Part 1 of my trip to Bruges – read part 2 here.
I’d wanted to go to Bruges for the longest time, more because of its reputation as a ‘fairytale town’ than anything else. So when my boyfriend Steve bought me a weekend away there, I couldn’t have been more thrilled! Although that wasn’t clear to him when I opened the envelope and burst into tears…
Our weekend away began on Friday evening after work. We had Standard Premier tickets for the Eurostar train, which meant we got seats so big that I could have squeezed two of me into one. It also meant we had single seats facing each other across a table, which made the journey to Brussels seem rather like a long romantic meal – especially when the attendants brought our dinners and drinks!
As lovely as it is to be served dinner on a train, Eurostar dinners are literally the smallest dinners I have ever seen. My main course was a small chunk of salmon, a tiny pile (if you can even call it that) of cabbage shreds and a small cube of pumpkin-flavour mousse on a plate the size of a house brick. I drank my miniature bottle of rose wine from a tiny plastic cup, and ate my miniature banoffee tart with a teaspoon. We each received a small bottle of water and a shallow cup of tea or coffee. All this was topped off by the tiniest thing of all: an individually wrapped malteser. If not filling, it was at least very cute (and tasty too)!
We arrived in Brussels in what felt like no time at all and walked out in search of our hotel, Hotel Midi Zuid. It was next to a gay club and a sex shop, and the tiny (I’m seeing a pattern here) lift had only two walls, which made me feel rather like a plate of food in a dumb waiter. But our room provided a decent night’s rest before getting the train to Bruges the next day.
Wanting to get as much time in Bruges as possible, we just about caught the 8am train at the expense of not eating breakfast. Instead I munched a cereal bar on the train while planning the most scenic route into town.
After arriving in Bruges we walked straight into Minnewater Park, conveniently located right in front of the station. Even on a cold day in January, the walk was extremely picturesque; in fact, I thought that the bare black trees with their many spindley branches made the scene even more enchanting. Every puddle had a crystalline surface; every bit of metal a sprinkling of frozen droplets. The best part of all was the clear reflections in the still water of Minnewater Lake (otherwise known as the Lake of Love), which created stunning mirror images.
Leaving Minnewater behind, we reached a pretty canal-side area filled with the biggest swans I have ever seen! Their necks alone were as thick as human arms. It was also our first sight of typical Bruges: a canal, a bridge and narrow cobble streets lined by pointy medieval houses. It was a pretty magical moment, made perfect when a beautiful horse clip-clopped by towing a carriage behind it.
From there we proceeded up the cobbled street towards the centre, eyes wide as we took in the resplendent displays in the windows of every little chocolate shop, bursting with colour and deliciousness. Most eye-opening were the ‘chocolate tools’ and the ‘sexy’ shapes, in which nothing was left to the imagination!
We walked past a dock on the canal offering boat trips and eventually reached the street of Rozenhoedkaai, famous for its postcard-perfect view of a corner of the canal. With it being so early, we had the corner to ourselves and with our cameras tried to do the lovely scene as much justice as we could.
Up from there we reached Burg, a large cobbled square of grandiose buildings including the dominating City Hall and the gothic Basilica of the Holy Blood tucked snugly into a corner. From here it was a short walk through another narrow street lined with chocolate and lace shops to Markt, the true centre of Bruges. My eyes greedily took in all the icons of the city on every side: the row of multi-coloured, pointy roofed, narrow buildings; the horses and carriages stood awaiting passengers; and the magnificent belfry, towering over everything else. As the melodic bells rang out the tune to ‘The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’ we knew we had to make the bell tower our first attraction.
There was already a considerable queue to buy tickets to go up the belfry, or ‘Belfort’, when we arrived. While we queued, a man began asking where we were from as he cut a silhouette of ‘me’ out of a sheet of black paper. We weren’t really that impressed by his work, but some others in the queue were. Tickets to go up the tower were €8 each for adults but would’ve been cheaper had we been 25 or younger (boohoo, my lost youth!).
Though there are a lot of stairs, the rooms branching off them at several points provide all the rest points necessary. These rooms hold exhibits on the history of the belfry and in the last room before you reach the top, the giant carillon that plays the bells. This included a bronze cylinder covered in a pattern of holes and nibs, like one found in a music box but 20 times the size.
The spiral stairs get narrower and narrower the higher up you get, until at the very top there’s genuinely no room to let others past. The journey both up and down is a dance with strangers, deciding who will squeeze into the side while the other awkwardly navigates the tiny space left, gripping onto the central rope for dear life!
But it’s worth it for the view from the top. Despite the ugly metal fencing covering the open parts (no chance of anyone throwing themselves off, like in the film), the panorama of terracotta roofs, winding canals and church spires remains quite spectacular. And the cacophony of bells when they peel out just above your head is incredible!
Back on solid ground, we set off in search of the essential Belgian ‘frites’ and somewhere warm to eat them, because by this point my feet were so numb with the cold they felt like frozen bricks. We settled for Frites 1900, a bizarre establishment comprising a typical takeaway at the bottom – a glass cabinet showing what every deep-fried item on the menu looked like – and a chintzy, carpeted, wallpapered room hung with a chandelier at the top. I had my fries with chicken in a cream sauce, Steve had his with beef in a beer sauce and they were just the tasty stodge we needed.
Filled and warmed, we decided to go for a boat ride around the canals. We went back to the one we’d seen running near Rozenhoedkaai earlier and found that the queue had grown massively since early in the morning, but joined it anyway. After buying our tickets for €8 each, it was a wait of about 20 minutes before we got on the boat. It was a bit of a squeeze, but sat snuggled into Steve along the boat’s side I had a pretty good spot from which to take photos.
Our guide had to give commentary in four different languages but still managed to give an interesting tour of the city. In addition to enjoying beautiful views from the water and learning more about the city, we floated alongside giant swans and sailed under a bridge so low that tall people felt the need to duck! It was a lovely way to spend half an hour.
The next sight to see on our list was the series of windmills at the city’s eastern edge. A short walk out of the centre, through quieter streets lined with people’s houses, and we were at the edge of the canal circling the city and looking up at a giant windmill stood atop a grassy hill. Suddenly it was almost like we were out in the countryside.
We walked up the hill and Steve climbed the almost-vertical steps to the back of the windmill, but I decided to abstain seeing how precarious it looked! We then walked to the next windmill and could have walked onwards to see the remaining two, but decided instead to walk back through the city in search of some Belgian hot chocolate.
The first few places TripAdvisor directed us to were still shut for winter – a problem we came across frequently, it being mid-January. But eventually we found Tea Room De Proverie. Here we enjoyed a cosy table by the fire and hot chocolates that we made ourselves: by pouring rich melted chocolate from the chocolatier opposite into cups of hot milk. Fun to make, and decadently rich and chocolatey to drink. A small pot of various chocolates on the side and another pot of cream made lovely finishing touches. It was then time to check into our hotel.
Hotel Navarra has a long history that was written in its foyer, but which I’ve forgotten. Whatever the details, it dates back to the 17th Century and has hosted many esteemed visitors. My guess is that its history accounts for the hotel’s rather unusual layout, which left us walking its corridors for a good 10 minutes searching for a room that didn’t seem to exist. Eventually we realised that our room could only be reached by getting the lift down, after first going up to the first floor! Once we’d found our room and dumped our stuff, we went back outside to enjoy the lit-up central square under the darkening sky.
Beer beer beer
The only thing left to do was to find a pub for some beer, and a restaurant for some dinner. We started off at ‘t Brugs Beertje, a cosy little pub down an alleyway that we found through TripAdvisor. After taking our seats at the back we were handed the beer menu – an A4, ring-bound book that must have been 50 pages thick! I turned straight to the page of fruity ones and picked a raspberry-flavour Lindemans bottle, while Steve picked his on the basis of random numbers that I picked! Mine had 30% raspberry juice and was so strongly fruity as to be almost syrupy; Steve’s was strong, dark and caramel-like, typically Belgian.
Dinner in a cave
For dinner we went to ‘t Voske Malpertuus, choosing to put menu choices above TripAdvisor reviews (which warned of rude service). We were so glad we did! On arriving we were led downstairs into a cave-like basement with painted-white stone walls and a roaring fire behind glass. Seated in a comfortable corner by the fire, we ordered beer and wine then French onion soup and shrimp croquettes for starters, followed by rabbit cooked in cherry beer and (after much deliberation from Steve) Chateaubriand steak.
To our delight, long before we received any of that we were brought a delicious plate of appetisers: mini toasts topped with cured ham and parmesan, and shrimps in a really crunchy, deep-fried crumb coating standing in a glass of sweet chilli sauce. The latter were incredible, and I say that even as someone who doesn’t like seafood!
These tasters were so good that they showed up my following dishes; the soup was rather watery, and the rabbit a little chewy (although the cherry beer sauce was delicious). Steve loved his shrimp croquettes however, and his Chateaubriand steak truly lived up to its reputation: so soft and juicy that it barely needed chewing.
The best part about this meal, however, was not the food but the experience. The cosy environment, warming fire, candle light, laidback jazz music (lounge versions of popular songs, which we enjoyed identifying as gems such as ‘On the Beach’ by Chris Rea and ‘My Ever Changing Moods’ by The Style Council!) and our almost-solitude made for a wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable evening that was actually enhanced by the long waits between dishes. We made the short walk back to our hotel drunk on food, happiness, love… and just a little bit of alcohol!
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2015. All rights reserved.