Finally catching up on some blogging after slacking for a couple of months.
Over Martin Luther King Day three-day weekend, I ventured back to Belgium to explore the country’s famed and relatively untouched medieval gothic cities. Over the three day weekend I visited both Bruges and Ghent. Bruges stole my heart, it is beautiful, quaint, full of history and even the setting of a great film “In Bruges.” Bruges’ buildings are mostly untouched by war and offer a rare glimpse into daily gothic/medieval life.
In short, Bruges is a must in Belgium.
This time I took the longer way to get there, flew into Amsterdam and took a train. Unfortunately multiple rail maintenance projects were happening in the region causing many detours and transfers for me, nonetheless I got to Bruges from Amsterdam Airport in under 4 hours. Was the longwinded journey worth it? Absolutely.
Trains run frequently between Bruges and Brussels and often stop in Ghent, so both cities are easily doable as a day trip from Brussels, where the main airport in the country is. Within Bruges, getting around is extremely easy. You can choose to take the bus for slightly longer distances but for the most part the entire city is walkable and pedestrian friendly. My hotel was at the opposite end of the city from the train station and it was around a 20-30 minute walk without stops, but so many sites and wonders along the way that its hard not to stop.
I would recommend staying overnight in Bruges if your schedule allows, the real magic of the city reveals itself in the evenings and early mornings before and after the day trip crowds swarm the city.
I chose to stay at the Hotel Van Cleef, housed in a former residence of the Van Cleef royal family. While a splurge comparatively in Bruges, I personally thought it was extremely worth it. The hotel is well designed, despite its 4-star rating it has beyond 5-star service and staff and the rooms are furnished with either Missoni or Hermes home items, further, most rooms come with a jacuzzi bath which is always welcome. Also, one of the best hotel breakfasts I have had in a long time, especially their egg’s Benedict. The hotel is also located in what locals called “the forgotten corner” of Bruges, away from the main areas but still a short 10 minute walk to the town center but also a short 15 minute walk to the windmills and edges of the UNESCO Old Town.
One of the most famous items house in Bruges is Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child, house in the Church of Our Lady Bruges, however it was under restoration work and wont be back on display until later in 2019, in the meantime there is a replica. I chose not to spend money or time to go see the replica, and also gave myself reason to return. But I discovered there was so much more Bruges has to offer.
- Arrive in Bruges central station and walk towards the hotel, stopping long the way.
- First stop: Begijnhuisje, a quiet community largely unchanged from 17th century, occupied by nun who wanted to live a quiet life doing their own tasks and sustaining their own life. I came back to this area about 2-3 times during my stay. Each time had a different vibe. The best was at dusk as the sun was setting and the lights slowly lit up in the street lamps and houses. Truly a peaceful and meditative corner of the city. You’ll find a few other smaller nun communities throughout Bruges as well. But I believe this one is one of the larger, better preserved ones. Sunset hour is also the best because you wont see giant tour groups or day-trippers ignoring the “Ssst” signs plastered throughout reminding people to keep quiet as this is still an active community that is trying to preserve their ways.
- I then walked along the canals and admired the beautiful architecture throughout the city. It was a clear blue sky day which probably added to the excellent vibes.
- I finally arrived at the hotel right around 3PM. Upon check-in I was given a brief tour of the various public rooms in the hotel (each with a different design), the history of the hotel and a welcome cocktail, house Bellini (you can choose what you want), paired with smoked salmon tartare and blue cheese truffle.
- After settling in and freshening up, I headed back into the city for more exploring.
- It is basically a straight shot walk from the hotel to Burg Square, one of two main squares in Bruges. Here you’ll find Bruges City Hall, which you can tour. But the main thing here is Basilica of the Holy Blood, the entrance is tucked in the far right corner of the square. Entry is free, but you do have to donate and line up to see the holy blood (Blood of Jesus) and be blessed by the priest. The interior of the basilica itself is stunning and worth a trip.
- There is a small street between Burg Square and Markt Square, lots of restaurants and shops occupy this high value real estate. Including Go.fre Brugge, a little shop selling delicious waffles on a stick, you can choose plain or have it dipped in a selection of sauces and topped with a topping of your choice. I went with a dark chocolate pistachio, and it was divine.
- The main attraction of the Markt and a centerpiece of Bruges is the Belfry of Bruges. I thought about going up but the line was nearly out the main entrance and so I decided I would return the next morning right around opening, which turned out to be the wise decision. There is a limit to the number of people allowed in the stairwell and top floor (it is after all a old building and the 330 steps get narrow near the top). But is it worth paying the slightly hefty entry fee? Absolutely and more on that below. Other important building in the square is the Provincial Court. I then got some Frites with curry ketchup at one of the two stalls set up in front of the Belfry, these are the types of places you want to get fries from as they fry them fresh (as in they put the fries through second phase frying only when you order).
- What better way to wrap up a delicious snack of Frites than to visit the Museum of Frites? As touristy as this sounds, and yes it is quite that, it is actually worth checking out. I actually learned more than I thought I would. Primarily in regards to when and how the first fried potatoes came about, and how the concept spread and how it was a case of mistaken identity that the name “French Fries” was derived from (American soldiers thinking the Belgian soldiers who offered them fried potatoes were French). Also there is such an art to how you fry and make the best fries/frites (there is a difference), and what is in the various sauces. Unfortunately no free tastings, but they do have a shop downstairs that sell fries.
- It was also holiday season in Belgium so lots of the boutique chocolatiers were closed unfortunately, but the big name Bruges chocolatier was open, The Chocolate Line. On my way there, I stopped by Oyya Waffles for some delicious freshly baked Belgian Waffles (the doughier, fluffier with light sugar coat waffle compared to the Brussels Waffle, which is the square airy version with far more crunch). Personally I like the Belgian style more.
- It was nearing 5PM and the sun was beginning to set. I stopped by to check out the architecture of the Church of Our Lady Bruges. But one of my favorite spots in Bruges is right next to the church, it is a small stone bridge over the canal that looks out over some very well preserved buildings, one of which is the Boniface hotel. Once again this little corner in Bruges is best at night and early morning when the bridge isnt packed with selfie-stick carrying tour groups.
- Across the ways from the Church courtyard is Sint-Janshospitaal, the world’s oldest hospital building, during the day you can visit and tour, by the time I arrived it was closed but you can still walk around the buildings and courtyards. And you can see one of the original concepts of the hospital wing design.
- I then found my way back to Begijnhuisje at sunset, and boy was it just pure peaceful magic. So many colors. The quaint quietness, just hearing the birds chirp, the wind blow and the sky changing colors.
- I then walked along and to the end of Love Lake, as locals call it, where white swans swim and meander. Before walking back to Begijnhuisje as the evening house and street lights turned on.
- I walked back to the Church of Our Lady Bruges and Boniface Hotel and enjoyed the quietness of Bruges as it said goodbye to day-trippers and felt the historic and medieval wonder of the city come to life.
- I then stopped by Husbrouwerji de Halve Maan, the local brewery, but I had missed the last tour and with dinner coming up chose not to have a drink in the tasting room which opens late. I ended up not having time the next day for a tour either, oh well, next time!
- As night fell, I walked back through the city and admired the buildings as they all light up, and could only imagine how magical this place would be in the snow over Christmas.
- No trip to Belgium is complete with a stop at a pub for good local brews. I stopped at ‘t Poatersgat Bar, an excellent underground pub serving a massive selection of Belgian beers! The bartender here is knowledgeable and super friendly. I had one of the best beers Ive had here, Vanderghinste, a dark sour ale. Highly recommend this spot for some good Belgian beers from all over the country.
- I had asked the hotel for restaurant recommendations to try traditional Flemish cuisine, many of the places were either closed or booked and they managed to book me at a great spot, De Koestse Restaurant. I had Mussels steamed in their own juice, Flemish beef stew, made with beer served with frites. With more local brewed beer. Having had so many fries, waffles and beer, there was simply no room for dessert.
- I returned to the hotel for a night cap Gin & Tonic in the Garden Room before heading to bed.
- Woke up just before sunrise and walk to through “the forgotten corner” of Bruges, basically the Northeast corner of old town. This part of town is wonderful to explore. Very local and residential. Barely any shops or restaurants and lots of great architecture. I arrived at Bonne Chieremolen, a set of three original Windmills along the river, just as the sun began to rise. It was a crisp, chilly but clear sky morning. Up the top of the hills of each windmill, you get wonderful panoramic views of Bruges with the multiple Church bell towers dominating the skyline. Truly magical as the sun rose and the sky turned gold and pink. Perfect backdrop for this city.
- I returned to the hotel for some breakfast at around 9AM. My rate included a continental breakfast of pastries, fruit, charcuteries and beverages, for an additional 8 euros you could get the egg dishes (which a portion of how much the breakfast actually cost). Trust me its worth it, the Eggs Benedict is one of the best I’ve had. Perfectly poached egg, Nordic smoked salmon, and a light but creamy hollandaise.
- After breakfast, it was time to burn off the egg with a climb up the 330 steps to the top of the Belfry. I arrived at around 10:30AM and there was no line but I waited for a couple minutes for one of the first visitors to exit so I could go. You can only scan your ticket at the turnstile when it turns green. By the time I exited at 11:15AM the line was back out the door. The entry is not that cheap but I think its worth it. My recommendation is to arrive early, get tickets, walk up and try to time your visit so you are at the top at the top of the hour for a spectacular bell show. Then on your way back down, read about the tower and its history. Unfortunately stairs are the only way up and down, and its a spiral staircase so it can get nauseating. I thought I was going up for panoramic views, but the true beauty are the bells themselves and each quarter of the hour there is a chime sequence but its at the top of the hour that the real show happens. It is a beautiful music, bells. And it rings across the city. It is also just so cool to see the bells and how the entire system works, very mechanical and yet this is very old technology. Further, it was insane to see that someone was actually playing a keyboard in the main control room that controlled the strings that chime the bells! I stood in the courtyard of the Belfry to hear more of the chimes before walking back to the hotel.
- By noon it was time to grab my things and head to the train station to head to Ghent.
Bruges, Gothic and Medieval wonder and history preserved in every corner. Small, quaint and beautiful yet mysterious at times too. Wonderful and friendly people and all the classic and delicious Belgian/ Flemish food you could want. Also beer! Highly recommend stopping by Bruges, and like I said, try to stay overnight to really experience the full wonder of this city.