Let’s start where we left off . . . where my wits left me entirely. The chocolate shops.
There was music playing in the Market Square, which was bustling with people and horses and carriages. The air was chill, and the sunlight was just beginning to dip low, so there was something festive and holiday feeling about the town, despite the fact that it was only mid October.
We ate in a bistro near the fish market (Vismarkt) area of town, but left room for nibbles in the street (namely, chocolate). We bought chocolate covered orange slices and all manner of chocolate truffles, eventually winding our way through the canals and back to our hotel, to navigate those treacherous, steep, and tiny stairs to our room– a task made more difficult by our round, chocolate-filled bellies and lethargic-satiated gaits. (It’s nearly impossible to waddle up stairs like these.)
The next morning, we struck out early to walk the city before any crowds might set in. This has become a new ritual of ours–one that I’m absolutely sold on. No crowds, no noise, just the city in all its glory, laid out in the morning light and eager to be enjoyed and photographed at a leisurely pace. Here’s a little sampling for you:
After our stroll, we returned to the hotel for breakfast, then headed out mid-morning to the Historium (on the Market Square) for some local history. The Historium bills itself as a multi-media history exhibit. We enjoyed it. The first half of the experience is heavy on multi-media and offers an interesting feel for what life was like here hundreds of years ago, but it’s a little light on actual history. The final parts of the exhibit are heavy on history, but mostly of the “look at the placard and read/listen to the lesson” variety. All in all, we enjoyed it, but the kids got antsy toward the end. And so . . .we headed off to eat and drink again! (No surprise there.)
At this point, we’d met friends from Germany, and we all headed to Die Halve Mann Brewery and Bistro, for what turned out to be a great lunch. The beers were lovely, the steaks and Flemish stew were exceptional, and the local man who sat next to us was very chatty! (I guess Belgian beer loosens the tongue.)
After the brewery, we stopped in at the Church of Our Lady, to see the famous statue, The Madonna of Bruges.
The statue is famous for so many reasons. It is one of the only sculptures by Michaelangelo to reside outside of Italy. (Or maybe THE only– I forget.) It was also a focal point of the recent book and movie Monuments Men — as one of the finest pieces of art to be stolen by the Nazis from Bruges, but later recovered by “the monuments men” from a salt mine in Austria where it had been hidden with innumerable other pieces of art.
It was a lovely statue, and impressive to see (especially with its lengthy backstory). But it did hold one disappointment for me. It was walled off from the rest of the church and an entry fee was required to see it–not unusual, and maybe not distasteful, as I’m sure these cathedrals take incredible funds to keep them running and in good order. But still, walling this off somehow created a disconnect for me. Shouldn’t it be seen as a piece of the whole, a part of the worship experience? Isn’t that where its power lies, and not just in its aesthetic beauty? (Chat amongst yourselves on that–I’ll just put it out there. All in all, though, it was fantastic to see this, as well as the rest of the church.)
After touring the church, our day was nearly spent, and our daughter was beginning to come down with what turned out to be the flu (and would dog us for weeks to come), so we began winding down. BUT not until after we …. YES–ate more chocolate!!
I strolled the city a little more, while everyone else napped off the chocolate and lunch binge, and then we headed home. Another day in Bruges would have been fantastic, but might have prompted a chocolate overdose. You have to pace yourself with these things. Maybe another weekend, we’ll make the pilgrimage again.
Bruges, Belgium—a city synonymous with chocolate and beer. No surprise, then, that it makes my short list of favorite places on the planet. . . a place that I only discovered last week.
Bruges is perched in the northwest corner of Belgium, and much of its character has been shaped by its canals and the fact that it has long been a port city and center of trade. (The port of Bruges is Zeebrugge—“the Bruges Sea” I suppose.) The wealth that trade brought to Bruges is clear in the lavish Flemish medieval-style architecture that is everywhere on display.
The beauty of Bruges, and its relatively compact size, make it a perfect city for a weekend of “strolling.” My family is very good at “meandering” through towns—strolling, seeing, nibbling, photographing—we’ve raised it to an art form. . . and Bruges is the perfect town to practice that art. It has the beauty of its intact medieval architecture, the added drama and elegance of its winding canals, the warm and rich ecstasy of waffles and chocolate spilling out of its storefronts, the intricate eye-candy of its lace shop windows, and the tired traveler’s respite of its lovely Belgian beer. (It’s almost painful to write this while Bruges is still so fresh in my memory–if I had a teleporting machine, I’d drop my keyboard and head back right now!)
We drove into the city relying on our GPS to guide us, which it did: straight through the heart of town and market square and down some streets that might not have even been open to cars—but still, we drove through. The sea of people parted for us, and we cruised through the heart of town at approximately 3 miles an hour. Probably not the most appropriate route to take us to our hotel, but it gave us the opportunity to see what was around us in the Old Town.
We stayed at Anselmus Hotel—a small hotel that is located in the heart of Bruges. It dates back to the 17th century and was the home of the scientist Anselmus Boetius De Bood. It was quaint and comfortable, and the owners were lovely people. Our room was a couple of flights up—a large space that could fit our whole family—the ceiling was crisscrossed by exposed beams and the stairs up to the room were astonishingly narrow. Outrageously narrow. (Not in width of the staircase, but each step was only about 3 inches deep, requiring a funny side step or tiptoe technique to navigate.) Anselmus must have kept magical medieval elves as his servants and housed them in this attic, because no human foot could fit on these stairs. If this had been the Holiday Inn, I’d call these stairs treacherous. But it wasn’t. It was Anselmus Hotel in the Old Town of Bruges, which somehow changes things. This staircase was charming. Or maybe it was a sobriety test, a reminder that this was a respectable hotel—can’t stay here unless you have your wits about you. At least, can’t make it all the way to your room unless you have your wits about you.
And so we ventured out into the town, resolving to keep our wits about us.
At first, that was easy. We wandered the town and soaked up the general atmosphere.
We watched the boats of tourists navigate the canals, we “oooohed and ahhhhhed” at the architecture, and we jumped out of the way of horses and carriages and also the vintage cars that were holding a rally through the old town that Saturday.
(Sadly, I have no photos of those beautiful vintage cars– I was too busy gawking or jumping to the sidewalk as they sporadically zipped past.)
So far, Bruges was beautiful and my wits were intact. But that was all about to change.
More on that, and some recommendations of sights to see and places to eat, in Part Two– stay tuned.