Bruges is a tourist town. The problem with tourist towns is that there are tourists everywhere – duh! What that means to me is that you get photo after photo of bunches of tourists everywhere in your backgrounds, or worse still you can’t even get a half decent shots because they are all milling around with thousands of selfie-sticks and IPAD’s. The best way to get around this is to get an early start in the morning. Get up before everyone else while they are still rising and shining and taking their time over their hotel breakfast. This is the best way to enjoy some peace and quiet in a tourist town.
Well, almost. Cause just about everyone else has the same idea here in Bruges.
Lining up for a canal ride, this is clear. It’s not even 10am and people are lining up to be first on board. It’s the thing to do in Bruges, you see. And all the guide books recommend it. 8 euros gets you a 30 minute cruise along the waterways of Bruges, unfolding gorgeous storybook photo opportunities, whilst giving you a brief history of the town and other points of interest. Swans line the river banks as you gently power your way alongside a town awakening for the day. Best taken on a sunny day, I was in luck and I have to say, it was well worth it.
Of particular interest to all who saw him (there’s always the occasional tourist looking totally the wrong way, head swivelling, ‘where?, where?’), was this little guy. He’s Bruges’ most famous resident, Fidel. Living at the Cote Canal Bed and Breakfast, this gorgeous Golden Labrador spends his days surveying the waterways from this little window, causing tourists to jump up from their boat seats with delight when they spot him.
Not only is he famous for having the title of the most photographed dog in Bruges (probably everyone you meet in Bruges will have a photo of him in their album), but he actually had a cameo role in the Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges”. He’s even in the movie trailer…
It was interesting to note that at various points throughout the day, whenever I saw a boat boarding point, there was always a queue of people waiting to board.
Bruges was once one of Europe’s largest ports, however this came to an end after silt flooded the river, making this impossible. Much of the town was rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries to reflect medieval times. Known as the Venice of the North – it is just beautiful. A great way to find out about the history of Bruges, is to visit the Historium, which I did after finding the brochure in my hotel foyer.
First you take an audio visual tour that tells the story of Jacob and his life in the middle ages. You go from room to room to follow the story and get a real feel for what it was like, finding out about the establishment of the stock exchange, the development of oil painting and why Bruges was a wealthy, thriving powerhouse throughout the middle ages. Afterwards, visit the small museum to reinforce what you were told in the audio visual presentation.
You can even send a postcard home!
If you buy the combination ticket, like I did, you can also have a beer tasting afterwards (of course, you can just wander up here yourself and buy a beer), out on the balcony overlooking the Markt. It’s a lovely view overlooking the terrace and there is a signboard comparing the view to 1435 Bruges, pointing out remaining buildings surrounding the Markt.
But before you leave, make sure you head out the back to check out the Virtual Reality Laboratorium. Put on your headgear and fly over Bruges to discover the Sint-Donaas Church and Waterhalle, (both of which were demolished in the 18th century) recreated in all their glory thanks to computer generated imagery (CGI). It’s a very strange experience, sitting in your booth, with this headgear on, being able to look all around you, including behind you, to see Bruges. I thought it was incredible, although it only lasts about 8 minutes. Best of all, it’s free for Historium visitors, though tips are appreciated. The VRL runs until December this year as an experiment to see how they could incorporate this technology into the museum. At times it can get very busy and they advise to book ahead, though I had no such problem, simply walking in.
As well as being a tourist town, there are several other things Bruges is know for – chocolate, beer, frites and mussels. And all of these you can find in abundance. The town square, or Markt, is surrounded on two sides by historic buildings and on the other two sides by restaurants enticing visitors to sit down to ‘moules and frites’ (mussels and chips), with a nice cold beer to go along. The chocolate shops line all those little streets feeding off the Markt.
For lunch it’s hard to resist a pot of moules and they have my favourite kind here – white and cream based with herbs. It looks like it’ll be tough work making it through the whole pot, but once the shells are out of the equation, the mussels start disappearing rapidly. They are divine. Now when you order moules in most cases you will also be bought a plate of frites, regardless of whether you asked for them or not. They pretty much come as a standard side to anything – Flemish Stew and breakfast omelettes included. The mussels (oops, sorry moules) are great and if you are a fan, you should definitely make sure they are part of your diet in Bruges.
It’s worth noting that the Triennale Brugge 2015 is currently running until 18 October 2015 and as a result there are a bunch of temporary outdoor art installations around town, including this one outside the St Salvator Cathedral by Song Dong, a Chinese artist who grew up in a prosperous, traditional family until the Cultural Revolution changed that. This work, called Nothing Doing Nothing, represents this story and is based on the traditional art of bonsai. The work integrates old Chinese windows saved from destruction, referring to his home country where historic buildings, temples and neighbourhoods are destroyed to make way for glass skyscrapers and monolith shopping centres. Quite a remarkable piece of work and a powerful statement.
I decide to venture further out from the town centre, with not much idea of where I am going, but while there’s plenty of people around, I’m sure I’ll be ok. I step into a shop called The Chocolate Kiss to stock up on choccy’s (for sampling purposes only of course!) and a chocolate beer – you’ve got to try it once I reckon.
Next door a bit, I step into a grumpily manned frite store to try out the real deal – and yes despite the service, they are amazing! Beautifully golden and crisp, wrapped in a paper cone with a little fork for you to enjoy.
Next I step inside a lace shop – not usually my kind of shop, but something has caught my eye whilst standing outside the window casually munching down my frites, so I decide to check it out. They have a cool collection of bobbin lace jewellery. Bobbin lace is made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, wound on bobbins. I don’t know much more than that, but it looks incredible intricate and time consuming. I also know I won’t be leaving Bruges without this amazing bracelet.
Moving on the streets become a little quieter until I reach the Begijnhof or Beguinage, the Ten Wijngaerde Beguinage to be precise. Beguinage is a French term that refers to a semi-monastic community of women called Beguines, who seek to serve God but without removing themselves from the world outside. This Beguinage was UNESCO heritage listed in 1998 for its exceptional universal value and still retains a religious and social function today. It’s certainly a place of peace and solitude and signs posted around the grounds ask visitors to keep quite and show respectful behaviour.
There is also another art installation here, this one titled Tree Huts in Bruges by Tadashi Kawamata. I’ll leave the interpretation up to you, but tree houses are a strange sight to see whilst in the grounds of the Begijnhof – something you’d normally associate with the laughter of children, where children and laughter are forbidden.
My cousin Chris recommended that I make time to try the patisseries in Bruges, so I can’t let him down. Not far down Philipstockstraat, off the Markt, I come across Le Pain Quotidien, tempted by the beautiful pastries in their store window.
Turns out Le Pain Quotidien was first opened in Brussels in 1990 and there are more than 200 stores worldwide, including one in Sydney. So much for finding an age old family run patisserie in Bruges. But it was gorgeous just the same and well worth the visit.
Bruges is a lovely little town. Take your time and wander her streets, taking it all in, the clip clop of horse hooves on the cobblestones, the history and the incredible architecture. And it’s prettiness.
Time seems to slow in Bruges and it seems incredible to think how much I fit into this day, but there’s still one thing I didn’t get to do, and if I wing my train ride tomorrow, I might just be able to fit it in!