Bruges? That’s beer and chocolate, isn’t it?
A standard remark from people when I told them I was off to Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage City, for a three-day trip and to be honest it was easy to see how people that had never visited before had come to that conclusion.
The pretty streets are lined with chocolate shops, bars and brewery tours. But spend longer than an hour here and you quickly find that this is an incredible, unique and stunning city.
Hotel Montanus, situated a 10-minute walk from the Burg and Markt (with its famous Belfry) and the historic heart of the city, was my base.
Tucked away amongst the cobbled streets, this 19th century former home of the mayor offers a choice of rooms within the four-star main hotel with further rooms in an Edwardian pavilion located at the far end of garden, these being a former dormitory for an English girls’ boarding school during the 1930s.
Founding father Benjamin Franklin is attributed as saying “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”.
Well, if that is true then God must have visited Bruges on many occasions and loves us very much, as a visit to the Bourgone des Flandres brewery would prove.
Meeting with master brewer Thomas Vandelanotte at the entrance to the brewery, situated next to a canal in the heart of the city, you are immediately struck by the enthusiasm and passion that this 38-year-old Belgian has for beer.
“Beer is everything”, he explained as we toured the different levels of the building, seeing each stage of the brewing process from the start as hops through to a delightful finish back downstairs in the main bar, where a slider containing six different types and strengths of beer awaited me.
“This is the end result,” said Thomas.
“But for Bruges, it is an important part of our history.”
The tour was scheduled to run for an hour yet it was almost three before I left, having experienced the various brews, each carefully explained to me, and had it not been for another appointment, I could have listened to Thomas for hours as he explained beer and Bruges in a very entertaining way.
I had to leave Thomas for a dinner reservation at De Republiek, a little way from the market square.
This was the first of three dining experiences in Bruges and a good way to appreciate the forthcoming Kookeet food festival, running September 24-26.
The 10th year of the festival will see a three-day event with chefs from the region cooking with a passion in the beautiful gardens of the Grootesminarie, a green oasis in the heart of the city.
For just 10 euros per day visitors can choose from five dining experiences: On the spot, Three ways, Around the fire, With the chef and At his best, all aimed at putting Bruges's gastronomy even more on the map.
Starting with juicy mussels in white wine and green pesto, along with sweet chilli ribs as a side, the atmosphere of the outer garden area on a very warm August evening complemented the food. Inviting and interesting.
My main was carpaccio of prestige de boeuf, which was basically Belgium beef in brine. Blue, or near raw, the seasoning and the tenderness of the dish was perfect and the ultra-thin slices of meat melted on the tongue.
Locals seem to deem this a popular venue as the queue outside of people waiting for tables to become available as I left showed.
Chefs from De Republiek are taking part in Kookeet, as are chefs from my restaurant the following evening, Restaurant Franco Belge.
Franco Belge is the place to be for lovers of traditional French–Belgium cooking with a contemporary twist.
This translates itself into the unique atmosphere of the restaurant combining the authenticity of Old Bruges, with tasteful, trendy, and modern.
A three-course dinner, starting with delicate slices of veal, awaited me on my final evening in Bruges.
Yet it was the main course that made the entire evening. When my waiter arrived at the table to tell me the main would be cuckoo, served on a bed of risotto, I was without a doubt bemused.
Only knowing of cuckoos that poke their heads out of Swiss clocks, the thought of eating one was baffling. I appreciated this was a one Michelin star restaurant, but where do you obtain cuckoos?
Thankfully, given my limited language skills other than French, my waiter quickly pointed out that this was Mechelen Cuckoo, or as we would call it in the UK, guinea fowl.
My final culinary delight was at the De Halve Maan brewery following a short tour of their facilities.
De Halve Maan (half moon) has a courtyard and indoor brasserie where you can enjoy a wide-ranging menu (along with numerous beers brewed on the spot). I chose stew prepared with Brugse Zot Dubbel, a dark brown beer from the brewery and being in Belgium, of course frites as well. It would be rude not to!
Cobbled streets, canal paths, hidden short cuts through narrow roads, but never far from a landmark to a piece of medieval history, pretty much sums up any walk that you choose to take in Bruges.
A little like the old saying that all roads lead to Rome, all walks in Bruges lead to a sense of fulfilment. Or just an opportunity to walk off the waffles from earlier in the day. Thank goodness for my “Ooh! Walking guide”, which helped my plan the route to keeping the pounds off.
This entertaining book gives you a choice of four walks, amazing world heritage, Burgundian splendour, silent nostalgia and contemporary hotspots.
I chose the first dealing with the heritage of the city and a gentle stroll of 4km, aided by the information within the book, gave a good understanding of the foundation of the city through the centuries and into today. Landmarks take on a new meaning when you read the background behind them and I finished the walk refreshed and informed.
If Willy Wonka had a holiday home, Bruges would be its location.
Chocolate holds a large market share of what make up the attraction to this city.
As already mentioned, beer and food hold their own whilst the history, prettiness and charm underpin the whole allure of the tourist appeal. But chocolate, in all shapes, sizes, colours and tastes, only added to the waistline increasing. Time to consult my “Ooh! Walking guide”, again!
The first impression on visiting any of the shops offering the chocolatey temptation is that they all offered the same. A massive schoolboy error as stepping inside, each outlet had their own unique designs and tastes, from nougats to elaborate designs such as chocolate nuts and bolts (yes, they really did look like they belonged in an old shed at the end of a garden), and this was also true with the tastes.
Sample after sample is offered and after a seriously long decision time making, I had forgotten where the best samples had been offered, meaning I had to start all over again at the first shop.
Once selected, they were packed away into my snazzy cool bag (each shop sells them to enable your morning of retail therapy to continue).
Bruges with its many picturesque canals and small bridges is is known as the Venice of the North.
The Reien (the city’s ancient canals), has many boats trips where you can get to see and understand the city from a river water level, passing by the numerous bevy of Swans floating along. Or if a trip on a horse drawn carriage is more to your taste, sit back and enjoy the sights as you are transported on a 30-minute trip, clip-clopping along the cobbles to the envy of those walking.
Checking out of my hotel after a stay during which I had been spoiled with a large comfortable room and breakfasts that boasted everything from a bowl of fresh fruit with a of glass of rosé, to soft fluffy omelettes cooked and delivered quickly to your table, one thing struck me most.
Why was I leaving the city so soon when there was still far too more to see and experience?
Rest assured Bruges, I shall be back to visit again very soon. And with Christmas fast approaching, this could prove an ideal opportunity to visit again and see the famous markets.