A TASTE OF BRUGES
XAV JUDD FELL IN LOVE WITH THE MEDIEVAL BEAUTY OF BRUGES, BUT IT WAS THE CHIPS AND THE CHOCOLATE WHICH REALLY STOLE HIS HEART
Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Michelangelo’s David. And Chopin’s Raindrop. If just one cityscape could be added to this list of “things of beauty”, nobody would argue if it was Bruges.
The Belgian settlement is an irresistible melange of gingerbread houses, winding cobbled alleys, and mist-hung, blue-green canals. Furthermore, situated in the province of West Flanders in the northwest of Belgium, it’s one of the best preserved medieval towns in the whole of Europe and its historic core is a Unesco World Heritage site. Yet, don’t expect just glorious architecture. Also look forward to quaint bistros and drinkeries, design boutiques, lace shops and chocolatiers, and a smattering of engrossing galleries and museums.
Bruges, which is in the Flemish region of Belgium, was founded in the ninth century. Helped by being less than 20km from the coast, the settlement became a major international trading post in an epoch considered a golden age (1101 to 1500). During this period, its commercial hub was the majestic Markt (sonamed, becausethe square has been the site of a market since the 10th century). On any given day, tens of local merchants exchanged goods – predominantly textiles, plus spicesand wine - with their French, Spanish and Italian equivalents. Nowadays, this partly pedestrianised central quad is still a fascinating focal point as it’s ringed by pastel-coloured guild houses, many of which have been converted into atmospheric bars and restaurants. And above it all, sublime, dominating proceedings like a bloat of hippos in a crocodile-strewn river, is the Belfort. In the movie In Bruges (2008), a principal character chucks himself out of the top of this 1240-constructed bell tower. You’ll be aiming for a less eventful trip, as you ascend the 83-metre-tall (there are 366 steps), sand-lime brick marvel. And boy, awaiting you is a view to die for (not literally, in this case).
One of the things that are observable are the lifeblood of this municipality, the canals. It’s possible to take a serene 30-minute (uncovered) boat cruise from Jan van Eyckplein to Beguinage. And glide by venerable edifices and pretty patches of flowers, often serenaded by this milieu’s most ubiquitous residents, trumpeting swans.
Belgium is seen as an ultra-progressive country in respect of LGBTQ+ rights. In fact, same-sex activity was decriminalised way back in 1795 and in 2003 the nation was the second anywhere in the world to legalise non-straight marriage. Additionally, a former prime minister, Elio Di Rupo, was one of the first openly gay heads of government (2011-2014).
Due to Bruges’ quite small size (approximate population 115, 000),there are only a couple of queer venues in the whole municipality. The Pub (thepub.be) is situated in the heart of town, actually inside the Hotel Koffieboontje (Hallestraat 4). This trendy, gay-friendly hangout features exposed brickwork, wooden ceiling beams, warm lighting and a vintage jukebox. It’s the perfect homely spot to engage in repartee with a mixed crowd of locals and vacationers. On alternate Fridays they host a chat café social event which welcomes all members of our community and beyond.
Roughly a 15-minute walk away is another super-hospitable watering hole, Bauhaus (Langestraat 133-137.bauhaus.be). Housed in a charming, medieval stepped-gable building, its main allure is that of an archetypal Belgian bar. Other reasons the clientele – largely twenty-to-thirtysomething holidaymakers and natives – just can’t get enough of the place are interiors decked out in antique furniture, regular happy hours, and lively entertainment likekaraoke and quizzes.
It’s not a surprise that both of the above premises stock over 50 beers, as Belgium has a unique heritage in relation to this alcoholic beverage. Indeed, it’s been fermented in the country since the Roman era. And to find out more about the ultimate thirst-quencher, rock up to the Bruges Beer Experience (Breidelstraat 3.mybeerexperience.com). In this absorbing museum, learn about the drink’s long-held significance to the titular city and discover some of its ingredients, brewing secrets and different varieties – Abbey, Lambic and Trappist, etc. This establishment also has a bar where 16 draughts are on tap. To continue the exploration of everything amber nectar, a must-do is a tour of Brouwerij De Halve Maan (Walplein 26,halvemaan.be).Set up in 1856, it’s one of three breweries still operating in town. Not to forget the annual beer festival, which this year is in the recently opened Bruges Meeting & Convention Centre (Beursplein 1.brugsbierfestival.be – 09 – 10 April). At this rollicking extravaganza, there are over 350 kinds of booze to check out. Bottoms up!
Although it’s the epitome of splendour, Bruges’ inhabitants have endured their fair share of distress, brutality and pain. Such struggles are vividly brought to life in the Torture Museum Oude Steen (Wollestraat 29.torturemuseum.be). In the Middle Ages this site used to be occupied by a prison, and part of its cellar has been converted into a dungeon. Inside, witness an array of macabre, mainly authentic devices and contraptions (the brazen bull, the rack, and the wooden horse, amongst others). Many of them are accompanied by eerie, life-size wax figures illustrating how they were used to inflict the maximum amount of suffering on the bodies and minds of individuals, who more often than not, were the innocent victims of tyrannical authorities.
Conversely, a favourable side of this town’s pastcan be glimpsed in the Kantcentrum (Balstraat 16.kantcentrum.eu). The fact that textiles played an important role in Bruges’ early development and prosperity has already briefly been touched upon, and the aforesaid gallery delves into the municipality’s relationship with one particular fabric, lace. Its range of interactive, multimedia exhibits highlight the origins, aesthetics and types of the luxury material, the techniques used in its (painstaking) manufacture, and a timeline of an industry that took off in the city in the 17th century. This establishment also showcases several samples of lace, including from the Great War (1914-1918), and puts on afternoon demonstrations of its bobbin variety being made.
Of course, the whole of Belgium is renowned for her classic moules-frites. However, Bruges is the only place on earth that’s got an eponymous institution dedicated to the latter half of the dish, the Frietmuseum (Vlamingstraat 33.frietmuseum.be). It’s spread over three floors: the ground one chronicles the humble potato, starting with its initial cultivation by Mesoamerican peoples circa 2000BC. The next level up offers a jocular everything-you-want-to know about the aforementioned sliced-up spud. while in the basement, there’s a cosy café, where it’s possible to try the fries (and a plethora of other comestibles). And they should be uber-scrumptious, as there’s a video on rotation explaining how to prepare the quintessential specimen. Other things of interest number artworks, photographs, maps, and kitchenalia such as potato peelers and chip-making machines. So, where’s my butty?
As if one guilty pleasure wasn’t enough, your waistline could come under even severer pressure if you can’t resist chocolate. Although the English and Swiss might disagree, Belgium’s really is the finest on the planet for chocolate. And Bruges’ wonderful Choco-Story (Wijnzakstraat 2.choco-story-brugge.be), which is housed in the impressive 15th-century building the Maison de Croon, explores the evolution of a delicacy derived from cocoa. This is adroitly accomplished with (nearly 1000) exhibits that enrapture the senses, particularly taste and smell – the aromas wafting around this joint are legendary. As are some of the items on display, for example, Aztec and Mayan relics. But surely the proof is in the pudding. It’s convenient, then, that this town’s blessed with such a smorgasbord of dedicated stores in this gastronomic field (50-plus) that it would give Willy’s Wonka a hard-on. One standout is Chocolatier Dumon (their branch at Simon Stevinplein 11 is close to two other chief shopping thoroughfares, Steenstraat and Zuidzandstraat). This outlet’s (chocolatierdumon.be) traditional hand-made treats are to die for, with a special shout-out to the pralines. While The Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein 19, thechocolateline.be) turns the production of their signature snack into an artform. Drool over artisanal goodies infused with cool zany flavours – cola, passion fruit, saké and even crispy bacon (the “Miss Piggy”) etc.Wackily, they even mould this dark, milk or white candy into (edible) pills and lipstick. And as if some sort of heavenly symmetry, like the cutest cocoa confectionary, Bruges is refined, easy on the eye and just one taste will leave you wanting more…