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In Bruges

I was lucky to have accidentally landed in Bruges, the capital West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium There were no hotel rooms available in Brussels, the location for a conference I was attending and the reason for the rush. A friend suggested that I look for a place in Bruges, an hour train ride away but even that was almost full.

Bed and breakfast shopping is tricky for me as I require one that is smoke and pet free—too may allergies. But I managed to find a delightful little place located right in front of one of Bruges beautiful parks. Family run, the hosts were friendly and offered many tips on the city.

I woke to an elegantly laid out breakfast with fresh breads, homemade marmalades, muesli, creamy milk, fruit, cheese, great coffee and more. A software engineer from Paris occupied the only other room in the B&B that night and he was speaking animatedly about the bread with Marie, our hostess. Bread making was his hobby and he wanted to know where to buy fresh bread. I asked Marie how she remains rail thin in a place filled with such nice bread, cheese chocolate and she replied in broken English, “I eat much but I eat fresh food and I walk everywhere every day.”

Walking is a pleasure in Bruges and as a first timer in the city I was overwhelmed by the pretty cobblestone streets and beautiful canals that lace the outer vicinity. I had not done the usual tourist research on this medieval wonder–on what to see, where to eat etc. but I was excited to explore blind. Marie had given me a few suggestions on what to do and with a map in hand I just stepped out and began to walk. I spent the entire day walking and roaming the narrow streets, green parks and spotless canals of the city. I have been to several European cities but this one was special. I am not exaggerating when I say that the city is absolutely enchanting and I can see why it is on the itinerary for 4 million tourists every year. The entire city centre, Grande Place de Bruges, was aptly added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List just over a decade ago.

The markets were open early and people were doing their daily shopping. Fresh meats, seafood and vegetables were under one roof in a corner of the ancient city square. Plump mussels, a specialty of the region, were looked enticing I knew what I would order for dinner. I collected a few large perfectly shaped clam shells as souvenirs and moved onto the well known Belfry Tower. Energized I climbed up all 366 steps of the Medieval Gothic structure and was rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view of the entire city.

As I moved back towards the city square I noticed several cheese shops, all selling dozens of varieties of cheese. The shopkeeper of one told me that the cheeses all came from the hefty cows grazing on rolling farms that I saw on the train in. Sampling is usually not encouraged but since I asked a few technical questions about cheese making the shopkeeper was excited and insisted I try a few local cheeses. I bought a few types of cheeses and some fresh bread for a picnic lunch as I headed out to a spot by the canal to nibble and read about the history of Bruges.

Brussels, a burgeoning metropolis, is the administrative centre for the European Union and the capital of NATO and yet Bruges which is only a short distance away appears as if time has stood still, its history preserved well.

The golden era for Bruges was between the 12th and 15th centuries where the city was an important world port. Flanders was then one of the most urbanized areas in Europe. The area was known for its high quality Flemish woolen cloth which was exported to the whole of Europe from Bruges.

I imagined how the city must have been like when it was the trade and banking capital of Europe. Interestingly the Bourse which opened in 1309 was most likely the first stock exchange in the world and it developed into the most sophisticated money markets by the 14th century. A series of uprisings by the marginalized poor, political upheaval and epidemics slowly brought the region into decline and the city lost its prominence to Antwerp.

Bruges got back on the map in the following century as the world began to take notice of its rich art, culture and well preserved historic beauty and this remains the case today.

The city’s jewels—chocolate, beer and Michelangelo were on my agenda for the afternoon, followed by a dinner of Bruges mussels.

At the De Halve Mann brewery I got a lesson on beer making and a taste of their freshly brewed beer, Brugse Zot. Since Belgian beer is not permitted to use preservatives it cannot be exported. It was refreshing and delicious. The attached popular dining area is well known for its cuisine using beer as an ingredient.

Michelangelo’s Madonna and the Child sits in Our Lady’s Church, a large structure with a unique architecture. The church is the most visited because of this piece; the stunning marble sculpture is noted because it was the only work of Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. It has left Bruges many times for various reasons but always ended up back in the city.

The final stop before dinner was a trip to Chocolate Line (, an old fashioned shop in the middle of town where there are over 50 types of chocolates to choose from including tequila, cola and creole flavours. I stuck to my favourite–traditional milk chocolate with almonds.

En route to dinner I saw the Manneken Pis—yes sounds like and looks like a mannequin pissing. A famous tourist attraction which has become an icon of Brussels, it is a bronze statue of a boy peeing in a fountain, an odd icon but a popular one nevertheless.

The outdoor restaurant at the Rue des Bouchers, a pedestrian only lane, lined with restaurants featuring seafood, frites, delectable deserts and more was the perfect ending to the day. The steamed Mussels and beer were superb. I wished I had more time in Bruges, one day was not enough but I was sure it would not be my last visit. More planned maybe or maybe not.

Published in Marie Claire, July 2010

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