Ed Leahy visits a stroller's (and chocolate, chips, art and beer lover's) paradise.
There are 366 steps to negotiate to reach the top of the Belfry tower in Bruges. Although the traipse to the top is not really that difficult, with three or four places to stop to catch your breath as you climb.
In fact, you'll spend more time in the queue outside (bring a book) as space concerns limit the amount of people that can enter at any one time. The final spiral does get quite tight, however, and it may have been this finishing section that prompted Colin Farrell – while In Bruges – to warn some big-boned Americans not to risk the journey to the summit.
The 83-metre tower houses a treasure chamber, an impressive clock mechanism and a carillon with 47 silver-toned bells, which will be heard in full-effect at some stage of your journey – the bells ring out every 15 minutes.
The 360-degree panoramic views of the medieval city of Bruges make the climb more than worthwhile, with the main market square below and canals, cathedrals, walkways and windmills spread out all around the town.
The city of Bruges has flourished since the 15th century, when rich merchants settled in the influential port city. Large parts of the city's medieval heritage remain practically intact and, as a result, UNESCO has designated the entire city centre as a world heritage site.
The aerial view of the city is covered from the Belfry, while another great way to appreciate the old town is to take a boat trip along the adjacent canals - the arteries of the city - to immerse yourself in Bruges' Golden Century.
And while the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriages provide a novel, and not too expensive, alternative, Bruges really is a walker-friendly town, so sauntering the streets remains the best way to get a feel for this beautiful, historic city.
The compact old town centre can be explored at a very leisurely pace, leaving plenty of time for the obligatory pit-stops along the way.
The climbing and descending of the steps of the Belfry will provide the most energetic part of the walking tour. Awaiting outside sits the market square, which is a constant hive of activity and a perimeter perusal will take you past some of the prettiest buildings, full of colour and wonder that provide a natural warmth to the city.
Turn the corner into the Burg square and you are greeted by the impressive gothic City Hall. Venture inside to appreciate the main reception room where you will enjoy a colourful mural depicting the history of the city, including the Battle of the Golden Spurs and a nod to the famous Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.
The square's architecture will take you right through the ages with none more impressive than the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is a double chapel, with the roman Saint Basil's Chapel on the ground floor and the gothic upper chapel upstairs. The relic of the Holy Blood is kept in the upper chapel and is worshipped every Friday.
A side street off the square takes you over one of the oldest bridges in the city and past the fish market into Huidenvettersplein (Tanners' Square) which is another busy area full of shops and stalls.
This leads down to probably the most picturesque spot in the city, where a beautiful harmony exists between water and stone as the canal runs alongside and around row upon row of impressive buildings.
Art lovers are spoilt for choice in these parts as the Groeninge Museum houses masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and many other Flemish Primitives.
And just beyond lies the exquisite courtyards and manicured grounds of the Gruuthuse, where you will discover the Welcome Church of Our Lady, which houses an original Michelangelo sculpture, Madonna and Child, and mausoleums of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold.
The Beguinage is located further along the water and is well worth a visit to get a look at what life was like in the 17th century. It also provides some welcome respite from the crowds as you enter the tranquil gardens of what was once home to beguines – a group of lay-women who lived together and devoted themselves to prayer, generally as a result of all the men being away with The Crusades.
The Minnewater Lake, known as Lovers' Lake, sits just beyond the Beguinage and is considered the most romantic area in the city. Bruges' medieval past left a romantic legacy, which still exists. The legend of Bruges swans came about in the period after Mary of Burgundy's passing.
Pieter Lanchals, a name which means Long Neck, who was one of the town's administrators belonging to the court of Maximilian of Austria, was executed in Bruges market square. Maximilian punished Bruges by obliging the population to keep 'long necks' or swans, on their lakes and canals 'til eternity. The swans can still be found guarding the lakes and canals throughout the city.
Bruges – The Capital of Chocolate (& Chips)
Bruges lays claim to being the capital of chocolate with more than 50 chocolate makers working throughout the town. Dating back to the middle ages, Bruges families would mix cane sugar from Madeira with cocoa brought back by Spanish explorers in the 16th century.
Make sure to pay a visit to the Bitter Sweet café, located close to the Market Square, just off the main shopping street. The renowned café serves an amazing hot chocolate in the form of a tulip shaped chocolate, which melts almost instantaneously upon contact with the glass of hot milk.
The locals are also very proud of their chips and would give Ireland a run for its money with the amount of the tasty potato treats on offer throughout the town centre. Pay a visit to the Frites (chip) museum for an indulgent afternoon with tasty fried potato treats and a bowl of mayonnaise.
Food & Drink
Food lovers may need several trips to Bruges to sample the many fine restaurants on offer throughout the city. Michelin stars are to be found in eight restaurants, with 'De Karmeliet' and 'Hertog Jan' taking pride of place as the only three-star restaurants in the city.
Aside from the Michelin list, the city is full of high-quality restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. The Market Square and the adjoining streets are lined with restaurants and bars, with many more scattered about the streets of the old town.
Arriving late, many of the restaurants were closing so I had to dine in one of the tourist targets on the main square. The Central Hotel restaurant served quality traditional fare and like the other restaurants on the strip it proved a bit pricey – the sparkling water was particularly overpriced – but the top-notch profiteroles, complete with jug of hot chocolate sauce, made the experience a lot more palatable.
Gruuthusehof is a quaint but quality restaurant, which offers excellent value with their tourist menu of €16.50 for soup, steak or a half-chicken and dessert, served up in a cosy, homely atmosphere.
There are also plenty of great lunch options that will provide a welcome stop throughout your sightseeing. Salade Folle offers a €16, three-course menu, while Petit Maxim café is another great option serving simple but tasty treats.
As famous for its beer as it is for chocolate, the local Belgian beer really is top class and there are many fine pubs throughout the town where you can sit back and sip a few local brews from oversized glasses, which add to the experience.
Duvel, Hoegaarden, Westmalle (brewed by Trappist monks near Antwerp) and Leffe are some of the most popular, while Delirium Tremens (9%) is a spicy amber ale from Ghent's Huyghe brewery with a name that tells you all you need to know about the beverage.
Hollywood arrived in the city to shoot the 2008 Oscar-nominated movie, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes. The film is quite violent but portrays the city as a 'Fairytale' in one of the funniest scenes of the Martin McDonagh black comedy.
And it is true to say that the town of Bruges becomes a character in the film, as there are some great shots of the medieval centre with the journey around the old town adding to the plot.
A movie map of Bruges is available (see website below) where you can retrace the actors' steps. And if you haven't seen the film, make sure to enjoy it before you go. You'll probably watch it again when you return home from this real-life fairytale city.
Where to Stay
Located on the banks of the Spiegelrei canal, Martin's Relais is a four-star hotel, full of character and situated right in the centre of Bruges' Old Town. Martin's Relais comprises four great historical houses dating back to the 17th century, when the Governor of Amsterdam decided to build his secondary residence there, alongside the canal, which then marked the entrance to the city for the merchants who came from all over Europe.
The rooms, which retain that old world charm, are spacious and comfortable and my own room was complemented by a balcony that overlooked the landscaped garden below. www.martins-hotels.com.
Getting to Bruges
Aer Lingus flies daily from Dublin to Brussels and from Cork to Brussels three times weekly (from 26 March) with fares starting from €35.99. For more information, visit: www.aerlingus.com. Bruges is an hour by train from Brussels, with trains running every 30 minutes to Bruges' Central Station.
For further information about visiting Bruges, visit: www.visitflanders.co.uk or call: Tourism Flanders-Brussels on +44 207 307 7738.
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