I boarded a train on Valentine’s Day with my husband, John, at Central Station in Amsterdam. We were headed for Brugge, the capital of West Flanders Province in Belgium, a cobblestoned gothic town that grew wealthy on the cloth trade in the 11th century. Brugge is considered one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, and in 2000, it was added to the long list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Brugge (pronounced Broozh in French and English. In Flemish and Dutch, it’s pronounced Broo-gah) only three hours from Amsterdam, is very popular with day-trippers, and with good reason. After a quick change of trains in Antwerp, we were slicing through snow covered Belgian farmlands dotted with horses and villages of gabled buildings with narrow cobbled streets. Before long, the train stopped in Brugge.
We made a beeline for the line of waiting taxis, and in five-minutes and we were in the heart of the small Flemish city. In perfect English, the taxi driver asked, “Is this your first time to Brugge?” When I answered, “Yes” he responded with the standard, “You’ll absolutely love it.” Countless people had told me the same thing.
On seeing the gothic town, I instantly fell in love with it. Colorful buildings, heavenly chocolate shops and warm and inviting restaurants lined the streets. Where better to be on Valentine’s Day, than in a country famous for decadent chocolate and fine, handmade lace? All around us, simple pink and red hearts hung from teashop windows and fireplaces glowed within.
The taxi pulled up in front of the Hotel Heritage. This small, elegant Georgian mansion-turned-hotel (in 1993) is only steps away from Market Square. Its twenty guestrooms and four suites feature classical French décor and furnishings, and a warmth that made me feel instantly at home. It’s the kind of hotel where tea is served in the sitting room off the lobby in front of a crackling fire.
At the front desk, Isabella checked us in and showed us to our room on the second floor, which was luxuriously swathed from floor to ceiling in golden-yellow Italian fabric covering two sets of French doors. The hotel provides not only terry robes in every room, but also a computer. Modern conveniences mix easily with traditional ones – there’s a fitness room next to the sauna in the cellar that dates back to the 13th or 14th century.
In the warmer months, there’s dining on the rooftop of the hotel. As it was February, Isabelle suggested a few restaurants and offered to make a reservation for later in the evening. She also informed us of the two-hour English-speaking walking tour (offered M-F at 2:30 sharp in Burg Square at the Town hall, price included in the hotel stay).
Grabbing two umbrellas on our way out the door, we set out to explore Brugge. At one time, Brugge was a focus for international trade. High-quality English wool was turned into clothing and exported all over the known world. Unbelievably, by the 14th century, the population had grown to the size of London. With a population of 35,000, it was one of the biggest cities in the world.
As England and France trudged through the 100 Years War in the 15th century, Brugge was the favored residence to the Dukes of Burgundy. It was also home to the artists, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Nevertheless, in the 16th century, Brugge’s Golden Age abruptly ended. The economy collapsed, the Burgandian court left town, and Brugge became known as a mysterious and dead city. Occupied by the Germans in Word War II, the city remained dormant until the 1960s, when tourists discovered it. Today, it prospers on mass tourism. In springtime the town bursts into vivid color, and daffodils and tulips are in abundance.