Bruges is in the northwest corner of Belgium about 15 kilometres from the Netherlands border. Although it is not on the coast, it was linked to the North Sea by an inlet called the Zwin and, during the 12th century, an inner harbour, called the Minnewater was built. Canals were dug connecting the harbour to warehouses throughout the city. As a result, the city features countless charmingly rounded bridges and meandering waterways, and is known as the “Venice of the North”.
During the middle ages, Bruges flourished with Flemish cloth as its main commodity. For reasons that are still not understood however, the Zwin began to seal with sand, blocking the passage of boats and bringing the city’s prominence as a trading port to an end.
Today, swans glide gracefully on the waters of the Minnewater. At the northern end, a three-arched bridge leads to the entrance of the Princely Beguinage of the Vine, which was established in 1245. Here nuns and other pious women devoted their lives to prayer, lace-making and weaving. Benedictine nuns still occupy the premises where, in their puffy white wimples and long black vestments, they slide as silently around the grounds as the swans drift on the water nearby.
While numerous canal cruises offer worthwhile waterside tours of the city, the cool cobbled lanes and streets of Bruges are even more alluring.
Many of the city’s ancient structures are made of brick rather than stone. The material was used for aesthetic as well as architectural purposes in medieval times and was laid down in arches, crosses and other decorative patterns. The town hall is an elegant Gothic structure and the immaculately gilded facade of the Old Recorder’s House now forms part of the law courts. Nearby, the large market square is dominated by a 13th century market hall with an octagonal belfry that is more than 80 metres tall.The intriguing and immaculate historic cityscape, monuments, museums and legendary lace of Bruges attract millions of visitors to the city every year. I am willing to bet though, that many of them – like my son – remember Bruges for its staggering number of chocolate shops and the heavenly quality of their wares. There is a chocolatier on every corner and four in between. Belgium produces 172 000 tons of chocolate every year and a large portion of that comes from Bruges. Months after our visit, my 11 year old still dreamily describes the delicious sensation of praline after praline melting in his mouth.
Or perhaps what you – like my husband – remember about Bruges is the beer? Belgium offers about 120 different varieties of beer and 580 different brands. Belgians are about as serious about their beer as the French are about their wine. It is generally yeastier and higher in alcohol than the beers of other countries. Even tiny café menus include six to eight varieties of beer and you are almost always sure to find at least one you enjoy, wherever you are.
Or maybe, for you – like me – Bruges evokes memories of delicious bowls of mussels, served with Vlaamse frites (Belgium fries) and homemade mayonnaise? Mussels are served everywhere, either plain (nature), with white wine (vin blanc), with shallots or onions (marinière), or in a tomato sauce (provençale). They are delectable with the right beer – let the restaurateur recommend one – and the meal is perfectly rounded-off with coffee and, what else, a selection of Belgian pralines.
(First published in The Weekender.)