My expectations of a city-trip to Bruges entirely revolved around quintessential Belgian stereotypes: fries, chocolate, and traditional medieval buildings. This is perhaps a little unfair to the miniature city in the west of Belgium – there was actually plenty more to it than that.
The train from Antwerp to Bruges, a journey of just under an hour and a half, wound through quaint Belgian towns and monotonous countryside, similar to that of the Netherlands. There is something quite comforting, though, about the flat fields – they appear almost like landscapes from sixteenth-century paintings, especially with the odd windmill appearing every so often. In fact, the arrival into Bruges station punctured this quaint vision, as the current station building only dates from 1939. It’s also located just on the outskirts of town on the edge of the main ring road, though it is highly accessible being only a 15-minute walk from the centre of Bruges. The way into Bruges itself takes you through narrow, cobbled alleys and streets, and on a busy day it’s easy to follow the numerous crowds of tourists into the centre – without these unintentional guides I would likely have wandered off into the maze of streets around the Onze Lieve Vrouw and Sint-Salvator churches. Every now and then, as you turn another corner onto a similarly cobbled street, you’ll get a glimpse of Bruges’ main attraction, the Belfort, the intimidating Gothic bellower that also presides over the main city square, the Markt. Once you’ve made it here, you’ve reached the medieval heart of Bruges.
Finding somewhere reasonably cheap to stay in this UNESCO World Heritage Site city is challenging. I was expecting to pay an extortionate amount just to stay for a couple of days, but if you’re not fussed about staying in a premium B&B with views over the central canals, there are plenty of options for hostels further out of the city. Snuffel Hostel is even situated within the old city walls, not far from the Ezelpoort in the north of the city. Though it primarily caters for backpackers, they also offer en-suite twin rooms for €27 a night – and, surprisingly, this includes breakfast in the morning, a buffet of bread, cheese, boiled eggs, cereal, tea, coffee and juice. There’s even a kitchen/living room area for guests, so if you looking to save even more you can grab something from the local Carrefour supermarket, a 15-minute walk away, and cook at home.
Once suitably relaxed and recovered from the journey that had begun with a coach to Antwerp at 8am, we headed out to find dinner. A quick dinner was in order, so it had to be Belgian frites. Chez Vincent is attractively located opposite Sint-Salvators cathedral, and though there’s not much in the way of vegetarian dishes, really the Belgian fries are the reason to go. Chez Vincent has a cosy, secluded upstairs seating area where you can enjoy your fries with great views over the cathedral square. The Steenstraat just opposite also has a wealth of authentic Belgian chocolatiers, meaning you can go double-tourist and get a chocolate fix after your fries. In the evening the chocolatiers really light up, with the golden glow and smell of melted chocolate drawing the crowds in.
The weather had, until now, been good to us, but, typically, the next day dawned blisteringly cold, with clouds that threatened rain. We ate as much as we could from the breakfast buffet at Snuffel and headed out – just as the heavens opened. Refusing to let the typical Flanders weather change our plans, we headed off on a walk of the northern part of the city. The weather gave it a certain atmosphere, with the streets in this area of town being absent of tourists, with only a few Bruges residents scattered around. We meandered further east, towards the outer canal and he historical windmills that border the city. After wandering up the Bonne-Chière windmill, which offers a great view of the inner-city and the towering steeples of the Belfort, Onze Lieve Vrouwe church and Sint-Salvator cathedral, we headed back into the centre to find somewhere to escape the weather. Mother and daughter-run Vero Caffé is on Sint-Jansstraat, and put me in mind of the local cafes you find in south-east London, all quirky furniture and homemade tray bakes. Their triple-chocolate brownie is definitely one to try, and if you’re not a coffee drinker they have a wide range of exotic teas at reasonable prices.
The rain made a walk up the 83m-tall Belfort a decidedly unappealing prospect, though for €10 it’s really only worth a visit on a beautifully sunny day. Around the corner from the Belfort lies a more worthwhile attraction – the Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed (Basilica of the Holy Blood). As the name suggests, the church is said to house a sample of Christ’s own blood, and for a small donation, you can see the vial itself. Aside from the offering of real human blood, the chapel itself is a lovely place to sit and rest even if you’re not religiously inclined.
Since we opted for the cheap option the previous night, finding a reasonably priced restaurant became the mission for this evening. The area around Philipstockstraat is bustling with restaurants, especially vegetarian and vegan-friendly places. Brugs Pittahuis offers affordable vegan curries and other Middle Eastern dishes, though was incidentally closed that evening. Instead, we opted for De Brugsche Keuken, a traditional, family-run Belgian restaurant. At 6pm on a Monday night, we were the only customers, which lent the evening an oddly intimate atmosphere, but it did mean that the waitress was extra-attentive to our request for vegetarian food. Full of renewed warmth, we left the restaurant and headed towards one of the most famous Bruges tourist spots, the Rozenhoedkaai. An unfortunately placed crane gave our photos a certain industrial quality, but nonetheless, it was an attractive view, with the Belfort and the lights from the canal-houses reflecting in the still water. With the temperatures dropping further, we returned to Snuffel for a nightcap in the hostel bar and prepared for the long journey home in the morning.
With a couple of hours to spare before our train back to Antwerp, we meandered slowly towards the station through the Begijnhof, a historic convent. These houses date back to 1245 and are still inhabited by nuns to this day, giving the whole area the feel of a living museum. On a bright day, the sun filters through the trees in the convent garden, and it is suddenly easy to imagine the area 400 years ago, unchanged except for the trace of aeroplanes in the sky. Around the corner from the Begijnhof is the Minnewater park, another place seemingly plucked straight out of a fairytale. To my dismay, the castle on the lake is no more than a fancy French restaurant, though from the eastern edge of the lake it could easily be a medieval fortress. From the Minnewater it’s only a five-minute walk back to the station, so it’s definitely worth fitting a wander through the park in on your final day in the city. Though Bruges is certainly a pricier city-break destination than, say, Berlin or Amsterdam, if you’re looking for a smaller city for a relaxing weekend away, Bruges is the place. Just don’t forget to pack a raincoat.