Basking in Bruges

Mat McLachlan
If it wasn't quirky, it wouldn't be Belgium. Case in point: page three of the Tourist Guide to Bruges lists as one of the city's must-see attractions "possibly the smallest Gothic window in Europe". In a city so blessed with historic and architectural gems it's intriguing they would expect you to walk 12 blocks out of your way to see a window, no matter how diminutive it may be. It's refreshing that one of Europe's bastions of culture and history still has a healthy grasp of the absurd.

Bruges is located in the west of Belgium not far from the French border, and its history is an epic of glory and pain. The city grew prosperous in medieval times on the back of the wool trade with England, and by the 14th century it was a European economic powerhouse and the headquarters of the powerful Hanseatic League of Seventeen Cities. Bruges' booming textile industry led to a population explosion and by 1500 it was home to 200,000 people — twice as many as London.

The elite invested much of their new-found fortune in architecture and Bruges blossomed into one of Europe's most lovely cities. Soon after, however, economic decline virtually halted development — a pity for the merchants of the day, but a boon for modern travellers: the Bruges of today has changed little in 400 years. The people of Bruges suffered heavily during both World Wars but the city itself escaped unscathed. Locals will tell you that, even while the rest of Europe was in flames, invading armies found the city too beautiful to destroy.

True or not, it's difficult to argue with this theory during an evening stroll along the city's enchanting canals, the stone facades bathing in the caramel light. Dusk is the time when Bruges reveals its magic; when weathered stone edifices seem to glow from within and streets fill with the clatter of pans and the scents of good cooking.

Culinary delights have always been part of a visit to Belgium and this is doubly true in Bruges — the city's reputation for fine dining is unsurpassed. For the best in French haute cuisine, try the sophisticated De Karmeliet restaurant. Its reputation (and three Michelin stars) guarantees that it is always busy, so be sure to book at least a week in advance.

Like all Belgians, Bruges locals rate chocolate as one of the essential food groups (with beer and waffles rounding out the top three). The city is home to hundreds of chocolate makers and a visit to two or three is an essential component of any visit. Woe to the visitor overheard muttering the blasphemous "I don't really like chocolate..."

Beer lovers can sample over 300 Belgian brews at a myriad of pubs and bars in the city centre. Worthy of note is the famous 't Bruges Beertje, probably the best-known pub in the country, as well as the De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) brewery. Forty-five minute tours of the facility include samples of its most famous brew, Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry), a medium-strong ale.

For the best perspective of Bruges' glorious architecture, trudge up the 366 steps of the 13th-century belfry for a spectacular panorama of gables and cobblestones. Only from this height is the city's rustic glory truly revealed. Vistas from the belfry take in The Market, the city's main square which has been the centre of trade since medieval times; The Burg, site of the Palaces of the Counts of Flanders; and The Bourse, the world's original stock exchange. To enhance the experience, make the climb during late afternoon as Bruges begins to glow, and follow it up with a stroll along the city's willow-lined canals. Bruges is compact and easy to navigate and, like all timeless cities, its treasures are best discovered on foot.

By the way, the guidebooks are right — that Gothic window is impressively small.

Reproduced with permission from Travel & Living magazine, Australia’s premium travel and lifestyle magazine.