Contrary to what the title of this post may indicate, this is not a movie review of a mediocre Colin Farrell film (sorry to disappoint). Nope..we’ve actually been in Bruges, Belgium. We just got back, in fact, and were far more pleased with the city than the characters in the aforementioned film. In case you’re wondering if I’m spelling “Bruges” correctly, join the club. There are so many spellings that I decided I would use a variety while I was there…Bruges, Brugge, Brugges…the list goes on and on. Apparently, the people of Bruges wanted to play the field instead of being forced to commit to just one spelling. For now, I’ll stick with “Bruges” and see where things go between us.
Walking through Bruges is like walking the streets of a city straight out of a fairytale, with cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and neo-gothic architecture with most of its medieval buildings still intact. A UNESCO world heritage site, the Bruges city center is set on a system of canals much akin to that of Venice. Onlookers are treated with scenes of swans and narrow boats floating through the canals between ivy covered homes and buildings. Cars are seldom used in the city center which favors those on foot, or, even more preferable, on cruiser style bicycles adorned with tulip filled baskets.
On our first day in Bruges we decided to check a few of the more touristy places off our list and visited the Choco-Story chocolate museum and the Frites Museum. Yes, there is a museum dedicated to french fries. And, yes, we went there. It was as exciting as it sounds. To be fair, we really didn’t spend that long in either place. However, we did learn that at one time cocoa beans were used as currency and that 10 beans could buy you a rabbit. There were some pretty impressive chocolate statues on display, and we each got a free chocolate bar. I have even less to report about the frites museum other than to say free french fries were not included. However, if you are a chocolate and/or french fry enthusiast, these are the museums for you.
Next we went to the Basilica of the Holy Blood and there are absolutely no regrets to report on this one. If you read my post about Paris you already know how I feel about churches. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is no exception to that rule. The Basilica was built in the 12th century and holds an ancient relic said to be the blood of Christ, which was brought to the city after the second crusade by Thierry of Alsace, and is paraded every year through the streets of the city. Those who visit the Basilica can tour the main alter and also see the relic of the holy blood on display. The relic is actually a blood-soaked cloth that is said to have been used to wash the dead body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea. The cloth itself is sealed in a rock crystal phial encased in a glass fronted golden cylinder. The main alter of the Basilica is beautifully decorated with intricately designed stained glass.
Because everywhere we looked we saw people on bicycles, we decided to rent bikes on our second day so that we could make our way to a few points farther from the city center. And at only 6 euros for a full-day bike rental, this was probably the best deal we found during our stay. We biked the city for around 5 hours and had tons of fun. However, in the interest of full disclosure, the reality of biking around a fairy tale Belgian city did not quite match up with the vision I had in my mind. Prior to renting the bikes I felt like everyone I saw riding around the town looked completely at ease, riding in the wind, hair gently blowing, nimbly navigating between pedestrians, sidewalks, and other obstacles, with nothing but a carefree smile on their joyous faces and the sound of Julie Andrews singing The Sound of Music in the background. So when I clumsily hopped on my bike for the first time and made a failed attempt to take off into traffic I was hit with the stark reality that there was no sound of music playing in my background. In my case, it was more like, Another One Bites the Dust. Prior to getting the bikes I was slightly nervous that my son would have some difficulty navigating through the streets or that he might wreck and get hurt. Would you guys like to know who I should have been worried about? Myself. It was me, y’all. I was the weakest link. In my defense, I have no recollection of riding a bicycle since around the age of 10 or 12. I was also several inches too short for my bike which made for some interesting stops and starts along the way. In summary, it was a hot mess. However, it was so much FUN and I would do it again in a heartbeat. We were able to ride to the Bruges windmills, around more of the parks and canals, and to several other outlying areas of the city.
Our bicycle tour also took us to the Ten Wijngaerde Beguinage which now functions as a convent for Benedictines but was settled before 1240 as a gated community for single, pious women. The community has always been peaceful, reveres silence, and does not allow men (which likely accounts for the peacefulness I just mentioned). The grounds, consisting of a church and about 30 white houses constructed from the 16th to the 18th century, can be quietly walked about by visitors during the daytime only.
The Bruges Market Square acts as the central meeting point for activity in the city, with an abundance of restaurants, shops, tour guides, and historical buildings such as city hall and the 13th century belfry tower housing 48 bells. Among the shops in Bruges, the majority revolve around a small handful of Belgian specialties including hand-made lace, chocolate, and beer. Some establishments literally offer hundreds of beer options on their menus.
Speaking of food…we were speaking of food, right? The Bruges food pyramid can be broken down into four basic categories: waffles, frites, chocolate, and beer. We unanimously found the Belgian waffles to be our favorite and I’m not ashamed, at all, of the number of different waffles we tried just to be sure.
Belgian frites are unique in a number of ways and claim to be the best french fries in the world. Although, from the vast knowledge I gained at the Frites Museum, I can tell you that French fries aren’t actually French at all. Supposedly, the term “French” came about when British and American soldiers arrived in Belgium during World War I and were given fries by other Belgian soldiers. French was the local language and the official language of the Belgian Army at that time, and the British and American soldiers, believing themselves to be in France, coined the term “French fries”. Whatever the origin, Belgian frites are tasty, y’all! Served in a cone and drenched with any number of tasty sauces, this is the way to do fries right. My personal sauce of choice was the Flemish beef stew while my son preferred the Andalouse sauce.
We sampled a variety of beers at The Beer Wall, Halve Maan Brewery, and Cambrinus, with a good variety including cherry fruit beers and coconut wheat beer. I’m probably not enough of a beer enthusiast to give a fair account of how impressive Begian beer is, but I can say there was always a huge selection and lots of really cool beer steins to drink out of.
There were only a couple of things we didn’t have time to do in Bruges, including a canal tour and going inside the belfry tower. However, with 366 steps to climb to the top of the belfry with no elevator, and still recovering from the trauma of all the climbing we did in Paris, I was content to leave the belfry until a future visit. Overall, Bruges was a remarkable city and I’m so very happy we went. It was small enough to enjoy at our own pace without being rushed but large enough to have plenty of things to do. Bruges has certainly now been added to my ever growing list of favorite cities in the world. Until next time, y’all, thanks for stopping by!