Everybody Loves Brugge
|Tea Shops in Market Square|
As we made a beeline for the line of waiting taxis, I thought how apropos it was to be in Belgium on Valentines Day. After all, the small country is world famous for their decadent, rich chocolate and fine handmade lace. A brief five-minute ride later and we were in the heart of the small Flemish city. In perfect English, the taxi driver asked, “Is this your first time to Brugge?” (In Flemish and Dutch, it’s pronounced Broo-gah. In French and English, it’s spelled Bruges and pronounced Broozh.) I answered, “Yes.” He responded with the standard, “You’ll absolutely love it.” Countless people had said the same thing to me. Upon my first sighting of the gothic town, I instantly fell in love with it. Everywhere I looked colorful buildings replete with heavenly chocolate shops and toasty restaurants pervaded the town. Simple pink and red hearts hung from teashop windows where inviting fireplaces glowed from within.
The taxi pulled up in front of the Hotel Heritage — a small, elegant hotel, which, at one time was a Georgian mansion. In 1993, it became a hotel. Only steps away from Market Square, the twenty guestrooms and four suites feature classically appointed French dÃ©cor with antique-style furnishings. The warm surroundings made me feel instantly at home. To take the chill off, tea is served in the sitting room â€” off the lobby — in front of a crackling fire. Isabelle, who was at the front desk, checked us in and showed us to our room on the second floor. The luxurious room was swathed from floor to (high) ceiling in golden-yellow fabric covering two sets of French doors. Terry robes are provided, and, moreover, for those of you traveling without a laptop, each room has its own computer. A fitness room and sauna is located in the cellar that dates back to the 13th or 14th century. And, during warm months, you can dine on the rooftop of the hotel. Isabelle suggested a few restaurants and offered to make a reservation for later in the evening. Before leaving, she informed us of the two-hour English-speaking walking tour. The tour is M-F and begins at 2:30 sharp in Burg Square at the Town Hall, and is included in the hotel stay.
The best way to absorb Brugge is by getting lost on the cobblestone back streets. Grabbing two umbrellas on our way out the door, we set out to explore the gothic town that grew wealthy on the cloth trade in the 11th century. At one time, Brugge was a focus for international trade. High quality English wool was turned into clothing and exported all over the known world. Unbelievably, by the 14th century, the population had grown to the size of London. With a population of 35,000, it was one of the biggest cities in the world.
Moving forward to the 15th century, Brugge was the favored residence to the Dukes of Burgundy â€” while England and France trudged through the 100-year-long-war. It was also home to the artists, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Nevertheless, by the 16th century, Brugge’s Golden Age abruptly ended. The economy had collapsed, the Burgandian court left town, and Brugge became known as the mysterious and dead city. Occupied by the Germans in World War II, the city remained dormant until the 1960s, when tourists discovered it. Today, it prospers on mass tourism. Springtime is bursting with vivid colors. Daffodils and tulips are in abundance; comfortable temperatures with longer days are perfect for bicycle rides to nearby Damme and boat rides under arched bridges.
Market Square is home to one of the city’s most distinctive medieval landmarks — the Belfort. Since 1300, this 353 ft. bell tower has stood over the square. To survey the town’s storybook rooftops and outskirts, climb the 366 steps to the top. On a clear day, the coastal towns along the North Sea can be seen in the distance. Two of the most visited sites in Brugge are the Groeninge Museum, which has one of the best collections of Flemish art in the world, and the Memling Museum, which is in a former hospital where several of Memling’s masterpieces are among surgical instruments from medieval times.
|Dining Room at the Hotel Heritage|
Oude Burg 31
Tel: 050-33 76 80
The following day, which was Monday, we took the in-depth walking tour. We walked into Burg Square a few minutes early and ran smack into our tour guide. The voucher in my hand gave me away and the guide introduced himself as Andrew. He said, “I’m out here looking for people with vouchers, so I can show them into the Town Hall where the tour begins.” In the entrance hall, he explained, “I’ve been a guide for over forty years in Brugge and I was married, here, in the Town Hall fifty years ago.” That was impressive enough, but then he continued. “I speak seven languages, fluently, but the tour is only in English.” Andrew, along with most of the Flemish, effortlessly shifts from one language to another. Not only was Andrew fluent, but he amused himself with using American slang picked up from Hollywood movies.
There were a total of eight British couples and one other American couple. Brugge is a heavyweight sightseeing destination for the British. (It’s easily reached via the London-Brussels-Cologne railway network.) Andrew’s wealth of northern European history was sprinkled with lively jokes about the French. A few jokes about the Dutch and Scottish, too, had everybody laughing.
The tour includes a brief stop at all of the museums, but, unfortunately, on Mondays, they are all closed â€” including the Bell Tower. I would suggest planning a trip to Brugge on any day, but Monday. The tour was enlightening and I walked away with a better understanding of the Benelux countries.
After the two-hour walking tour, we made our way back to Market Square. A revolving line of horses converges in the center of the square, where, for 30, 00 Euros, a buggy will whisk you off, through the cobblestone streets of Brugge. This is another fun, relaxing thirty minutes where the driver points out interesting sites along with history tidbits. The horse rests for ten-minutes at the peaceful Begijnhof — where women spent their lives in piety without having to take the vows that a nun would. Just enough time is allotted to determine whether you choose to return on your own to explore the grounds further and to take a casual tour of the small museum.
While strolling around Brugge, we copiously scanned chocolate shop windows. We wound up on Streenstrat â€” the main shopping street â€” in pursuit of the new TI location. An open door and a window creatively decorated with pink and red valentine hearts caught my eye, so I stepped into Verheeke. An impressive selection of chocolates, pralines and marzipan displayed in a large glass case was tempting to say the least. I sampled individual Grand Marnier, rum, strawberry and raspberry-filled chocolates. I also bought assorted marzipan. There must have been over a hundred other flavors; in the back of the shop were lovely packaged gifts of chocolates and decorative tins to bring back home.
Streenstraat 30 â€” Brugge
Simon Stevinplein 15
A full two days and two nights is the suggested amount of time required to see all of the sites in Brugge. Ideally, the best itinerary is to combine Brugge with other European destinations. Whether it’s Holland, France or perhaps Germany, they are all within close proximity.
N. Desparsstraat 11
8000 Brugge, Belgium
Tel. +32 (0) 50 44 44 44
Fax. + 32 (0) 50 44 44 40