But it’s four in the morning.
We’ve got a train to catch.
Bruges is a beautiful city and one which I loved visiting. Let me take you on a tour of the city in this autobiographical Bruges Travel Guide.
All aboard the Eurostar
It’s even light on our way down to the station, despite the hour. Spirits are high. There’s a bit of a cock-up when we arrive in London; the underground trains are delayed and diverted. But, having arrived on the first train of the morning, we’ve got plenty of time to get to the Eurostar at St Pancras International, and to admire the fantastic architecture of the Grand Midland Hotel.
Not sure what to expect from the Eurostar? It’s like catching a train at an airport. Take your reference number and feed to the machine that spits out your ticket, and then join the queue. Head through two sets of passport control and a metal detector then wait in the boarding lounge for your gate, I mean platform, to flash up on the monitor. The Eurostar is like a normal train but it has a bit more leg room and you don’t have to fight for a seat. By the time you’re leaving London’s most beautiful rail station behind you’re already hitting the kind of speeds that can cross three countries in two hours.
The Eurostar dips underground a fair amount and not just to cross the English Channel. Kind of like a dolphin, popping up every now and then for air. No worries, I’ve seen England before. It keeps its head above sea level once you hit mainland Europe though, so you can admire that bucolic Gallic countryside with its isolated farmhouses and militant-looking electricity pylons. Soon you’ll whizz through Lille and arrive in Brussels, where the Basilica of the Sacred Heart cracks the sky with an unexpected dome silhouette. Not too much time to admire it though; we’ve got a connection to catch. French phrasebook at the ready but there’s no trouble understanding the timetables and soon we’re crammed on a train to Bruges opposite two enthusiastic Minnesotans.
Belgium doesn’t have much of a litter problem but there is a lot of graffiti, which is at least easier on the eye. It doesn’t have car-parks either (parking lots, as our transatlantic fellow passengers might have said); well it might, but they’re not as prevalent as the bicycle-parks. Hundreds upon hundreds of bikes racked up next to each other. And more, under that sheltered area! Why don’t British cities do this? Far off in the distance there’s a city with towers and spires that looks beautiful. I wish we could go there as well as to Bruges. Wait, it is Bruges? We’ve arrived a full hour sooner than the itinerary claimed we would. Off the train and into the medieval town.
Let the Bruges Travel Guide begin.
We need to drop our luggage off at the hotel before we can have a good exploration. Whereabouts is it? Oh that’s right, near the chocolate museum. I remember now. We head for the towers that mark the town centre; it only takes about twenty minutes and that’s with our meandering route. The medieval town centre is small! No, intimate. And who needs size anyway when the streets are this pretty?
Every road, every alleyway, they’re all as picturesque as the last if not more so. We find the hotel and cast off our bags, have a spruce up and hit the streets. Our hotel is in a lovely quiet spot next to a canal but it’s no more than ten minutes from the Markt – the Market Square – home to the famous (infamous, if you’ve seen In Bruges) Belfort. We find a spot at a restaurant from which to admire the Markt. It’s beautiful. Truly, truly beautiful. It will be the front cover of every Bruges travel guide you ever see.
A faux pas in French
The Belfort is the jewel in the crown, a towering twelfth-century bell-tower, but adjacent to it is the Provincial Hall, a sprawling gothic masterpiece, and opposite that are a medley of quaint cafes, bars and restaurants. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop all around and bells toll something that sounds like Chariots of Fire. What would sir like to drink? Beer. Like there’s any alternative. It’s dark, it’s nectary, it’s the first of many delicious Belgian beers that I’ll partake of on this city break. And to eat? Well, I’m in the mood for something new. And revising from the French phrasebook has put me in the mood for…
Escargot. Escargot? What, snails? I didn’t think, I just ordered. It came served with mushrooms so it wasn’t immediately obvious what was snail and what was champignon – that it, until you notice the snails have a little sucker-thing on them. Is that where it was plucked from its shell or is that the snail’s solitary foot? Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Just fork it in with some mushroom and some buttered toast. It is tasty, but you have to block out the thought of exactly what it is you’re champignon – I mean, chomping on. And hope that morsel stuck in your teeth isn’t a scrap of mollusc.
Everything is washed down with some Leffe Dunkel, and after some embarrassing attempts at speaking French we’re up and wandering around the Markt. It’s late afternoon and the main attractions are receiving last entries. We scope out what we fancy visiting tomorrow and stick our heads in a few shops. One of them comes with a revelation – they don’t speak French in Bruges at all, they speak Flemish. Oh, it makes sense now, all the dirty looks the waiters were giving us.
End of the night
The phrasebook doesn’t emerge from the hotel room for the rest of the trip. We indulge in a power nap back at the hotel and head back out for some beer and dinner at a lovely restaurant off the market square. Bruges is lovely to stroll around before and after food; it’s summer and even after the sun’s gone down the streets are light enough to wander around without the danger of falling into a canal.
All the buildings are medieval and charming, from houses to museums and halls, and it’s an absolute pleasure just ambling around, drinking it all in. Planning your own trip after reading this Bruges travel guide?
Back to the hotel; it’s been a long day and we need all the energy we can get for –
It kicks off with a continental breakfast. Europeans know how to start the day and I love taking advantage of a buffet. Thank goodness it settles before we reach our first adventure of the day – climbing the Belfort. It’s eighty-three metres tall and you can only reach the top by a narrow spiral staircase. There are a few pit-stops along the way where we admire the old bells and the carillon drum – a massive, hollow brass cylinder with pegs that play the forty-seven bells in different permutations, producing different melodies.
When we do reach the top the view is breath-taking, a three-sixty panorama of all of Bruges and beyond. We try to spy our hotel but we’re just so high up and it’s tricky. But I think I snap a picture that must include it somewhere. The descent is a nightmare as it turns out the narrow spiral stair is the only way up and down the tower, and space is limited. Squeeze. We reach the bottom with no small sense of relief and cool down with an exhibition about political speech before crossing the Markt and entering the Historium.
The history of chocolate
The Historium is an ‘immersive experience’ in the history of Bruges – you walk from room to room following a story that illustrates Bruges’ golden age. It’s pretty sweet and allows access to a panoramic balcony that looks over the Markt: not as high as the Belfort, perhaps, but all the more involving for that.
Inevitably, we visit Choco-Story, the museum of chocolate. It’s good fun; we learn where chocolate came from and, of course, why the Belgians do it best, in their own words. Afterwards, we treat ourselves to a bit in the gift shop too. We grab beer and lunch opposite a statue of Flemish Renaissance celebrity Jan van Eyck and then return to high culture, poking round the Sint-Salvator Cathedral and Groeningemuseum, where I enjoy some of the more frightening painted depictions of the apocalypse I’ve ever seen.
There’s another beer waiting for us by the Burg City Hall and Basilica of the Holy Blood, where we can let everything sink in. I order a fruit one by mistake but it turns out to be pretty nice. I didn’t have a single bad beer in Belgium. We decide to head back to the hotel to chill for an hour or so but on our way back notice Choco-Jungle, the cafe affiliated with Choco-Story. My Mayan hot chocolate there even has a foaming device – a hollow handle that can be blown into to bubble up the beverage. Is there anything that isn’t better in Bruges? Acording to this Bruges travel guide: no. There isn’t.
Dinner’s at a place that caught our eye on the way back from the Markt. No more than a heavy door opening onto a descending staircase, Curiosa did indeed look intriguing. I order a Brugges Tripel (a mere 9% ABV) and the wallaby. Yes. I mean, oui. I mean, ja. Wallaby steak, medium rare. Not the most Flemish of dishes I’m sure, but I wasn’t up for the local speciality (mussels and chips) and I challenge anyone to see Kangarofilet on a menu and not be tempted. It was delectable.
A slow walk back to the hotel along the canals, past shops full of chocolate sculptures, lace and those beer steins with little helmet-style lids that I’m so tempted by but that I just can’t justify buying for myself. We crash out ready for…
Our final continental breakfast…
…after which we pay our council fee for the pleasure of being in Bruges. Yes, this is a thing. But at €2.25 a day, it’s well worth it. We walk the streets for the last time, stopping only for a ‘wood-flavoured’ tea (raspberry, as far as I could tell) in a quaint village square. We hop on the train back to Brussels and have a short mosey around, grabbing a last Belgian beer at a cafe near the station and reading our books (mine’s a Stephen King). Back to the Eurostar, and I have another last Belgian beer in the boarding lounge. All too soon we’re back in Blighty, weighed down with memories and a souvenir fridge magnet. Santé!
I hope you enjoyed our saunter through this Bruges travel guide – still walking straight after all those beers? Moved to poetry by the medieval beauty of the place? I can’t recommend Bruges highly enough.