It's about an hour by train from Brussels to Bruges from Central station. The weather is overcast but not really cold and later on it was really nice. At the train station, we bought all day bus tickets and rode into the city centre. It's a bit congested by the station but there's a park like setting to one side and it probably isn't too far a walk. Also near the station it looked like there was a fair set up with a large observation wheel.
Anyway. We went into the centre, got off one stop too soon but that was ok. We walked along a busy street looking in shops. We arrived in the main square, the Grote Markt i.e. Market Square with its tall belfry tower on one end, a law court building and lots of guildhouses. Some are old, some are newer or renovated in the old style. Bruges used to be the most important city in Flanders but as the canals were filled in and trade went elsewhere, it floundered. Now, tourism is the major source of income for the city and it shows. The streets have a lot of touristy shops, souvenirs as well as chocolate and lace which draw in the tourists as well.
Even this early in May, the Market Square was covered in tourists gawping at the buildings. People were streaming in from all the lanes leading in. It reminds me a bit of UK cities like Bath and York that are crowded with tourists in the centre. There are horses and buggies that you can hire to tour the city from here and they're all lined up near the centre where there is a statue of two burghers from the 14th century. The restaurants with outside terraces that are all around the square are probably scandalously high in price. Still, it's very pretty and the large buildings are nice to look at. The Belfry is over a building that used to be a cloth hall. There are bells in the tower and often there is a caroline concert. I've seen this on a Rick Steves travel show about Bruges and it would be kind of neat to hear.
Also in the belfry building is a Salvadore Dali exhibition and since he's one of Graham's favourites, we decided to go in. It's a one room gallery with some of his sketches and a few sculpture and there was a temporary exhibit of the paintings of Amanda Lear, who was apparently one of Dali's muses. There was a couple of her paintings that i actually liked.
There's a small street that leads through to the other large square, the Burg where the Stadhuis/Town Hall stands and a few other buildings including the Basilica of the Holy Blood in one corner. We headed for there but it was closed between noon and 2, at least today. We decided to find some lunch first while we waited. We tried one restaurant that was right on this square but the menu really didn't appeal to either of us so we didn't stay.
We walked out of the square through some quaint smaller courtyards but not one of the restaurants there had menus that suited either our tastes or our budget. They all seemed to be somewhat fancy. This led us to a canal and across the little bridge, we saw a few more places that were more casual and had better choices so we picked one of them, called Matinee (see review) where i finally had a chance to try Belgian mussels. They were pricey, I thought, but you do get a big pot of them and they were very good, I have to say. We also had Belgian waffles for dessert and when they're freshly made with all the sweet toppings, they're exquisite!
This was close to where at least one tour boat company is based, for canal tours. I had seen the boats earlier and i wasn't sure i would like them. I thought they were all small seats crowded in the middle of the small open boats but when we came out of the restaurant, i could see one that was waiting to be filled and there were bench type seats around the outside of the boat and i would be a bit more comfortable on those. Right. That decides it. The price was pretty good too, less than 7 euro per adult for a 30 minute cruise given in several languages including English. The only thing that was a disadvantage to sitting on the sides is that you are twisting your body around to see what's behind you!
The sun was mostly out by now so it was a really pleasant trip. The guide was good as well, but unfortunately I don't remember much in particular about what he was saying about the buildings and history.
We were done there by 4, enough time to see the Basilica and, we hoped, to find the Chocolate Story museum. The church has two sections, a lower Romanesque chapel and an upper Basilica. The chapel had low stone ceilings and little decoration but was dark and peaceful and calm. Upstairs the basilica proper was painted and gilded and colourful with pillars and arches. Apparently Joseph of Arimathea had wiped the blood of Jesus off and a piece of that cloth is now housed here as a Holy relic. There's a history of the Basilica here. The Basilica is an explosion of colour and there's also a huge silver sculpture in a side chapel.
There is no photography allowed but i did take a few stealth shots. I know, i know and some people were blatantly taking pictures too. I didn't take any in the lower chapel but i did in the colourful upper one.
From there, using the map we'd bought from a station vending machine for 50 cents, we found our way though the little streets to the Story of Chocolate, a museum that details the history of chocolate making. Belgium is famed for its chocolate and, having tasted some of the handmade chocolates, rightly so! But we got there about 10 minutes before it closed so there wasn't enough time. Rats. Just as well, maybe, because there were a lot of school kids cluttering up the shop and getting underfoot and if they'd been touring the museum it would have been annoying.
We didn't think there was much else to do since most attractions would be closed at 5 so we decided to get some chocolate and leave. We sat in a sunny square for a bit first, and then on our way back to the Market square, we looked into one chocolate shop that had tempting items in the window. It was called Prestige and it also had scrumptious cakes and pastries displayed and a tea room in the back! Well! We were ready for a brew so this was perfect. The tea room was elegant and most of the patrons seemed to be older women, dressed very chicly, with snobby looks on their faces. One even had a posh little lapdog! The drinks and the cakes we chose were yummy and the rest was well needed.
We didn't buy chocolates there, though, but we did find a little brick building just off the market square called Dumon which has been featured in several well known travel magazines and guide books and they were quite proud to tell us that, too! The shop is on two levels with the showcase of all the really tempting chocolates on the entry level. I'd like a small assorted box, please. "Yesssss......" she answered, as if to say "and what else?" We were out of cash so had to buy 20 Euro worth to use the credit card. Not really a difficult decision! The chocolates were definitely worth the publicity! Nom!!!
We got the bus back to the station, found a bank machine and had about 20 minutes to wait for the train which was air conditioned, nice and cool after a day out in the sun.
So.. Bruges... Very pretty, lovely architecture. Chocolate and lace shops everywhere. Lots of restaurants in the centre but most of them are expensive and/or a bit on the posh side. Best to walk away from the centre a bit for food, in retrospect. Hordes of people. Must be awful in summer with the bus tours lining up. Chocolate really is to die for. Definitely worth a visit, though and might be nicer at night when most of the crowds have cleared out.