A February 2002 trip
to Bruges by Bear in Britain
Quote: Wondering where to go to take advantage of winter flight deals? Try Bruges. It’s intimate, walk-able and filled with quaint sites, shops, bars and restaurants that offer a retreat whenever the cold gets too much. Go before Easter and get the bonus of Europe’s best chocolate in high season.
I’d been to Bruges as a student and manic sight-seer. This time, I just wanted to wander. I’d been reading Dorothy Dunnett’s “House of Niccolo” series of historical novels, which brings 15th century Bruges to vivid life, and wanted to bring the book to life in my mind.
Bruges is a wonderful place to simply wander aimlessly. The architecture is uniformly 15th century, yet seems infinite in the variety of its detail. You can spend hours appreciating a gable here, a window there, the way a tower reflects in a canal. Even something as simple as the fish market is a feast for the eyes.
Of course, behind all that architecture you’ll find significant churches (one holds the only Michaelangelo statue outside of Italy), galleries stuffed with the gloriously colourful old Dutch masters, impressive renaissance houses now opened as museums. This trip I returned to some of my favourites: The Gruuthuse Museum, the Town Hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood.
The tourist office is near the town hall. They’re well organised, friendly and have lots of tips. You’ll be spoiled here; the Belgians are impressive linguists and almost everyone speaks English. If you’re going to be here for a while, check out the options for one-price passes that get you in to all, or combinations of, the city’s attractions. You can get those at the tourist office.
Eat! Belgian friends take great pride in telling me they have the best food in the world, that the Swiss stole the chocolate reputation and the French stole the fried potato idea. Whether or not you believe that, don’t leave Brussels without trying the following: steak and french fries (frites), beer (try the fruit versions), mussels, fresh seafood and locally produced chocolate. If you’re visiting before Easter or Christmas, prepare to take plenty of chocolate home. Local makers fashion it into delicate boxes, ornaments and scenes that are almost too pretty to eat. ALMOST. Don’t resist the temptation. It IS the best in the world.
I found the Ter Brughe to be a pleasant compromise between large and small hotels. It had the style, service and professionalism of a corporate enterprise with the decorating touches, size and feel of a B&B. The whole place has been recently refurbished. My room on the top floor was beautifully furnished and had shutter windows that opened over a glorious expanse of tile rooftops. The beds were piled with rich blankets, the bathroom had a huge tub and the TV carried stations from around Europe (including several in English). It was a wonderful place to snuggle in on an inclement winter weekend.
I suspect there must be an English link here … either in owners or simply to the long tradition of English tourists who love this place … because the rooms and halls are decorated almost exclusively with lovely British prints. The one major exception is the main entrance hall, which is dominated by a colourful, life-size mural of a Bruges market scene from the late middle ages. It’s painted in a bright, realistic style similar to the murals in the old town hall (see separate entry).
The breakfast room in the basement is built into the old warehouse area. After helping yourself to a typical Dutch buffet (rolls, cheeses, sliced meats, fruit, cereals and yoghurt) you can settle next to one of the large windows and watch the canal float by. It’s not unusual to be nose-to-nose with a swan or a flotilla of ducks. And with a bit of imagination, you can visualise medieval workmen outside the windows, using the pulleys and winches on the outside of the building to load bales of silk, spices and other riches of the east onto the warehouse floor.
The Ter Brughe isn’t cheap, but it is excellent value for money. Like most European hotels you can pick up some great off-season deals. My rate in late February was more than 30 euro below the standard rate.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 21, 2002
Hotel Ter Brughe
Oost Gistelhof 2
Bruges, Belgium 8000
+32 050 340324
It’s small and cosy; I doubt if there were more than 12 tables in the place. The building is slightly triangular, as is stands on a corner where two streets come together into a third. Thus you enter through a front that is narrower that the rear. The three sides facing forward are windows, giving you a great view of the architecture, while the back wall is a bar and service area.
There’s both an a la carte menu and an all inclusive tourist menu. I went for the latter and had both plenty of choice and a great result. I started with a warming soup (I’d stumbled into the place as a heavy snowstorm made life outdoors impossible). For the main course, options included meat, fish, chicken and vegetarian, but I had to go for the classic "Steak Frites" … steak with french fries.
The Belgians will happily and frequently tell you that they invented the fried potato. Giving credit to the French was an accident of history. Taste them here, and you’ll agree. I’m sure it has something to do with whatever they use to fry them in, which no doubt sends cholesterol off the scales but manages to create a crisp, tasty exterior that elevates this traditional fast food to a new plane.
I finished up with a chocolate torte. Like the fries, chocolate is something the Belgians do better than almost anyone in the world. Forget the diet and indulge!
The service in this little place was excellent. Sensitive, cheerful, attentive but not pushy. This is unusual in places that are so heavily frequented by tourists. I happened to be travelling alone on this weekend, which always makes dining out uncomfortable. The fact that they were so solicitous of my needs, despite the awkward single state, really added to my appreciation of the day.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 21, 2002
+32 (0) 50 330 614
Attraction | "Burg Square: Town Hall and Chapel of the Holy Blo"
Inside you’ll see a massive lower hall hung with the flags of Bruges medieval guilds; an important reminder that this city was built on commerce. The real treat, however, is upstairs.
The Middle Ages were dark and disdained until the Victorians did us the favour of rediscovering them. It was the 19th century architectural buffs who really realised that the era, at least for the wealthy, was colourful, sumptuous and comfortable. They went a bit mad "discovering" forgotten Medieval jewels across Europe. Often, they took a next step and "restored" them … usually a recreation a bit closer to Victorian fairy tale fantasy than historic reality. If you’re a purist, this disturbs you greatly. I dare anyone, however, to be too negative about the gothic fantasy the 19th century restorers brought to life here.
The sweeping arches are picked out in gold gilt that glistens beneath the modern spotlights. Every small area is coloured with some bright, magnificent pattern. Large spaces are filled with life-sized murals depicting historic moments and daily activities in medieval Bruges. The details in these paintings are striking. I must have spent at least two hours here, moving from scene to scene and "reading" the pictorial stories with rapt attention.
The Town Hall has regular opening hours but does shut down intermittently for weddings. No surprise! Anyone would want to get married in this sumptuous interior.
Just a few steps from the Town Hall is another gothic gem, the Basilica of the Holy Blood. It’s unusual in that it’s two stories. The top chapel, like the Town Hall, owes much of its present appearance to 19th century restoration. I find their work here pleasant, but less impressive. The relic after which the place is named is located here; a vial of what is supposed to be the blood of Christ, revealed to worshipers on special occasions and kept at other times in a sumptuous reliquary. Whether or not you believe in these things, you have to be impressed by the art that’s been created to venerate them.
It’s the lower chapel that really impresses me. It’s smaller, darker, more cramped. Dating from the 12th century, it’s built in the older Romanesque style that goes right back to the patterns of ancient Rome. It’s more like a magical cave than a building, a feeling that’s exacerbated by the contrast of the gold cloths and fittings of the altar, shining from the gloom. This highly atmospheric, almost secret, place creates a much more spiritual and mystical feeling for me the brighter, more ornate space upstairs.
The Burg Square
Near Market Place
Attraction | "Gruuthuse Museum"
The Lords of Gruuthuse made their money from beer. They originally had a monopoly on "gruut", the yeast that begins the brewing process. Considering that beer was the beverage of choice for every man, woman and child in an era where drinking water was unsafe, that must have been like charging people to breathe! By the height of their power in the 15th century the Lords Gruuthuse were as powerful as any European monarch, working and playing with the Medicis, the Popes, the Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of France, England and Scotland. This is fairly obvious from their house, which … even though it’s a shadow of what it was 500 years ago … is clearly closer to palace than residence.
What you see today is not, however, the Gruuthuse as its lords left it. Bruges went through a cataclysmic decline in the 17th century as its ports silted up. The rich left for other places, and the buildings were put to other uses. (The Gruuthuse was a pawn shop!) It was the 19th century "re-discoverers" of Bruges who restored the Gruuthuse and turned it into a city museum, assembling room after room of artefacts that attest to the city’s former greatness.
The collections are sensitively displayed, however, to give you a hint of what the house must have been like when occupied. Precious tapestries and late medieval furniture and plate, for example, come together to create a dining room. A room of coins and commercial artefacts in cases doesn’t take away from the appreciation of the gracious room they occupy or the magnificent views from the windows. A huge collection of culinary artefacts is displayed, of course, in the old kitchen.
You’ll find room after room here of furniture, armour, tapestries, instruments, table ware and decorative items. (For people who like the ghoulish, there’s even a bona fide French guillotine brought here by a quirk of history.) The lavish opulence of the decorative arts here makes it clear just how magnificently rich this place once was. Truly, there could have been few lives better than to be born into a rich merchant family in Bruges around 1425!
Bear in Britain
Windsor, United Kingdom