad Brugge

The other temptation of which Bruges is quite justly proud is its beer and we went on a lively tour of the De Halve Maan Brewery.  Not only did we learn a thing or two about brewing past and present but, after a rather precarious climb up 220 steps, we got a panoramic view of the town from the terrace and we also got to sample a glass of their very potent Burgse Zot Blond.

Belgian beer is a great way to wash down the local speciality of moules and frites at one of the pavement cafes but,  there are lots of options for those looking for a more sophisticated culinary experience. 

The eateries we visited were the Gouden Harynck (Golden Herring) seafood restaurant in a 17th century building that was once a shop of the same name. The culinary skills of the Michelin starred chef are clearly appreciated by the local community who turn up for the ‘Markt Menu’ and ‘The Surprise Menu’. Our ‘Discovery Menu’ turned out to be superbly presented scallops followed by freshly caught brill. The very stylishly modern De Florentijnen is also in the league of fine dining, starting with a complimentary amuse bouche. The petits fours that came with coffee were a triumph and the desserts positively heavenly.  And a little more down to earth was the delicious fusion lunch at the very friendly and cosy Le Mangerie

Our overnight stay in Bruges really was such a whirlwind tour that there wasn’t enough time to take in all the museums and sights and we left with a few uncrossed items on our list of things to do.  We will definitely return to visit the Historium that is due to open on November 25th. We had a sneak preview of this interactive journey through 15th Century Bruges which immerses all the senses. Whatever your age, this really will bring history to life and it will be open to the public by the time the DFDS offer starts.

After just a glimpse of what Bruges has to offer, I’m convinced it’s the perfect place for a post-Christmas getaway whether you want to soak up the culture or indulge in a romantic winter weekend. And with no luggage restrictions, what better excuse could there be to load up the car with chocolates and beer?

You can read in more depth all about the art and culture in Bruges by clicking here…

Useful Information

DFDS Seaways is offering free ferry travel to visitors driving from the UK to Bruges who book two nights accommodation in one of the participating Bruges hotels between 12th November – 14th December 2012 for travel between 6th January – 26th February 2013
 
For more information and to see hotels included in the offer go to www.dfdsseaways.co.uk/travel-guides/belgium/hotels-in-bruges/
 
For more information on Bruges go to www.visitbruges.be
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