My vote for Europe’s most romantic town? It’s gotta be Bruges, a lost-in-time canal-laced charmer an hour from Brussels. It’s one of the day trips on our Amsterdam and Flemish Treasures tour each August, and we took a couple of days before our May tours in Provence to enjoy it again. The first time we visited was on a Valentine’s Day weekend in the ’90s, and we stayed right in the middle of Bruges’ most photographed spot, above, at a delightfully shabby hotel, Bourgondisch Cruyce, that has since been renovated into a gorgeous 4 star luxe property.
This time we’ve checked into yet another lovely lodging to recommend, the Karel de Stoute, former home of a prince of the same name. One of his medieval towers is now our bathroom! Located in a part of town that we’ve never before explored, with a canal, of course, flowing nearby, it’s a delightful boutique hotel with the most fabulous breakfast buffet…tables laden with fresh fruit, homemade pastries and cakes, and anything else you’d want for a filling delicious breakfast.
So what caused this town to hibernate for over three-hundred years, thus retaining its medieval elegance? Having become wealthy through trading, with an essential outlet to the sea, the River Zwin, Bruge’s fortunes drastically changed when the river silted up in the 16th century. It was not until it was rediscovered by English and French Romantics in the 19th century that Bruges’ charms were uncovered…and today it’s the most popular tourist destination in Belgium!
It’s a short walk from our hotel to the main squares, the Markt and the Burg. This trip we just look at the neck-craning Belfry on the Markt Square – last time we climbed the 366 steps to the top for a great view. The green stall selling frites at the base has been there forever – and their not-french-fries (yes, french fries really came from Belgium, not France!) are worthy of the always-long line of customers. Step-gabled buildings line up along the square – especially pretty when the lights twinkle on at dusk. A short walk takes us to the Burg, with a lavish Stadhuis (town hall) and tucked into a corner, the Basilica of the holy Blood, its entrance guarded by gilded statues. Climb the stairs inside to the Upper Chapel, built and lavishly frescoed in the 12th century. With a unique bowling-ball shaped pulpit and vivid stained glass windows, it’s well worth a pause.
Ready for a pause of another kind, we follow our noses to a fragrant waffle shop and enjoy one of Belgium’s signature dishes – yum! 2018 is a year for the Contemporary Art and Architecture Triennale, from May 5 to June 18, with a theme of Liquid City, and what fun it is to spot the art along the canals! Several installations are actual playgrounds – we’re careful not to fall in as we saw one man do as he stepped back for a photo of these billowing orange shapes! The contrast of super-modern with intricate medieval architecture is exhilarating – and the perfect weather adds to the pleasure!
Wandering along canals, down narrow lanes with homes garlanded with wisteria, through churchyards hemmed with espaliered fruit trees, til we find a favorite corner from years ago, we make our way to Minnewater Park, not far from the train station. The adjacent Begihnhof, founded in 1245, is one of Bruges’ most charming locations (especially earlier in the spring when the lawn is covered with daffodils!). Rows of small white houses originally built for lay sisters circle the lawn, and a spirit of peace enfolds the area.
We complete our day with another stroll as dusk falls – at all hours Bruges is a delight!