Bruges, Belgium - A Medieval Fairytale Village
Bruges (also spelled Bruge, Brugge and Brugges, but always pronounced brooj) is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved medieval villages in Europe. It looks like a fairytale straight out of Disney. It's full of cobblestone streets, canals, historic churches, towers, beautiful marketplaces, and quaint everything. During the day it's overrun with tourists, just like all the top tourist spots, but in the early morning and evening, it's floodlit, quiet, quaint, and perfectly charming.
TRAVEL TIP: If possible, don't come in August (actually don't go to Europe in August as the whole continent is on vacation that month. Everything is packed with tourists and closed simultaneously. We've done it twice even though we know better, but both trips the timing couldn't be helped.) If you come in the busy summer months, try to go on a weekday. Weekends are even busier. Spring and fall are less busy, and in winter (aside from Christmas time) you can have most of the city to yourself.
Most of the tourists come on day trips from Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris. The busses and trains arrive around 10:00 and leave around 5:00. We came from Amsterdam and decided to stay overnight in Bruges on our way to France so we could experience the quiet hours and soak up the magic and beauty during the off hours. We chose to spend a little more time in Amsterdam and arrive a little later in Bruges, but we still got the most of those quiet evening and morning hours, walking the quiet cobbled streets past the whitewashed buildings.
When we arrived in Bruges and made it to our hotel, it was about 8:15 p.m. We asked for restaurant recommendations because the restaurant we had preselected was closed for family vacation (we were there at the end of July. This happened a lot). The concierge informed us we may not get dinner at all! All the restaurants close by 9:00. He had to call several places before he found one that would take us, Au Petit Grand. They only took us because the concierge is friends with the maitre'd. It was a lovely, quiet, romantic restaurant, and we had a delicious meal. If you don’t know this about me, I DON’T MISS MEALS. I get cranky when I’m hungry. Missing dinner was not optional.
A few of the restaurants we had on our list to try were t'Gezelleke, Le Chef et Moi, and Bistro de Schilder, but they were no longer seating that late in the evening.
TRAVEL TIP: Many of the nicer restaurants in Europe do three seatings for dinner, 5:30, 7:30 and 9:30. Keep that in mind as you make your dinner plans. Be sure to check hours and make reservations whenever possible.
This was the beautiful view from our room. We stayed at Hotel Oud Huis de Peellaert.
TRAVEL TIP: Nice hotels in Europe don't have to be expensive. This hotel has nice rooms, is located near the center and lots of restaurants. The concierge was very helpful in getting us a dinner reservation. Our hotel reservation included a nice breakfast, and we paid less than $150 for the night.
In the morning the first thing we did was head to the belfry to climb the tower. We have a thing about climbing towers. If we see one, we climb it. Why? For the view of course. And the exercise. And the bragging rights. I take great pride in climbing 300+ steps without stopping or losing my breath. This one opens at 9:30 a.m., but we got there at 9:00. The line just gets longer and longer as the day goes on. I’d say we only waited 20 minutes.
TRAVEL TIP: Climbing towers isn't for the claustrophobic or faint of knees. If you have vertigo or dizziness, I would also reconsider. Towers in Europe usually have at least 250 narrow, slick, steep, uneven steps, and can have as many as 551, like St. Peter's Basilica. They aren't handicap accessible, and once you head up, there is usually a long line of people right on your tail, meaning you can't back out. The staircases are too narrow for people to pass you, and there also aren't usually any places to stop and rest. The Bruges Belfast Tower has 366 steps. If you are physically prepared, I say do it!!
They have an ingenious little system to make sure it doesn't get too crowded. When one person comes out, the turnstile lets another person in. There were a few times that half of a couple had to wait in limbo until their significant other was allowed through.
That is a farmer’s market down below in the square from part way up the tower. Don't worry, we're making a stop there. We're not even to the top and the view is already making me hungry. The belfry was built in 1240, and rebuilt in 1280 after a fire destroyed it. The top spire was destroyed a few more times, and eventually they replaced it with a gothic stone parapet. The tower was used to store the town archives and the treasury.
This is the giant music box inside the belfry that plays tunes with the 47 bells up top. The bells were used the same way as in all towns, to announce the time, church, special social events and fires. This system has automated the bells so they are always on schedule and can play some fairly complicated tunes. You can click on each picture to see the full image.
The view from the very top. Wasn’t that worth it? Look at those beautiful buildings and the sky. It is storybook beautiful. The Belfry even inspired a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, called, "The Belfry of Bruges".
In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o'er the town.
On the way down you can tour the rooms where the archives and treasury were stored. I love the ceiling here. All told, we spent an hour here, including the 20 minutes in line.
TRAVEL TIP: I strongly encourage you to do this first thing in the morning because the line just gets longer as the day goes on. Strategically planning when you will go to different places will make all the difference in how much you get to see and how much time you spend waiting. The Belfry is not one of those sites you can book your tickets in advance, so timing is everything.
We decided to have second breakfast at the farmer’s market. It was so very tasty. Look at how huge those raspberries are! I love these markets because everything is so beautifully displayed. Have you ever wanted to eat a carrot more in your life? I really wanted to buy a bunch of the hanging baskets and take them home. The smart farmer selling the cherries offers samples knowing that they are so sweet and delicious that you will buy more, which we did. I didn’t eat the cake, but isn’t it gorgeous? Even the sausages are beautiful. I wanted one of everything.
I love the baskets, the table cloths, the chalkboard signs. I don’t think any of these people are on Pinterest gathering ideas for table staging, they just have a desire for displaying their wares beautifully and simply with a measure of practicality. The rest of us copy them. I was even tempted to carry around a bouquet of flowers all day. Or buy a basket of succulents to take home. I love succulents and would love a display just like that in my kitchen. One of my favorite things was the traveling butcher shop. The refrigerated cases are mounted in a truck that drives away when the fair is over. Honestly I could have spent half the day here, but I love food and flowers, and it's all so beautiful it's like walking around in a delicious post card you can eat.
Our next stop was the Basilica of the Holy Blood. I expected it to be massive, like so many cathedrals and duomos in Europe, but it is quiet and small, tucked into this corner of the square. Their claim to fame is supposedly having possession of a vial of Christ’s blood.
Everyone waits in this little chapel, and then the priest brings out the vial. He says a prayer, and the believers go up and pray over it or genuflect. While we are most definitely Christian, we aren’t Catholic. We respect the fact that they believe that vial is genuine and in the ritual surrounding it, but we didn’t want to be disrespectful and go up to the altar as curious tourists to see what all the fuss was about. We also weren’t going to disrespect our own beliefs by going through the motions of the ceremony just to get a peek. We listened to the prayer, watched a few people go through the line, and then we left the sanctuary.
The rest of the basilica is also worth seeing. Built in the 12th century, it is very ornate and has remained virtually unchanged. The treasure chest above is used to carry the vial through the town in a parade once a year, and the smaller chest houses the vial. Also on display is one of the original vials used to store the blood. There are several interesting relics and tapestries to view as well.
We decided to see Bruges from the water as well, so we took another boat ride. Some places you go, there are spots of beauty or history surrounded by nothing special, but in Bruges, everywhere and everything is beautiful. Even the dock where we waited was gorgeous. Plus, swans. *Sigh*. These boats leave the dock every 30 minutes, and it's not the kind of thing you can book in advance. Enjoy the scenery and the company around you while you wait. It will go by fast.
I could live here. Seriously, when can I move in? The whole town is so charming and picturesque. I keep saying that, I know, but it's true! The town is full of canals. Some call it the Venice of the north. But just look at those flowers in the window baskets!! And the red window casings! Don’t you just want to live here? We could be neighbors! I love the brick, the gothic windows, the colorful window casings, the climbing vines, the flowers, the swans, the charm, the canal, the leaded glass, all of it. It reminds me a little of Amsterdam and a little of France.
We stopped in at the Church of Our Lady to see Madonna of Bruges, 1501-1504. This is the only Michelangelo outside of Italy and well worth the stop. Also, that bust on the right looks like Albus Dumbledore.
The main street is lined with shops, and most of them are chocolate shops. We stopped for lunch, and can I say (again) that I love European fast food? American food corporations please take note. Our lunches on the go could look like this!!! A slice of real quiche is as portable as a burger or (I’m so embarrassed to name it) a hot dog on a stick *shudder*. A marinated salad can be carried away in a cup. For sandwiches, carve our ham and slice our cheese as we order, and serve baguettes that were made fresh that morning. Ham should have very few ingredients, and none of them should come from a laboratory. Cheese should have one ingredient (aside from something like a pesto-flavored variety). Baguettes have 4 ingredients. Do this not only for our health, but our tastebuds! Have some mercy!
After lunch we walked the streets and a few shops. Bruges is known for its waffles that are sugar crusted and topped with anything you could ever want, fries with mayo for dipping, and chocolate. That pretty much covers what we snacked on as we walked around. Thank goodness we were walking around because we were stuffed silly.
TRAVEL TIP: This is one of those places that leaving the touristy area and wandering the streets will give you another peak at a beautiful town. Venice is that way as well. Walk around and see what life is like outside the touristy center. It's gorgeous!
After we meandered for a while, we headed to the station to catch a 5:20 train, where we found beautiful gardens! We loved our time in Bruges. It's worth staying for a few days to explore because there is so much more to see. This was a day of highlights to get a sample, and we plan to go back and see more of it.
Next stop, Amiens, France!