Last weekend, February 17-20, J and I went to Bruges (or Brugge depending on if you’re Francophone or Flemish). It was our second time going there together–first trip was in 2008–and my third time total. We were enticed into going by the Belgian beer (more J than me), picturesque views (more me than J) and a serendipitous sale e-mail from the hotel we had stayed in before (St. Martin’s–would recommend it).
Bruges is an old trade town whose golden age was in the 12th-15th centuries. Its in the northern part of Belgium in an area called Flanders (well known for horrific WWI battles). UNESCO has even claimed Bruges as a World Heritage Site. The city is remembered for its fine lace, bustling port and a few historical mishaps (for example, Hapsburg heir Maximilian of Austria was imprisoned in a cafe off the central square by the leaders of the city in 1488). As with most flourishing areas, painters and writers flocked to this place (as well as the surrounding Flanders region) and their skill became recognized and honored to this day, as you’ll notice later.
I’ll try to give you the run down of what happened and my best pictures without sounding too repetitive (but we did spend most of our time relaxing).
On Friday J and I woke up relatively early to catch our train to Brussels. The first train takes a quick 2 hours through Northern France and then a quick transfer in Belgium’s capital gets us to Bruges in about an hour. Very doable and efficient altogether. After finding our hotel in a roundabout way–I was trying to go by memory, J quickly became nervous and used roaming data to check the map on his phone (I was heading in the right direction)– we struck out for lunch, feeling starved. I had used Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet to make a list of bars, restaurants and sites. Scrolling through page after page on Lonely Planet, was definitely worth it. I probably should have written down more addresses and made some reservations though (who knew February would be a busy time?).
Luckily, one of my tagged restaurants was on the same street as our hotel, so we settled in for a three course set lunch menu (pampering) with croquettes, pate, beef stew, rabbit, chocolate mousse and ice cream with hot chocolate sauce (dame blanche). The best thing about dining is pairs is that you can taste twice the food and everything was pretty delicious.
We weren’t particularly in a rush to see everything our first day since Bruges is small and we had 3 more full days. This allowed us to spend a few hours just wandering from the central Markt out to the ring (once a moat, now a road) around the city. It was nice to walk along the cobblestone as the city’s layout became familiar to me and new things became known. There are quite a few canals in Bruges (hence the trading), so we followed one of them peeking into house boats and then turning off into residential streets. By this time we were a bit tired, so it was time to get a box of chocolates and take a nap.
By the time dusk came around we were up and out exploring my list of food and drink once again. This time we went to t’Burgs Beertjes so J could begin to get his fill of Belgian beers hard to find out of Belgium. The front room was crowded, but we were soon gestured through towards the hallway leading to the bathrooms which also led to a hidden back room. There were three other groups at tables, two of which seemed to be (at least partly) American. I’ve been shocked by how many Americans I saw while in Brugge, maybe even more than I do in London on a day-to-day basis. The tables were small and wooden and the walls were filled with old ads for the beers they sold and maps of where different beers are brewed in Belgium. J got a relatively famous beer he read about in a book I bought him one Christmas since it is too expensive to contemplate buying anywhere else. I sipped on something fruity before sharing a glass of his. (I was shamed that the annoyingly loud American girls in the corner were drinking the same thing).
We set out for dinner, but soon found out first pick (De Stove) to be fully booked. This will soon become a pattern with that tiny restaurant. Instead we began walking towards the other fancy restaurant we knew of nearby, why not? Den Dyver had space and we were quickly sat and offered some pastries in addition to our bread. We chose a three course menu with beer/wine pairings. After an amuse bouche, I had rabbit (which was good, but annoying with its small bones) and a delicious lamb dish before ending my meal with a cheese plate that I could not finish. By this point J and I were much to full to do much else and wandered back to our hotel. I would definitely go back to Den Dyver again (probably everyday if I could afford it!).
We woke up starved and headed towards the Burg in search of food. We ended up finding a waffle complete with chocolate sauce. It was delicious. We walked around for a while afterwards looking for a place for a proper breakfast and soon gave up in favor of lunch in a couple hours time. We got the museum combination pass and started at the Groeninge museum which is filled with Flemish art. The oldest paintings were from the Renaissance period and the collection slowly meandered through the next three hundred years or so until catapulting to near-modern day with a few more contemporary works during the 20th century. Many of the paintings and its paired literature were centered around Bruges and Flemish artists. I enjoyed seeing the names I knew and the many I did not. Many art museums do not take the time to define the work by the region the museum is in, which can make for a more expansive collection, but doesn’t connect the viewer to the cultural history of where they actually are.
Then we walked around searching for lunch and ended up eating a cheap lunch inside a touristy fry shop near the Minnewater (which I believe means Lovers Lake). I had a lasagna and J had a Flemish beef stew with fries. Afterwards we went into the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) and looked at the artwork and architecture while chatting quietly. The church’s boast is a Madonna and Child statue made by Michelangelo, one of the few of his works outside of Italy. I enjoyed seeing the statue and the church, but I didn’t fall in love with it as I sometimes do with churches.
Next (we were trying hard to get the most out of our combination pass) was the St. Jan Hospitaal located right across a tiny street from the church. The old hospital was used during medieval times and most of its patients were those on pilgrimage. This helped explain the large collection of religious art that the hospital had. It was interesting to see the old sketches and paintings of what the hospital had looked like while in use. I could imagine the curtained off bed where I was walking among the scary old medical instruments and dimly lit images of the Virgin Mary. Overall the entire exhibit made me very grateful to be alive today where medical science had advanced past some pretty creepy theories and anesthesia is used more widely.
We walked around for a while afterwards looking for a pub or someplace to hide from the cold. The De Halve Maan brewery was crowded so we ended up walking around in search of another bar on my list. Given our lack of a map we veered off the most efficient path and ended up at the Zand (a central square), where we were able to acquire a map and get back on the right track. Just before we gave up our search for t’Poatersgat we found it. A tiny colored sign just above two impossibly small looking cellar doors along the sidewalk. I had read it was a hole in the wall and it looked like the right place therefore we assumed it was just closed and we didn’t have to shrink ourselves and say the secret code in order to get in.
On our way back towards the Markt (and our hotel) we grabbed some fries in a fritterie off the Markt before heading back to the hotel for a nap. Once we awoke we headed about to t’Poatersgat to see if it had opened. Luckily it had, the small doors opened up into stairs that led down into a quite spacious cellar. It had dim, mood setting lighting and nice modern jazz playing. We sipped our drinks while gazing over the decorations on the walls (again many beer ads and labels). For dinner we once again tried De Stove, fully booked, and ended up having mussels at a touristy place near our hotel since we were too hungry and cold to roam far.
We woke up late today, but I unlike most of my travel days, I was in the mood for that. After a chocolate waffle, we headed to the Gruuthuse which is an interesting building somewhat connected to the church and filled with household items, religious art and building tools for display. I didn’t really read about the history of the building or what the purpose of the museum was, which made it very interesting to go from room to room wondering what a guillotine, lace, china, religious tapestries, horns and hammers have in common. It did give us a picture of what life was life, especially for women, during that time, so if that was its purpose–it served. One of the best little nooks was actually a window of sorts that went inside the church as a type of balcony. I hadn’t noticed it the day before. It was neat to have our own private viewing and I’m sure the priests or rich patrons who used the building (J and I are divided on this) appreciated being able to pray without going outside or in the (probably) unheated church. I finally looked it up… I was right–it was an old mansion of a rich and important family.
Afterwards we walked to the nearby the Arentshuis (all the major museums are right next to each other) where I discovered the Flemish artist Frank Brangwyn and fell in love with his sketches, etchings and paintings. I became one of the few people to stay in each room for longer than 5 minutes. (Poor J, I was in each room for more like 40) I wanted to study his methods to see if they could help with my own practice of sketching. The entire exhibit was dedicated to him (I believe permanently), but they add a few other artists from time to time. While we were there a few watercolors by a Japanese artist were displayed. It was wonderful to compare and contrast the two artists. Their lines and sketches were somewhat similar, but the Japanese artist’s Bruges landscapes gave an interesting, minimalist view of Bruges.
We weren’t really sure what to do next, we were kind of sick of museums, but wanted to get the fill out of our combination pass anyway. We ended up inside the Stadhuis or town hall. I expected there to be a lot more on show–tours of old rooms and stairways, old desks and leadership costumes–but we were only admitted into a (beautiful) Gothic hall. The murals covered all four ways all the way up to the ceiling and included some famous Flemish painters, artists, clerics and leaders. J and I didn’t get audio guides, so we left a bit earlier than some of the people that went in at the same time as us, but there is only so much time you can spend craning your neck upwards. Feeling hungry we walked to the Halve Maan Brewery for a late, slow and delicious lunch. J had the fish stew and I had a huge hamhock with veggies. Their food was just as good as their beer, I would definitely eat there again. After a post-lunch nap we walked around the quiet, more “livable” areas of Bruges following the canals and searching for things unknown. Without realizing we were that close we ended up at t’Poatersgat and decided it was fate. After a drink and our habit of seeing that De Stove is booked despite trying to reserve it earlier in the day, we ate at Chagall’s where the food was pretty good (J had rabbit and I had ribs) but the beer overpriced. We ended our night with two rounds at t’Brugs Beertje playing laughing over childhood stories we had never told each other.
J and I had our last day in Brugge–we woke up early to check out and then went back to our little non-chain chocolate shop to buy waffles for J’s coworkers and a box of chocolate to bring back home for us. We saw they had a tea room upstairs and ate a breakfast of waffles, tea and hot chocolate. It was pretty delicious and WAAY to sugary (which was my fault by adding the extra chocolate…). This was probably the first time I had ever had a sugar rush complete with weird headache that made it difficult to think. Afterwards we went for our last walk, through the Markt and down to the Minnewater where we went into the Begijnhof (a–very–old convent and place where widows lived back when women were giving basically nothing after their husbands died) and J took a crack at my camera. The results were mostly good, but we also got this gem: (don’t worry I also got a good one of J I’m keeping in the archives just in case…)
Once I was no longer concerned about whatever seemed to be going on behind me we walked back towards the marked to get fries from one of the vans (food carts) in front of the Belfry. It was still a few hours until we had to leave for our train so we walked off into the “suburban” part of Bruges to see the local houses, shops and schools. Of course this didn’t look that much different from the rest of Bruges, except that there were no crowds, no tourist-geared shops and plenty of the same beautiful old buildings. After amusing ourselves by searching for hidden gardens and picking out which house we would buy along the canal, we headed back to our hotel to pick up our bags and head to the train station (getting slightly lost along the way). I read and wrote on the train while J dozed. He bought me Pierre Marcolini chocolates (my absolute favorite!) in the Brussels station during our transfer–now we have way too much chocolate.
That is the tale of our time in Bruges. No travel for us planned as we figure out our work schedules for the next couple of months (being a short-term contractor will do that to ya), but we will have visitors coming to see us in London, so I may write a bit about that.