Category: Belgium.

Not a gondola in sight

Bruges: The description of Bruges as the ‘Venice of the north’ really doesn’t do the city any favours, writes ADRIENNE CULLEN

OKAY, LET’S get it over with. Bruges is the “Venice of the north”. The problem, as with most cliches, is that this ubiquitous description doesn’t begin to do its subject justice. Bruges needs superlatives, because it is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

Fair enough, it’s got canals, but they’re gondola-free and far more reminiscent of neighbouring Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht or Delft than of anywhere Italian. The fact is that Bruges epitomises the Low Countries, right back to their medieval roots.

And the beauty of Bruges is that those roots are still there for all to see, harking back to its golden age, from the 12th to the 15th centuries, when it was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, packed with tall ships trading between Europe and the Levant.

That’s why it so casually upstaged even old hands like Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges, Martin McDonagh’s 2008 comedy thriller. Yes, the movie was pacy; yes, the acting was great; but didn’t that place Bruges – wherever it is – look fantastic?

On that basis, here’s my advice. Don’t do what so many visitors do and spend a quick half-day in Bruges when you’re on a trip to Brussels. It’s not enormous, but there’s a lot to see, all of it fascinating, so think the unthinkable and go for a weekend, even a long one.

Look at it this way: film buffs can spot the In Bruges locations and enthuse about their favourite bits; connoisseurs of art can feast on Michelangelo’s Carrara marble Madonna and Child and Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment; and foodies can squabble over no fewer than six Michelin-starred restaurants. That’s most of us covered.

So first things first: the good news for the movie fans is that the local tourist office has been sensible enough to issue a leaflet that guides you through In Bruges settings – and lets you explore the city at the same time.

Start in the heart of things, on Market Square, with its 83m-high belfry, wander on towards the administrative centre, on nearby Burg Square, then move on to Jan van Eyck Square, under the statue of the Flemish painter, maybe to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, or the Minnewater, the Lake of Love, and you’ll get the flavour.

On Market Square, or Grote Markt, you can, inevitably, climb the belfry – all 366 steps of it – though in real life, as in the movie, the question of fitness does come into it. And there, spread out below, is the entire historic centre, now a Unesco World Heritage site.

On the northern side you’ll see the impressive neogothic Provincial Court; in the centre, the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who led the 1302 Flemish rising against the French king; to the south, a beautiful row of medieval-style houses, some of which are relatively modern reconstructions and, therefore, a source of local controversy – though they’re more convincing than any movie set.

A mercifully untaxing 350m stroll away is the Church of Our Lady, with its 120m spire, and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, also known as the Bruges Madonna, sculpted in 1504 and the only one of the artist’s works to leave Italy during his lifetime. There’s also a crucifixion scene by Anthony van Dyck.

And while youre in the mood, Bosch’s Last Judgment is on permanent display at the Groeninge Museum, conveniently located right next door.

Take a canal trip, visit Diamond House, where diamond polishing started in the 15th century, grab a coffee at Sorbetière de Medici, my favourite fairy-tale coffee house, visit the Lace Centre or the antique and flea market, and dance at the Cactus Club.

And don’t forget the chocolate, moules frites – mussels and chips – and array of more than 300 Belgian beers, particularly one of the newest, Brugse Zot (whose name means Bruges Fool in Flemish). And that’s all before you agonise over those Michelin-starred restaurants. A half-day in Bruges? Nonsense.

bruges.be, brugesinfo.com

Where to stay, where to eat and where to go in Bruges

5 places to stay

Hotel Jan Brito. 1 Freren Fonteinstraat, 00-32-50-330601, janbrito.eu. Steeped in history, this 16th-century listed building is a romantic four-star hotel just metres from Market Square. Doubles, off season, range from about €320 for the Duchess Rooms down to about €99 for the Maid’s Room. (No need to pack your rubber gloves, though: I think they mean maid as in damsel rather than maid as in servant.)

Hotel De Tuilerieën.

7 Dijver, 00-32-50-343691, hoteltuilerieen.com. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, the canalside De Tuilerieën dates from the 15th century. Doubles start at €180 (canal views cost an extra €25 or so), and rates rise to about €350 for the duplex suite. Romantic packages, including champagne for breakfast, use of the Turkish bath and a gourmet dinner for two, start at €400.

Aragon Hotel.

22 Naaldenstraat, 00-32-50-333533, aragon.be. A cosy, traditional four-star two minutes from Market Square. Popular for its hearty buffet breakfast and friendly, English-speaking staff. Doubles cost about €150 a night; two-bedroom family apartments start at about €180.

Hotel De Barge.

15 Bargeweg, 00-32-50-385150, hoteldebarge.be. One of the city’s most original and popular hotels, this three-star boat hotel was once a working barge. Weekend rates for a double or twin cabin with shower start at about €130, but you can stay in the captain’s cabin for about €140.

Bryghia Hotel Bruges.

4 Oosterlingenplein, 00-32-50-338059, bryghiahotel.be. A family-run three-star on a quiet square in the medieval heart of Bruges. Doubles cost between €85 and €135 and triples between €125 and €160. Three-night packages for two include romantic canal cruises, Belgian chocolates and sightseeing tours.

5 places to eat

De Karmeliet. Langstraat 19, 00-32-50-338259, dekarmeliet.be. The only Michelin three-star in town is headed by Geert van Hecke, whose aspiration is “gastronomic perfection”. It’s not as expensive as you’d expect, with three-course menus starting at €80.

Sans Cravate. 159 Langestraat, 00-32-50-678310, www.sanscravate.be. Just down the road from De Karmeliet, this is one of Bruges’ five Michelin one-star restaurants, a family-run establishment with a chic but homely atmosphere – in fact, the owners have called two of their menus Oscar and Arthur, after their baby sons. Lunchtime menus start at €35 for three courses.

Den Gouden Harynck. 25 Groeninge, 00-32-50-337637, dengoudenharynck.be. Another of Bruges’ impressive Michelin-starred restaurants, De Gouden Harynck (the Golden Herring) is in a 17th-century building that used to be a fish shop – hence the name. Sensitive to diners’ budgets, chef Philippe Serruys offers three-course evening meals from Tuesday to Friday for €45, and lunches thatstart at €35.

’T Pandreitje. 6 Pandreitje, 00-32-50-331190, pandreitje.be. Located just across the canal from the Basilica of the Holy Blood and beside the city’s jail, also called ’t Pandreitje. Guy van Neste, a chef with some 40 years’ experience, says he wants the menu to be both traditional and exciting.

De Bocarme.

1A Cordoeaniersstraat, 00-32-50-343445, debocarme.be. Serves refined French cuisine based on seasonal menus in a 12th-century vaulted cellar close to Market Square and the Burg. Try chef Patrick van Moorter’s smoked tuna in a sesame crust with a relish of cucumber and Granny Smith and a hint of wasabi.

5 places to go

The Church of Our Lady. Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerkhof Zuid, 00-32-50-345314. It doesn’t have a website, but the Church of Our Lady does have a Michelangelo masterpiece, his magnificent marble Madonna and Child. The collection also includes Magritte, van Eyck and Bosch.

The Groeninge Museum.

12 Dijver, 00-32-50-448751, in-bruges.co.uk/groeninge- museum-in-bruges. Conveniently down the street from the Church of Our Lady, the star attraction here is the Last Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch, the centrepiece of a fine collection of Renaissance, Baroque and Flemish masters.

The Frietmuseum.

33 Vlamingstraat, 00-32-50-340150, frietmuseum.be. Apart from beer, chips are the other great national obsession. The Chip Museum is a chance to indulge in a Belgian cultural experience – and have a bag of fries as well. Kids always love it.

De Havle Maan. 26 Walplein, 00-32-50-332697, halvemaan.ie. This is the last surviving brewery in Bruges, run by six generations of the same family since 1856, and it deserves a visit. The award-winning beers go down a treat – especially the latest, Brugse Zot, the aforementioned Bruges Fool.

Bruges Diamond House.

43 Katelijnestraat, 00-32-50-342056, diamondhouse.net. A fascinating look back at the start of diamond polishing in the 15th century, in a beautifully restored building. Don’t miss it.

Hot spot

De Coulissen. 4 Jakob Van Ooststraat, 00-32-48-6105141. This used to be the Bank of Bruges, but it now rings with the sound of different notes: it’s the city’s favourite disco, with a lively mix of lounge, techno, house, hip hop and RB. Open from 9pm until very late, and entrance is free.

Shop spot

The main shopping district is called Super Shopping Straat. On the map it’s the area between Market Square and the old city gates, which includes Steenstraat, Sint Amandstraat and other streets in the vicinity. You’ll find traditional Bruges lace at ’t Kanthuisje, on Breidelstraat, and there’s a special two-day St Valentine’s weekend chocolate market in the Stadshallen, on Market Square, on February 13th and 14th – the perfect opportunity to share!

Coffee break

De Medici Sorbetière.

9 Geldmuntstraat, 00-32-50-339341, demedici.be. Everything about the Sorbetière de Medici is a work of art, from its charming art-nouveau premises to the seductive hot chocolate made with pieces of Belgian chocolate that you melt yourself in warm, frothy milk. You’ll love it.

A good night out

Stadsschouwburg Municipal Theatre. 29 Vlamingstraat, 00-32-50-443040, cultuurcentrumbrugge.be. Founded in 1869, this is one of Europe’s best-preserved municipal theatres. It has been completely restored and updated over the past few years, and now its neo-Renaissance facade conceals some Belgium’s most up-to-date theatre technology. Marvel during the interval.

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Brussels from Dublin. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Charleroi from Dublin and Shannon.

Category: Belgium
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