Winter in Bruges seems to be an excellent time to visit with frosty streets less flooded by tourists you can wander at your leisure, soaking up history and medieval sights and when you're ready for something a bit more festive - you can begin the chocolate and beer extravaganza...
by Red Mezz on December 19, 2010
Bruges is a beautiful city - and in the stark chill of winter is welcomes you with warm chocolates and plentiful beer. I don't know if it is the city itself and it's slightly unique if still very classically European feel that made me want to learn more about it once I'd arrived, or if it was the simple fact that - unlike most places I travel to - I arrived in Belgium with little knowledge of what it had to offer or it's history. It was a strange sensation and one I found surprisingly pleasant. That which caught my interest as I walked wide-eyed around made itself apparent, and was equally welcoming in it's sharing of information. Museums abound in Bruges, and each is a little different than the last. I didn't arrive in the city with any real notion of visiting a museum, not quite sure what to expect, but after just an hour or so of wandering around the city the idea of learning more about the newness that was all around me became incredibly appealing. I didn't have to look far to find the first one. In the heart of the Burg square next to the Basilica of the Holy Blood after just coming from a completely unexpected wonder there, I found myself stopped in frozen wonderment at the ornate, gilded buildings before me. My hands were numbed entirely as I snapped shot after shot of them, hoping beyond hope that in my shaking I'd gotten a clear, straight photograph somewhere in their midst. Big throngs of Belgians on bicycles made their way through the square, hardly seeming to notice the icy cold wind which was numbing me to the bone. I was only too happy to discover that the building I was standing in front of was actually one of the Bruggemuseums - or one of the 11 historical buildings and museum collections in the city. This particular one was the Bruggemuseum-Stadhuis, or the town hall and I walked inside very very grateful to be out of the cold and wondering (as I always do) if the fee and the time spent in this museum would be worth while. I was met with the typical Belgian staff - not abrasive, but not necessarily friendly either. I was getting used to it and took no offense at their blank expression and simple answers. The tickets to get into this particular museum it soon became clear were €2 each - a price I was quite happy to pay just to get out of the cold. To be honest, after so many years in Britain becoming accustomed to paying between £7 and £15 for even the most modest museum or site, I was so impressed with the cost that I would have gone in regardless of my interest or the cold. The room was large and filled with big, old portraits and paintings of which I could never seem to correlate with the numbers in my pamphlet about the art work. After just a few minutes of trying to figure it out I put it aside and just admired the works themselves and made quiet musings about who or what they may have been. This museum, admittedly doesn't have much to see. Unless I missed a door (and I don't think I did) that led off to some other large chamber or building housing all the art work, it's rather modest in that. But it was pleasant, and quiet - and the tourists that did come in seemed to regard it with a similar pleasant, amused smile - not expecting much and it exceeding that. At it's heart, this is a museum of itself - being the town hall and the seat of administrative government in Bruges for what I believe is more than 700 years. It wasn't until I was standing in the main Gothic chamber - listening to the audio guide talk about things that seemed to be in some other building entirely looking at the vast expanse of extremely impressive wall paintings that I began to understand and appreciate some of Bruges's past and the power it once had. And if that isn't what a city museum should do, then I don't know what is... I left feeling I understood the city and her people a little bit better - though I'd made no sense out of the guide or the paintings or had any real understanding of the historical context. The atmosphere was there in the room which in itself is worth just sitting down and absorbing in the quiet stillness that it offers. I left with the impression of Bruges that I did not have before, and though it's not a museum that will knock your socks off - it's a rather nice start I think to having a look around the city.
by Red Mezz on December 8, 2010
A very cold day in Bruges found me walking up to the ornate entrance to the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The snow had been falling all morning and the Burg square (just a few minutes walk away from the main square and the tourist shops and chocolateries) and the enormous tree in it's centre were still dusted with snow, and the cyclist passing seemed too cold to imagine. I'd just arrived from Inverness and still I found the weather biting and harsh - and so after rubbing my hands together for a few minutes outside to capture at least a few photos of the incredibly ornate gilded building, I went inside. This was the first church I entered in Belgium, so I didn't yet know that I would leave with a special place in my heart for the beauty of Belgian sacred places. The steps were bare and cold and I wondered with dismay suddenly if it would be any warmer inside. To tell you the truth - I couldn't tell you if it was or not - the minute I arrived inside the basilica my attention was immediately and completely invested in the view around me. Most churches in Europe are rather filled with history - so to talk about the immense history of the basilica may seem redundant. However, how many churches claim to have Christ's own blood in safe keeping in the chapel? There is something different about The Basilica of the Holy Blood, that for me felt like more than the impression of faith and time and history and lives passed through that I normally experience in these old European chapels. There was something of living history here - and you felt that in those who came to share it. There were tourists there as well as locals there to worship on the cold morning I arrived, but even the tourists seemed to have a sense of something important and worth seeing here - rather than just standing idly snapping photos. There was a hush over the place - even when it was crowded - that I've not seen exhibited in one of these places in some time. There was quite a large group of people hoping to see the holy blood relic (a rock-crystal vial said to hold a cloth covered in the blood of Jesus Christ, wiped off by Joseph of Arimathea.) and so I sat down in a hard wooden chair in the middle of the ornately Gothic upper chapel to stare in wonder at the brilliantly colorful mural before me. It was truly stunning - and ran from the floor to the ceiling. I sat for quite some time and still felt I had not truly taken it in. The quiet of the place had the weight of importance to it, and for the size of the chapel I was impressed that it had had such an effect. I've stood in the towering grandeur of Notre Dame, York Minster and even the Sistine Chapel and yet they did not exude the respectful hush I found in the Basilica. I left impressed. Even if seeing the old churches, chapels and cathedrals isn't your highest priority on a trip - I would recommend maybe making an exception for this one. Aside from the unique Gothic and Romanesque beauty of the place, it's worth having a look for yourself at the vial that is said to have travelled from the Holy Lands via Constantinople to end up in the little city of Bruges which contains the blood of Christ.
The second church I visited in Bruges could hardly have been more different from the first (that being the Basilica of the Holy Blood) but I loved it with almost as much ardour as the first and for completely different reasons. Where the basilica was dark and Romanesque with strong Gothic structures and vibrant murals against low lit walls with the wonderful and almost foreboding awareness that the blood of Christ was kept just around the corner - the Church of our Lady is high vaulted grandeur and golden lit simplicity. The tower of the church climbs relentlessly into the skyline and you can see it's spire from around the city (it is, I believe the tallest structure in the city, and I have heard that it's the second tallest brickwork structure in the world) But its' not the size of it that will blow you away. Some churches and cathedrals wow you with their size, but for me it was a very majestic simplicity that set this church apart. It was a different (but equally cold) morning that I made my way to this church. Each of these Belgian churches held more interest for me than the simplicity of visiting a beautiful, historic building. As much as I do enjoy visiting these places - you can only go to so many ancient European churches before they lose their charm. (Or can you? Even as I wrote that I wondered if it were true...) But on this trip I did want to visit both of these specifically for the treasures that they held. The Basilica's obvious draw is right in the title, as is - (though perhaps not quite so obvious) the Church of Our Lady. Not only is it a spectacular church to see in it's own right (and it is - at this moment it sits as one of my favourite in the world - perhaps largely because once again the tourists that did visit it visited it with a sense of awe and respect and quiet dignity which I find so painfully rare these days) but because it houses what is also becoming one of my favourite works of art by Michelangelo. Funnily enough, I almost walked out of the church entirely without seeing it. I was so engaged by the way the light burst through the large windows across the pale yellow stone and lit up the various beautiful statues, vaulted ceilings and unbelievable carved pulpit (done by Belgian artist Jan Antoon Garemijn) that I almost left the church without seeing it's most amazing treasure. I had walked right past the big area where the Madonna and Child sculpture sits, and because I was so focused on this other smaller statue that was picking up the light beautifully from a window high above, I somehow turned and missed the only work of Michelangelo's ever to leave Italy in his life time and headed to walk out the door. For me - this really says something about both Bruges and the Church of our Lady which is one of the reasons I've come to love them both so thoroughly. I can't imagine anywhere else I've been where I could be standing but a few feet from a sculpture by Michelangelo and not be poked and prodded by signs and tourist information and lines of gawking tourists and flashbulbs going off and guards reminding me where to stand and how close I can get. No - this was a beautiful piece of art by an amazing artist - in a church. Pure and simple. And when I realized my mistake (there was a small notice by the door of the church telling about the sculpture) I returned to stand in the quiet awe of a brightly lit winter morning for as long a silent moment as I chose. Others came to view it as well while I stood there - but they too admired it quietly and moved on. It was a fantastic moment for me, which undoubtedly colored my feelings both about the church and the art (Michelangelo's is far from the only piece of noteworthy art here) but that's certainly not a bad thing. And I recommend that you try the same - you may come away feeling as grateful for it's existence as I do.
After two days in Bruges of walking, sight seeing and sampling lots and lots and lots of beer and chocolates - we decided to round off the trip with a visit to De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) Brewery. The sun was beginning to lower on our last afternoon there - the snow still on the ground glistening and golden as we walked over the bridge and watched the swans glide gracefully down the canal. We'd stopped in bars and restaurants, cafes and museums every time the weather got a bit too cold to sample or see whatever was on offer...but the idea of simply sitting for a while and reveling in the end of what had turned out to be a superb trip seemed the perfect way to round it all off. We'd had a vague (very vague) list of things we might like to see or do on the trip over, and though we'd approached it in a very light-hearted and casual way - just in wandering leisurely around the city we'd ended up doing pretty much all of them. The one thing left I'd wanted to see was a Belgian brewery (I've been really enjoying doing the wine tours in recent trips as well as distilleries back home - and up to that point I'd still never been to a brewery anywhere - Belgium seemed like the obvious place to rectify that.) I'd heard about De Halve Maan briefly when I was scouting out things to see in the city. I was taken by the symbol (a slightly wizened looking half moon) and read that it was the only family brewery in the centre of Bruges that was still active, that it had won lots of awards and that they offered guided tours. It was enough for me, and it was written on the little list in my pocket of things to do. We talked about just finding a nearby bar to have a few more beers before we headed back to catch our boat - but realized to my delight that we were just a block away from both another market and De Halve Maan. The brewery was fantastic. I can not think of a nicer way to have spent the last few hours of our afternoon in the city. The brewery was beautifully put together - its' a really stunning place and you can't miss it for the large half moon symbol outside. Inside it was warm and spacious with plenty of tables where we quickly bought a beer (I had ordered my very first Brugse zot at the first place we had a beer in Bruges not even realizing it was from De Haalve Maan) Of all the beers I sampled in Bruges (nowhere near the full 800 but quite a few, nonetheless) the golden brugse zot remained my favourite - and the darker Straffe Hendrik was not far behind. We sat in the warm buzz of a fantastic atmosphere of eating, drinking and sight seeing. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood there and we shed some layers into the seats next to us, were warmed by our beer and wrote post cards. We were enticed to buy some rather fantastic beer glasses (at what I remember being a pretty reasonable price) as well as a few beers to take home for Christmas (another great thing about travelling by boat). Brewery tours - as it turns out - are pretty much like distillery tours and winery tours - but no matter how many of these things I go to I still always kind of enjoy them. This one includes a brewery museum tour as well as the more modern aspects. They run the tours every hour (so show up and have some food or a beer while you wait if you feel so inclined) and it costs €5,50. I'm a bit spoiled to the free tours - but its a 45 minute tour of the place, so I didn't think it was too costly. But even if you're not interested in the guided tour - it's still nice to pop into the actual brewery in Bruges to have a beer and as I've said it was a very pleasant place to visit just for a drink and a way to toast out a fantastic visit to the city.
To go to Bruges and not sample a hearty amount of the truly incredible beer there would be practically a sin. I wasn't even that much of a beer drinker before I arrived (I enjoyed it - but would hardly have called myself a connoisseur) but after just a couple of days in the city of sampling a really stunning array of beer flavours and styles I have to say that beer as a concept has gone up immeasurably in my estimation. I tried the beer in various settings (they have it on offer everywhere) I tried to order a different beer each time (there are over 800 to get through, after all) with dinner and in shops and cafes and even at the brewery. But for simply sitting in a Belgian bar and sampling beer - my favourite place was Bierbrasserie Cambrinus. Just a couple of minutes from the main market square on Philipstockstraat - this is a really great little bar. They serve food here, too - both lunch and dinner and the prices are pretty reasonable for Bruges. We came just for the beer - but the plates of food going past us did smell absolutely amazing. It was a nice change of pace from the British pub I've grown accustomed to (which have their charms, don't get me wrong) where the drinking really was secondary to socializing and enjoying the beer. There were all age groups enjoying the place - a few families having dinner at tables at the back, some older Belgian men kicked back with the paper and their hats on the table next to a large mug of beer, young groups laughing and socializing and the obvious tourist dotted about either looking very smug at the experience they were having - or vaguely uncertain if they were in the right place. We took a seat right by the bar where we could people watch and see the street as the light lowered in the afternoon. We'd just had a sausage in the market square and a large beer was the perfect way to follow that. We got that in the form of a kwak - the most elaborate beer you're likely to have in Bruges. I was actually told by my friend who'd visited earlier in the year that we'd have to sample one of the beers 'in the big crazy glass' and new pretty soon after arriving in Bruges he must be referring to a kwak (you'll know it the moment you see it.) And I have to say - strange drinking style included - it was an awfully nice beer. This was a great little place - and the one that I returned to more than once and had my last beer in a bar in Bruges there. The service was good - the beer selection is really staggering (I seem to remember they have 400 beers on offer) It's a great little building and a cozy and interesting place to sit inside. Very highly recommended - it would actually be a great place to both kick off and/or end your beer tasting in Bruges.
by Red Mezz on January 2, 2011
Beer as something other than a cold drink to have while watching football is, I admit, something I've only come around to appreciate in recent years. Whilst I'm sure there are plenty of fine beers to be had in the US, my appreciation of the drink was all but nonexistent until I moved to Europe almost a decade ago and quickly became very fond of the British pint. Time in different places had made me more aware of the flavours and possibility of beer as a very interesting and varied drink, especially in New Zealand where their local beer (particularly in the South Island) really awoke in me a keen interest in the flavours and the different ways in which they could superbly accompany a meal. So when I decided to go to Bruges for a few days last Christmas, I was instantly very intrigued by the idea of beer sampling in the country known for exceptional production of beer. My knowledge of Belgian beer was, up until that time, very limited to the one or two bottles I had come across in the past. As is often the case with these first samplings, they were the 'bog standard' brewery ales that almost always seem to make it out of the country and become the ones which the country is known for. Almost always I find, the options you discover (whether it be beer, wine or whisky) when you are in the place itself are vastly superior to those which are exported. So while sight seeing, and chocolates and taking photos and enjoying the Christmas scene in the little medieval city of Bruges were all high on the list of reasons for the visit - my real desire was to sample as many of the 800 odd Belgian beers as I could in the city, in what turned out to be a very short amount of time to do so. One of my favourite parts of the Bruges experience was the time I spent in pubs and local bars, sampling the varied and exceptional delights of their beers and ales. For one thing, the pub experience in Belgium was very different from the UK, where everyone was drinking, but most (with the exception of some large groups of tourists) seemed to drink for the simple pleasure of the drink itself and the social atmosphere. Drinking for the sake of getting drunk was not the aim, and I found this remarkably refreshing. As such, I sampled a number of pubs as well as their beers, and tried in every one to try something new and different. My favourite in the end my have been Cambrinus (see my review) but all of them had their charms. I went with a mild enjoyment of beer and sampling (admittedly I'm more of a wine drinker) and came back with a new found devotion and admiration of the drink in it's finest form. I went dubious that there could really be over 800 standard Belgian beers (a number which vastly increases when you begin to count their specialist beers) and that they could really be all that different. But I could not have been more wrong. If you enjoy beer even a little, a vast sampling of the selection in Belgium is a must for a trip there. I was astounded by the variety and the quality I discovered there, and the extreme attention to detail in everything down to the variation in unique glass style each beer is served in to best represent it's flavours and texture. If you order a Kwak beer you will find it served in a large curvy glass supported by a special wooden holder. I'm not connoisseur enough to tell you exactly what this adds to the flavour and aroma, but I can tell you it makes for an interesting drinking atmosphere (try this one as one of your first on the list, so you don't have to maneuver the strange glass much when you are beginning to get fuzzy...) And while I'm on the subject - do keep in mind (especially if you are coming from the US) that Belgian beer does tend to be quite strong, especially anything termed a 'Dubbel' which can be from 6 - 8%. Some of the flavours are so delightfully mellow (their blond ales and lagers can taste very mild, and some of the fruity beers are so sweet as to almost drown out the alcoholic flavour, so it can be easy to drink more than you realize - a good hearty Belgian sausage dinner before going out may be advisable...) A lot of specialist shops through out Bruges sell a huge selection of these beers as well, if you'd like to take some home with you to finish your sampling on another day. Also try 2be (see my review) for an enormous selection of beers to buy and take back to try later. Most of the cafes and restaurants I discovered in Bruges also offer a very interesting array of beer choices, so you can sample some of these with foods as well. They accompany a meal of traditional Flemish stew beautifully on a cold night. Be sure to sample one of the Trappist 'abbey' beers as well while you are there. To be called a Trappist the beer must have been brewed in a monastery, and the monks themselves must have been involved in the process, with proceeds going to the monastery. This in itself makes it a bit of a unique drinking experience. You can also visit some local breweries as well. I recommend De Halve Maan (the Half Moon) which is not only a superb brewery to visit with in walking distance of the city centre, but also happens to make what turned out to be my favourite of all the Belgian beers, the blond Brugse Zot. Sampling beer in Bruges in a real experience, and one not to be missed when you plan your own visit.
After a night on board ship coming from Britain to Belgium, I hadn't eaten much and was more than a little bit ready to tuck into some warm food when we arrived in Bruges. The walk from the bus to our hotel was a pleasant if icy one, and by the time we checked in and made our way back out into town lunch was sounding like a very good idea. I was really excited to start exploring - Bruges was already exceeding my expectations - I was giddy at all the snow (the first I had seen of the year) and in newly acquired gloves from the market, sweaters and hats we set out to see a bit of the town and look for something to eat. However it quickly became apparent that getting used to the cold was going to take a while, and looking around extensively for somewhere to eat may not be all that enjoyable. There were loads of options surrounding the market square, and so we decided just to stop and go in and warm up at the first one that looked promising. They all look nice - but like so many restaurants in the European city-centre tourist trap they were all also very over priced and with a less inspiring menu than we would later find on side streets. But that the moment, that didn't matter so we popped into the first one that looked warm with spare tables and with a menu that didn't seem too outrageous. We stopped at teh Sint-Joris, very close to the market center and with a nice view out from our table. We decided that lots of little stops in cafes, restaurants and bars would be the order of the day and thought it would be a nice start to order our first Belgian beer and some soup and sandwiches. The place is quite nice inside. Nothing spectacular but it was pleasant and warm and we were seated immediately. I've lived in Europe long enough to know not to expect good service. Rather that it's something to feel doubly grateful about and impressed by when you do receive it. However, even knowing that the service was very poor here. The waiters were dismissive at first and became almost abrasive when it became clear we were there only to buy a light lunch. I forgot about ordering water in European restaurants (it had been a couple years since my last visit to mainland Europe) and made the mistake of ordering a glass of water as well as a beer which came in the form of their most expensive bottle of water. (The bottle actually cost more than our beer and almost as much as the soup) The soup was simple but pleasant. Mostly it was warm and I was thrilled by that. I ordered my first Belgian beer (which also turned out to be my favorite) and sat in the warm glow of a foreign place sipping a local beer and eating something warming - almost able to ignore the haughty staff wondering when we were going to leave so they could offer the table to someone else. (I can't imagine what they were worrying about - the place was over half empty) In any case, it was OK. I wouldn't go back, and it was my worst restaurant experience in Bruges - but it wasn't horrendous. I do, however, recommend venturing down a few of the side streets as there are some tremendous little cafes and restaurants in Bruges that aren't so happy to see you go.
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