“I feel like I am on holiday all the time.” That’s how tour guide, Els Verlinde of HelloBruges.com, responded when I told her how much I liked her city. Bruges is one of Europe’s most beautiful and unspoiled medieval cities and it’s right on our doorstep. I can’t believe I’ve left it so long to visit!
Bruges was first recorded in 840AD and is steeped in history. As soon as you leave the railway station for the ten-minute stroll into the town, you’ll understand why UNESCO has described the medieval city centre as ‘outstanding.’ Bruges is compact but its cobbled streets and charming buildings seem to go on forever.
The city centre has not been blighted by tower blocks or concrete constructions. Its lanes are flanked by houses built with tiny old red bricks, many with the Dutch-style gables that rise to a central point in symmetrical steps. The streetscape is reflected in the waters of the leaf-shaded canals, occasionally rippled by the wake of narrow boat tours or swans, vying for space under the many bridges.
My host, Marc Christiaens, clearly loves his hometown. And he loves being an hotelier. The Hotel De Castillion is in the best location in the city but it’s also his pride and passion. During coffee he tells me he’s rejected many offers from chains to sell up. The hotel is a family-run business and it’s not for sale.
I asked Marc for his advice on how best to enjoy the city. “You should go and walk along the canals and do it early in the morning or late in the evening, when you have the city all to yourself, because then you will see the swans paddling through the canals at ease when nobody is chasing them,” he suggested. I took that advice, although I paused to take in the view on a bridge as boat passengers passed underneath, waving and smiling to selfie sticks. This, Marc told me, is a special canal crossing. “They call it the Lovers’ Bridge. You can smell the history there. You can see how the city was in the Middle Ages.”
A few moments walk away, you’ll find the Lake of Love. Love is obviously in the air in Bruges! It’s where the old port was before Zebrugge, 20km away, was developed. People congregate to eat ice creams and sit and watch the swans around this shaded waterside green. “It is romantic – somewhere maybe you can ask your girlfriend to marry you. It’s also a place with atmosphere,” Marc told me.
Nearby are the white buildings of the 13th century Begijnhof, which enclose a lawn. It’s a peaceful space. Some people say these were built to house single women whose husbands had been lost in the crusades. Another view is that they provided a safe community for single women.
Bruges’ city walls are sadly long gone although four of the medieval gates still remain and you can see them at various points around the former defensive ring known as the ramparts. These were canals that people had to cross to get into the city, a bit like a moat, and form an 8km circle around the centre. Parts of these are now a park, where you can walk, bike or picnic.
You’ll also find several windmills along this circular route. “They are all restored windmills that have been torn down elsewhere in Flanders,” Els explained. “They have been rebuilt in places where we used to have windmills.”
As you look up at Bruges’ skyline, the tall, thin church towers and the landmark Belfry rise majestically above the historic homes and quaint streets. The clip-clop sound of pony and trap rides adds to Bruges’ fairy-tale feeling.
The Belfry dominates Bruges’ enormous stone-paved Market Square. It looks like a honey coloured church tower that has been extended upwards in sections, like a vertical telescope. At 83 metres tall, the Belfry towers over the adjacent 14th century Market Hall.
Els informed me that there are similar towers in many Belgian towns and were used to store important documents. “If the Duke needed to go to war he would have to find soldiers for his army. If they returned, they would usually negotiate extra rights and they were clever enough to put them in writing. Obviously, you wanted to keep those charters in a safe place. That is why belfry towers were built.”
So why was Bruges’ Belfry so tall? Apparently it was just to show off! “It was to impress foreign merchants coming to Bruges,” explained Els. “They wanted to show them this was the heart of the world – where everything happens. It was all about showing the wealth of the city. The higher your belfry tower, the more power you had and the richer your city was.” You can climb the Belfry for stunning views across the town but you’ll need to be fit. There are 366 steps!
Even if you can’t see the Belfry, the chimes of its carillon will remind you that it is there. “The bells play songs every quarter of an hour. You don’t have to climb it to hear them. You can just stay in the city centre and you will hear the music,” said Els. “Those bells used to regulate life when people did not have clocks. It was the bell tower that told people when to wake up, when to eat, when to pray and when to work.”
There are so many carillon bells in towers around Belgium and the Netherlands there’s even a professional association for people who can play them. It has 45 members. Bruges’ carillon master Frank Deleu once worked recording orchestras for Belgian national radio. He left the broadcaster to work as the Belfry’s assistant player in 1984 and now he’s the boss. “The carillon is 47 bells and that’s a total weight of 27 tonnes,” Frank told me when I met him in the courtyard behind the tower.
I was keen to find out how Frank chooses the music that he plays. When I was there, the songs playing on the hour were two melodies commemorating the end of the First World War – It’s Time to Meet Again and After the War is Over. “You can’t programme all music on this thing – its 18th-century,” Frank laughed, adding, “It must be music that people can stand every hour of the day for two years!”
At certain times of the year Frank plays free bell concerts, which the whole town can hear. He told me that it is physically demanding. “We use pedals,” Frank explained whilst replicating a downward pushing movement with his hands. “It is hard work and the keys are not like a piano. They are more like batons that you have to push down.” When David Bowie died, Frank marked the passing of the rock legend by playing his greatest hits on bells. “I played Space Oddity, then Rebel, Rebel, Heroes, Changes and Life on Mars,” he explained.
So why is Bruges so unspoiled? Els told me it’s because the city didn’t build factories. “Bruges was a really poor city in the 17th and 18th century and people just did not believe in the concept of the industrial revolution. There was no one who decided to reorganise the layout of the city in order to build factories or to build big roads, so we missed that part of history.”
But Bruges did have two industries – diamonds and lacemaking. I headed to the Lace Centre, or Kantcentrum, which is part museum, exhibition, lacework store and centre for learning lace-making skills. Manager Rudy Denolf told me why lacework became so popular here. “Men were working as seasonal workers abroad. For those women left behind, the only way to survive was making lace as a home industry. There is no distinctive Bruges lace. The women made all kinds.”
The Lace Centre operates from the former lace school. It looks like a Victorian school with long corridors and big sash windows. The upstairs classroom was a hive of activity and was full with women of all ages, sitting, laughing and joking as they worked on their lace. The oldest participant was by far the fastest worker. As we walked past I was astounded at the speed her fingers were manipulating the threads. “She has been doing this for more than eighty years and started lacemaking to make money for the family. In the past lacemaking was a home industry. Now it is a craft activity,” said Rudy.
Rudy explained how the ancient art of lacemaking is still evolving. “Originally lace was white or black. Now they are using more and more colours. As you can imagine, for the children it is more attractive to use colour and to create three-dimensional objects.”
We left the classroom and walked downstairs into the museum. We entered a darkened room with low lighting picking out the intricate lacework in display cabinets. Commentaries and videos played from audiovisual displays in this space. A small cinema showed videos about the history of lacemaking. I was impressed. The displays had the air of a well-founded, city technology museum. There was even an interactive display, which let visitors try their hand at lacemaking using a touchscreen.
Today’s technology sits alongside traditional skills and craftwork. “This is our oldest piece. It’s four hundred years old,” enthused Rudy. “And this is a collar from the 1700s.” He pointed at the white semi-circle of lace behind a spotlit glass case. “It is similar to what you see on the Van Dyck paintings. The size of the collar showed your wealth.” You can visit the excellent Kantcentrum lacemaking museum at Balstraat 16.
It was time to head back to my sumptuous, decadent hotel. The twenty-room Hotel De Castillion is a boutique property in a beautiful 15th century listed building on a peaceful side street overlooking the cathedral. The rooms are luxurious and tastefully decorated in muted greys and sage tones. My room featured a deep bath in the spacious en-suite bathroom and offered perfect Bruges views of towers from the large skylight windows.
The family have clearly thought about the needs of their guests. The coffee machine in the room was a welcome addition. Outside, the hotel’s secluded courtyard is quiet, even though it is in the centre of the city. When you stay at Hotel De Castillion you feel that you are immersed in a part of Bruge’s history but with today’s luxury comforts. The property was home to the Bishop of Bruges in the 18th century – Jean Baptiste Louis de Castilion – hence the Spanish-sounding name.
In the 1920s, a rich elderly woman owned the property and she remodelled it in the Art Deco style. Today you can still view the beautiful, dark, African wood finish in the lounge – a room, which seems to glow. That’s because of the stunning gold leaf that decorates the walls and ceiling. “In the 1920s, the property was known as the House with the Gold Salon,” Marc told me. “Last year we renovated it and put up a further 20,000 gold leaves. It’s all real gold!”
The cosy hotel bar features a glistening central chandelier, large wall mirror and ruby red walls and velvet curtains. It is even more beautiful in the evening as the lights are dimmed and the spirit bottles on the shelves are illuminated from behind. In fact, Bruges itself takes on a different mood at night. Many of the city’s historic buildings are floodlit. It’s magical.
The rooms mix a sense of history and great views over the city’s towers and rooftops, with contemporary design. “My wife and I and my children are all a little bit romantic. We want to have something contemporary but also with atmosphere, which makes you feel happy,” enthused Marc. This hotel certainly does that!
Beautiful Bruges may provide an historic backdrop but the city isn’t a museum. It’s a living town with an active crafts sector. Bruges has a history of creative arts. In the Middle Ages this was a bustling port, made wealthy by the wool trade. The Dukes of Burgundy spent winters in Dijon and made Bruges their summer court. Like most royalty, they had a taste for the finer things and their presence encouraged jewellers to settle. The city was Belgium’s first diamond centre.
“It was trading 200 years earlier than Antwerp,” John Rosenhoj told me in a jolly Danish lilt. He’s the owner of the city’s Diamond Museum. John’s background is in geological engineering, so he knows his rocks and stones and he’s written books on the topic. “Bruges was one of the first places in Europe where diamonds were polished and sold. Rough diamonds were traded on the market in Bruges staring from 1360 and diamond polishing was invented by local goldsmiths in 1470.”
We walked between the rooms filled with examples of diamonds and the equipment used to cut and polish them. “A diamond is the hardest material on our planet. You can only polish one with another diamond. The inventive Bruges jewellers came up with a technique of polishing diamonds using diamond dust,” John told me.
The jewels traded in Bruges’ diamond days would not have had the distinctive appearance of the stones you buy today. John showed me a rather dull looking specimen, then pointed out the type of sparkling jewel we now expect to see. “Newer diamonds have the typical ‘brilliant form’ with 57 facets that reflect the light. The old diamonds looked more regular and there was no special mathematical thinking behind their shape.”
Visitors to the museum can get hands-on with the displays. You can test the hardness of diamonds and learn how they’re grade by colour and size. You can also watch a diamond cutting show in a lecture theatre where an expert shows her skills. Overhead cameras project close-up shots of her precision work and polishing to video monitors. The audience were given the polished stone to pass around and inspect, although the host did insist that it was returned before we left the demonstration!
Diamond polishing is just one of the city’s craft skills. The Handmade In Brugge initiative aims to showcase the wealth of artisans working in the city. Around sixty makers are allowed to use the label. “If you see ‘Handmade in Brugge’ then you can be sure that they have made it themselves,” Greet Roosbeeck told me. We met at De Makersrepubliek – a pop-up shop and café operated by the craftworkers. Greet wants to showcase the best work of local artisans and give visitors a taste of this creative community.
“Sometimes Bruges is only linked with the past. People only think of the romantic side of the city. Sometimes they miss the present. They think they are in the museum,” said Greet. “But Bruges is known as a city of craftsmen. If you look back in history, since the Middle Ages craftsman were alive in Bruges and they still are today. That’s what makes it interesting. It is not a story from the past. It is a story from today which began in the past.”
Handmade in Bruges had made finding these shops easier. They list members’ workshops and stores on an app and paper handout, which you can get from their store or from the tourist information office. “Most of our designers and craftsmen are a little bit hidden away. You have to find them,” Greet smiled.
There are a number of people who create stylish art using calligraphy techniques and I headed to Maud Bekaert’s Letters in Steen workshop. It’s in a side street and I could see how the app was useful in locating businesses that are off-the-beaten track. “Bruges is famous around the world for calligraphy and letter sculptures,” Maud told me. She can carve pieces of stone with a name, date, initials or slogan, made into an eye-catching piece of art. “You could pick a beautiful sentence or a beautiful word. It can be something for the home, something for the office, something for the garden. You can put it on all types of products. If you walk through Bruges you will see what I mean,” Maud said. And I did noticed how people had commissioned beautifully stylish carved letters to represent their house number or business name.
Maud pushed down her goggles and began chipping away at a light coloured piece of stone. “I carve in the traditional way,” she shouted over the sharp, loud bursts of sound. “It’s the way that the Romans did it, with a chisel and a hammer. That’s my trade.” Maud told me she fell into this career by chance. “I went to a normal high school and planned to go to university but I really did not know what to do. A friend of my father was a letter carver and I wanted to do a gap year, so I went into his workshop and worked free for a year. I quickly discovered it was what I wanted to do.” Maud said, adding, “I like letters and wanted to design my own. My high school art teacher fell in love with one of the most famous calligraphers in the world and he taught me the art of calligraphy.” Maud does have a small store where her work is on sale. Most is commissioned and she says some visitors return a year later to pick up their bespoke pieces.
Bruges is a city known for chocolate. I found one street with six shops – all with windows full of beautiful displays of truffles, bars and even sculptures. Again, it’s an area where locals are very creative.
I headed to The Chocolate Line. This city centre chocolate factory has been recognised by the prestigious Michelin guide. “I think there are three or four famous chocolatiers in the Michelin guide and we’re still number one. I’m really proud of it. The chocolate line is the best chocolate shop in Bruges. It is the fault of my boss!” Geert is obviously proud of his employer’s efforts – business owner Dominique Persoone, a TV chef who has worked with Heston Blumenthal. His colleague Geert agreed to show me the chocolate making process, which is fully on display to all shoppers.The room smelt of a high cocoa content dark chocolate bar. It’s a really rich, sweet aroma and you could almost inhale the chocolate. The shop has a counter filled with hundreds of chocolates, some decorated in striking colours. You take a golden ticket (just like the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), which determines your order in the queue. “It used to get very crowded, with people standing outside the shop,” Geert explained.
Some of the flavours sound odd but they do work. “Dominique loves to experiment with chocolate. He’s added sun-dried tomato, or onion, or mushrooms. He’s made a chocolate with saffron curry. It’s amazing what he can do with food and cocoa together. He’s a wizard of chocolate – like the Wizard of Oz!”
It was my turn to pick. “We have three or four Asian flavours this week,” Geert advised. “The soya sauce one is very special and different. We also have green tea and bergamot, and chilli pepper. Or what about this flavour called Bangkok, which is made with coconut milk and lemongrass.” Decisions, decisions! I picked an incredible chocolate. It was called the Helsinki. It had four very famous Scandinavian food tastes – gingerbread, lemon, honey and tea – all in one chocolate. It was delicious. There are so many taste sensations that you’ll need to take a few minutes to eat each one. And if you’re with a party of people, everyone will eat in silence!
Food is important in Bruges. All over the city you can find cafes offering mussels and the Belgian favourite of chips with mayonnaise. There’s even a Chip Museum. It’s actually really interesting and covers the story of how the first potato made it to Europe from South America, taking in other important events such as the Irish potato famine. There are kitsch chip posters, potato pop art and a recreation of a 1960s Belgian chip shop. A display suggests that French fries are actually Belgian and are misnamed because Americans were confused by French-speaking Belgian soldiers in the First World War. You can also see the world’s smallest chips, measuring just 5mm long. The museum building itself is impressive. It was built in 1399 as a centre for Genoan tradesmen.
Of course, there are lots of good food choices other than chips in Bruges. Els told me there are over 400 restaurants in the city. “I could go to a different one every day if I could earn enough money,” she laughed. Jos Doroo is chef at his café, Books & Brunch, which doubles up as a second-hand bookstore. It’s a very relaxing place to eat healthy foods, such as interesting salads and home baked quiches.
Jos recommends staying away from the tourist traps for the best food. “You have the train station and the bus station on one side of town. Most tourists get dropped off there and wander over to the Market Square and eat expensively. Then they say, ‘it’s 3 o’clock we have to get back’ and wander back exactly the same way. If you go to the other side of town, where the windmills are, it is a lot quieter. There are fewer tourists. It is more authentic. Just head for the windmills on the outer edge of the ramparts,” he advised.
Els had also suggested that part of town. “The St Anna quarter has authentic cafes where you will really experience a different atmosphere to the one that you have in the city centre. That is where I take my friends when they come over.”
Now of course, Belgium is famous for its beer and a great place to sample the best brews on offer is by visiting the Bruges Beer Museum. Just be careful – Belgian beer can be very strong and it’s not uncommon to get 8% or 9% beers. The Bruges Beer Museum, just behind the Market Square, will educate you about the different brews, including Trappist beers. “They have to be made inside the monastery by the monks, with water coming from inside the premises,” explained manager Lars Pillen, as he showed me around his hi-tech museum. “They can’t be sold for profit. The money gained has to go to good causes.”
When you walk into the museum, you’re given a tablet, which you use to read barcodes on exhibits. “The museum is based on augmented reality. Just scan any item and information appears on the screen,” said Lars. One of the displays told me there’s no such thing as a beer belly. “It is one of the biggest myths and is completely untrue,” smiled Lars. I suspect he had a vested interest in selling beer!
Water is an important part of beer, so to make this point memorable, the beer making process tour first takes you through an archway of illuminated water jets. It’s a creative way to explain what happens. You can also feel, smell and eat different types of hops and grains, which help you understand how different beers get their flavour and colour. A room decorated by a wall of over 3,000 beer bottles from all over the world is quite a sight. “It looked like my recycling bin when I was a student,” I joked.
At the end of your self guided tour you can relax in the light, airy and spacious bar with large bench tables and huge windows, which offer commanding views over the marketplace. They have a massive selection of bottled and draft Belgian and international beers.
If you’re visiting Bruges, it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak Dutch or Flemish. Marc had told me that Belgians are multilingual. “Belgium is a very small country, but we have to learn four languages. We have Flemish in the north, French in the south and German in the east. And we need to speak English too! Everybody learns languages from an early age.”
Bruges offers a perfect weekend break destination from Britain. The journey by Eurostar and local train via Brussels takes under four hours from London. Or fly to Brussels. It takes an hour from the UK and the train to Bruges is a further 60 minutes direct from the airport. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of baggage allowance – once you’ve seen the sights, you’ll probably want to bring home beautiful gifts and chocolates that are ‘Handmade in Brugge.’