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Thursday, 31 August 2006

Valentine's Day in Brugge

Written by Susan Fogwell
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tea shopsI 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.

bruggeWe 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. heritage

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.

 


 

market squareMarket Square is home to one of the city’s most distinctive medieval landmarks – the Belfort. Since 1300, this 353-foot bell tower has stood over the square. To survey the town’s storybook rooftops and outskirts, we climbed the 366 steps to the top from where,  on a clear day, the coastal towns along the North Sea can be seen in the distance.

Two of the most visited sites in Brugge are the Groeninge Museum, which has one of the best collections of Flemish art in the world, and the Memling Museum, which is in a former hospital where several of Memling’s masterpieces are among surgical instruments from medieval times.

Brugge is undoubtedly one of the best places to explore the making of candy. Belgians have been making chocolate for centuries. Although the Spanish “discovered” the bitter cocoa drink in South America, the Belgians added the sugar, vanilla and cream creating the chocolate craze.

To witness the divine chocolates being made, stop at the family owned Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc – the name is Flemish for “sugar belly.” Christof, the owner, is usually stationed at a two-foot-long belt where he dribbles milk chocolate across pralines. The goal is not to have machine-like perfection, but, instead imperfection, which is a sign of quality. One of his specialties is a crème fraiche confectionery: fresh sweet crème inside a chocolate shell.

There’s another good reason to enjoy Brugge on Valentine’s Day: you can be sure the chocolate shops will be open. In Brugge, the chocolate shops close when it gets too hot.

While strolling around Brugge scanning chocolate shop windows, we wound up on Streenstrat, the main shopping street. An open door and a window creatively decorated with pink and red valentine hearts caught my eye, so I stepped into the shop, named Verheeke. An impressive selection of chocolates, pralines and marzipan displayed in a large glass case was tempting, to say the least. I walked out with an assortment of chocolates: Grand Marnier, Rhum, Strawberry and Raspberry. I couldn’t resist buying assorted marzipan either. There must have been over a hundred other flavors; in the back of the shop were lovely packaged gifts of chocolates and decorative tins to bring back home.

With the smell of chocolate in the air, we set out to explore the rest of Brugge’s sites.

 


 

Our Lady’s Church, topped with a 400-foot tower, is the largest such brick construction in the world --- a symbol of the power and wealth of Brugge in it’s heyday. Another symbol is the nearly life-size sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo that the church houses. It’s the only piece of artwork by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. Soon after the Madonna and Child was finished in 1505, a wealthy Flemish merchant bought the statue and had it shipped to Flanders.

To cap off the day, we decided on De Koetse restaurant for dinner. We made our way over to Oude Burg – a back street off Market Square. Although we arrived well before the dinner hour, the waiter seated us right away in a snug room with a view of the narrow street.

We both ordered a bowl of tomato soup (served with fresh, homemade wheat bread). The extensive menu offered mussels served three different ways: plain, marinara sauce or in white crème sauce. The waiter suggested the latter, which I ordered. My husband ordered the grilled steak, with baked potato and grilled vegetables. When it arrived, it looked as good as a steak in Buenos Aires. A heaping serving of mussels arrived in a bucket. I then realized that the serving of mussels is meant to be shared. The food was fresh and delicious and the service was very good. Including a large bottle of water, the dinner came to 57, 00 euros/ $67.92.

burg squareThe following day, we took the in-depth walking tour. As we wandered through Burg Square, tour vouchers in hand, the guide found us and introduced himself as Andrew. He said, “I’m out here looking for people with vouchers, so I can show them into the Town Hall where the tour begins.” Once inside he explained, “I’ve been a guide for over forty years in Brugge and I was married, here, in the Town Hall fifty years ago.”

That was impressive enough, but then he continued. “I speak seven languages fluently, but the tour is only in English.” Andrew, along with most of the Flemish, effortlessly shifts from one language to another. Not only was Andrew fluent, but he could also speak American slang picked up from Hollywood movies. Throughout the tour, he sprinkled in lively jokes that had everybody laughing.

There were a total of eight British couples and one other American couple. Since it’s easily reached via the London-Brussels-Cologne railway network, Brugge is a heavyweight sightseeing destination for the British.

The tour includes a brief stop at all of the museums, but, unfortunately, we were there on a Monday, when the museums and Bell Tower are closed. The tour was enlightening and I walked away with a better understanding of the Benelux countries.

After the two-hour walking tour, we made our way back to Market Square. A revolving line of horses converges in the center of the square, where, for 30 Euros, a buggy will whisk you off, through the cobblestone streets. This is another fun, relaxing 30 minutes where the driver points out interesting sites along with history tidbits. The horse rests for ten minutes at the peaceful Begijnhof – where women spent their lives in piety without having to take the vows that a nun would. Just enough time is allotted to determine whether you choose to return on your own to explore the grounds further and to take a casual tour of the small museum. begijnhof

 


 

To see the city from a different angle, visitors can also take a 45-minute boat ride through the peaceful canals, or ride a bicycle to nearby Damme.

During medieval times, cholera and bugs lurked in the canal water, so drinking the water was made illegal, which delighted the brewers. After all, not only is Belgium known for its chocolate, but its beer, too, and the country boasts more than 350 types. To sample the beer, we walked over to De Halve Maan brewery, which is family-owned and gives entertaining tours.

In Burg Square, we stumbled on another shop, Lace Paradise, which sells lace in all shapes and sizes (shipping available). On the back wall was an large, exceptional tapestry depicting King Arthur’s Court, priced at 11,000 Euros (over $12,000 USD) and handmade. Smaller, machine-made versions were 230 Euros each (about $275.00).

Our last stop was the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Burg Square, where you can view the phial of blood reputed to be of Christ. It was brought to Brugge in 1150 after the second crusades and is only displayed on Fridays.

A full two days and two nights is the suggested amount of time required to see all of the sites in Brugge. Ideally, the best itinerary is to combine Brugge with other European destinations. Whether it’s Holland, France or perhaps Germany, they are all within close proximity.

 

Details:

 

Hotel Heritage

N. Desparsstraat 11, 8000 Brugge, Belgium

Tel. +32 (0) 50 44 44 44, Fax. + 32 (0) 50 44 44 40

http://www.hotel-heritage.com

 

Verheeke

Streenstraat 30 – Brugge

 

De Koetse

Oude Burg 31, 8000 Brugge, Closed Thursday, Tel: 050-33 76 80

 

De Halve Maan

Walplein 26, 8000, Tel. +32(0) 50 33 26 97

 

Lace Paradise
Simon Stevinplein 15, laceparadiseSkynet@.be

 

©Susan Fogwell

 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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