Bruges for a Cultural Short Break

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Bruges - chocolate making

Bruges – chocolate making

Bruges is a great city for a short break as it is so compact, there are lots of places to visit and everything within walking distance. Bruges has been described as the Venice of the North but although it has the canals, I think it has a character all of its own.

That individuality and character is emphasised at the moment as eighteen international artists have created new works as part of the Bruges Contemporary Art and Architecture Triennial, which poses questions about the future and potential of the city. Visitors can follow an art trail with some amazing installations around the city centre as part of the triennial but they will only exist until October 18th this year.

The city deservedly has UNESCO World Heritage status with virtually every building dating back hundreds of years. Some of the hotels are part of the history as I found out when I stayed at the four star Martin’s Relais ‘Oud Huis Amsterdam.’ It has been constructed from what were originally the homes of five wealthy people’s homes all of which dated back to the sixteenth century. Breakfast is served in a room overlooking one of the canals, which we later found was on the circuit of an open boat tour, a definite must on any itinerary. The commentary given by the driver is in lots of different languages. I did find however that it is important to sit in the right place. I was near the boat’s noisy engine, which meant that I often couldn’t hear what he was saying or pointing out.

one of Bruges' canals - the other main attraction of the city

one of Bruges’ canals – the other main attraction of the city

The city has lots, and I mean lots of museums, with several geared to children. Belgium is known for its chips and I couldn’t resist a visit to the Friet Museum apparently the only one in the world dedicated to potato fries! Needless to say, my entry ticket gave me money off if I wanted to buy some at the end of the tour. Belgium is also known for chocolate with artisan shops everywhere. Visiting the chocolate museum  – called Choco-Story -was therefore a must. At the end of the visit, there is a demonstration on how to make praline chocolate, the country’s favourite choice and all visitors were all given a sample, presumably in the hope that we would stock up, in their shop!

At the Historium, we were taken on a tour of 15th century Bruges when the city was a prospering, important town and the financial capital of Europe. The tour is done in an interesting way by using film footage and a commentary that we listened to on headphones, narrated by Jacob, an apprentice of the painter Jan Van Eyck. The building itself has an open terrace with great views onto the market, the main square. However, for a really good view of the city, visitors are able to climb the 366 stairs of the nearby Belfry. The medieval bell tower dominating the square was used as a lookout in times of war, and with a carillon of 47 bronze bells, leans a fraction to the east.

the Belfry

the Belfry

Beer is another of Belgium’s specialities. While wandering along the narrow cobbled streets I spied a Beer Wall, filled with different bottles of beer from the hundreds that the country is famous for. The place sold sampling trays with four different varieties that we were able to enjoy on their terrace, hidden away, but overlooking a canal. As with many of the towns in Belgium, Bruge still has a family run brewery – De Halve Maan – that brews Brugse Zot. The brewery runs 45 minute long guided tours, with a tasting of their blond variety at the end. www.halvemaan.be

One of the benefits of a canal trip is that places are pointed out that we were then able to make a mental note to visit. At the far end of our trip, the lake of love where swans were congregating was such a place. Here we discovered the Beguinage, a religious community founded in 1245 for single, laywomen. Now inhabited by nuns of the Order of St. Benedict, it is possible to walk round their courtyard garden. Here tree houses, part of the Triennial, explore the boundaries between art, architecture and nature. The restored Beguinage church is still used by the sisters, and visitors can join them in prayer. In the grounds, a Beguine’s house provides visitors with an idea of what their lives were like in the 17th century.

To make the most of a visit it is worth exploring the option of buying a Brugge City Card. The card includes admission to the city’s 27 museums, as well as a trip of the canals, discounts for bicycle hire and car parking.

The main thing I found difficult to understand is that even though Belgium is small there are two distinctly different regions, French and Flemish. Bruges is in the Flemish part. Fortunately everyone seems to speak not only Flemish, but French and English too.

Monroe Beach

Monroe Beach

Belgium, and certainly Bruges is dog friendly. Poppy, my dog, was made welcome in our hotel although there was a supplement to pay. Had no problems finding restaurants that accepted Poppy such as the Kok au Vin or De Vlaamsche Pot, which specialises in Flemish cooking, and whose owner Mario Cattoor publishes cookbooks with shortened versions in English, available to buy in his restaurant.

Making an ideal add-on, a twenty-minute drive to the coast on the North Sea is the chic, seaside town of Knokke. Here there are elegant shops and sandy beaches, as well as artwork on display in public places.

Many of the beaches are private with visitors having to pay for the facilities that each one provides such as sun loungers and refreshments. Although out of season, and certainly not hot enough to enjoy the beach itself, on my visit the Monroe beach, named after Marilyn Monroe, had a champagne bar with lots of people lounging on white comfy settees. Apparently at various times, some of the beaches also have their own DJ.

Poppy, my dog has a pet passport so we drove to Belgium, crossing the Channel courtesy of Eurotunnel where it was possible for her to stay with us in the car.  Taking the ferry means leaving your dog alone in the car during the crossing.

For more about Bruges, click here.

 

 

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