Beer, Waffles & Fries Oh My!

Sarah Freeman on 05 November 2018
If you want a short break away in a picture postcard city, then Bruges has to come top of the list. The capital and largest city in West Flanders, Bruges is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and a 90-minute train ride away from Brussels Airport.

The city centre is so picturesque, think cute winding streets, cobbles galore and a network of canals that criss-cross the city and give it its nickname of “Venice of the North”. The historic city centre claims the distinction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can still see today why it was once one of the world’s greatest commercial cities.

My accommodation was the beautiful 4 Star Grand Hotel Casselbergh, created from three historical residences known as “Cassellbergh”, “Zeven Torens” and “t’Fransch Schildt”, which were previously owned by local aristocracy.

For the first day I’d booked a walking tour and was meeting in the main market square (Grote Markt) close to the iconic clock tower or the “Belfry of Bruges”. Originally housing the treasury and town’s archives, today you can climb the 366 steps up to the top (warning the staircase is narrow and steep) for wonderful views. Make sure to get there early though to miss the crowds. The main square is flanked by the Provincial Government Palace, the Historium and cafes selling all your traditional Belgium favourites like Flemish Stew. The Historium is a fun, interactive experience that takes you back to the golden age of Bruges through seven historically themed multi-media rooms.

Wandering past the belfry you come to the old cloth halls, where market traders used to sell their wares, from here it’s easy to get lost as a lot of the winding roads all look the same with pretty, red brick coloured houses. One of the many interesting buildings is the Gruuthuse Museum, while currently being renovated (opens Spring 2019), this luxurious city palace houses an amazing collection of silver, furniture and sculpture. A few minutes round the bend you come to Sint-Janshospital, over 800 years old, the hospital used to be managed by monks and nuns who took care of the sick and poor. It’s definitely worth wandering around the complex and visiting the old dormitory and pharmacy. From churches, monasteries and abbeys the city has an amazing ecclesiastical heritage. Two of note well worth seeing are the Church of Our Lady and St. Saviours Cathedral.

Crossing the canals, you come to a lovely little street called Wijngaardstraat with the old horse head fountain and some of the prettiest houses. Crossing the bridge you come to Beginhof, a walled community inhabited by the Order of St. Benedict nuns featuring a serene garden and white coloured houses. On the return pass by the masses of infamous swans chilling out by the canal side. Swans are revered in Bruges but the reason for their existence is subject to debate. The most gruesome tale is that of Pieter Lanchals, the right-hand man of Emperor Maximillian of Austria. The story goes that the emperor lost his wife in a hunting accident in Bruges and as such heavily taxed the city. On visiting the city years after he was taken captive and was forced to watch the beheading of his advisor, whose surname meant “long neck” in Old Dutch. He eventually was released but ordered the city to pay penance by decreeing they must always keep “long necks” in its canals. The city continues to honour this tradition and ensures the number never drops below 100. Looping back, it’s worth a quick visit to the De Halve Maan brewery, down a little alley there’s a glass window where you can see the beer pipes under the ground and you can taste the locally brewed Zot beer.

A fun way to see the city is to take a horse and carriage ride (€50) or a boat trip (€8). I took to the water and enjoyed a leisurely 30-minute tour of the canals with a comedic Belgian captain.

Bruges features a wealth of outdoor sculptures, some of the best I came across were by Rik Poot, created 1981 – 87, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are simple yet striking bronze pieces in the museum quarter. Also not to be missed is “Skyscraper” (The Bruges Whale), a gigantic sculpture sited in the canal near the Jan van Eyck statue. Constructed from waste plastic collected from Hawaii beaches, US artists Jason Klimoski and Lesley Chang are trying to raise awareness of the universal problem of ocean pollution.

Make sure to visit Burg Square if you love architecture. The buildings are in a wide variety of styles from Neo-Classicist to Renaissance and dating back to Gothic and the beautiful Town Hall or Stadhuis that was built in 1376. The square was one of the earliest inhabited areas of the city and also features the Old Civil Registry/Old Court House, the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, my favourite building of all with its gorgeous golden statues and medallions of the Flanders Counts.

Bruges features some of the best restaurants in Belgium and its fast food is also a cut above the rest. With lovely crispy fries, golden waffles available on every corner topped with fruit and cream or dripping with chocolate sauce, and arguably the best (and in some cases the strongest) tasting beer in Europe, not to mention the sumptuous chocolate shops selling everything from truffles to chocolate tools, it’s definitely not good if you are on a diet!

For the final day we decided the explore the east side of the city. Our first stop was St. Anna’s Church, built in the 17th century, the architecture reflects its simple Gothic influence but surprisingly holds a wonderful Baroque interior with carved wooden panels and the largest single painting in Bruges – courtesy of past wealthy patron’s donations. Just round the corner you can stop at the Kant Museum (the lace centre is housed in the renovated old lace school) and the Folklore Museum (housed in a row of cute, whitewashed 17th-century dwellings, you can explore an old pharmacy and classroom and even see old costumes). We continued further east to our final destination. Close to the old city walls four windmills line the river bank. There used to be 29 mills in Bruges, the majority being grain mills. Sint-Janshuismolen is a hollow post wooden mill and was constructed on the orders of 26 bakers in 1770! If you pay €4, you can actually climb the steep steps and go inside to see the millstones and giant wooden cogs.

Bruges you’ll be in my memories and on my waistline for a long time!