Chase reporter ANTONY CLAY takes a trip to Bruges in northern Belgium and finds a delightful place to visit
IT’S a sad fact that Belgium doesn’t come high on many people’s ‘must see’ list, but it is in fact a small country that really hits above its weight.
It is a little gem which offers plenty for lovers of culture, history and, of course, good food and drink.
Bruges in the north of the country — one of the nation’s real treasures — is a heady mix of the ancient and the modern.
Bruges — residents pronounce it something like brooger, and let’s face it, they’re probably right — has many stunning historical delights. Churches, museums, old shopping streets, old breweries.
You could find out how chocolate is made at one of the specialist shops. One thing that will be pointed out is that there is chocolate pretending to be Belgian chocolate and then there is REAL Belgian chocolate.
There is the Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc, for instance, which is the real deal and a magnet for chocoholics.
For lovers of the stronger stuff, one attraction might be the Halve Maan Brewery where the delights of Belgian beer, and its history, are revealed. You can find out about the brewing process and be taken through the fascinating history of the brewery. In the past, the beer delivery staff were partly paid in booze – a mere six bottles a day! – and after also sampling some of the wares they were supposed to be distributing the cart drivers had to let their horses bring them back to base, for obvious reasons.
A good walk around Bruges will introduce you to the rich history of this city.
Any city with a museum dedicated to potato fries – the frietmuseum – is one that I would heartily recommend.
The city square is a wonderful trip back in time with the majestic town hall dominating the scene.
There are shops and eateries such as the eccentric and upmarket Restaurant Zeno on Vlamingstraat.
If you wanted to venture out of the city itself, you could pop to the old village of Damme just a few miles away. Or even hire a bike and cycle there along quiet and safe bicycle routeways.
Damme, with a current population of around 700, may look small and twee now but in medieval times it was an important place with hundreds of boats mooring in its port. Today, it is quiet but its buildings and surroundings tell the story of its Burgundian past.
The size and extravagance of the Gothic-style Town Hall, which dates from 1464, suggests a finer long-gone age when rival armies fought over this area because the town’s ancient port attracted the attention of merchants and monarchs alike. Alas,
Damme’s time in the spotlight faded, but a visit there today shows enticing glimpses into the past: the Church of Our Lady, for instance, the delightful old houses, or the 15th century House de Grote Sterre which is the base for the Damme tourist office – well worth a visit.
The market square in Damme is delightful but the settlement has much of historic and cultural merit to see.
Cycling in Damme is a pleasure and offers the opportunity to check out the countryside around the town – a nature reserve where all manner of wildlife, especially birds (I saw a stork, which made my day!) can be seen. Bikes can be hired at the Damme tourist centre and in Bruges at a reasonable price. It is a good way to explore the forts, dykes and windmills between Damme and Bruges.
In the year 865 a fort was built where the city now is although there is evidence of earlier Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements in the area. There was also Roman activity but it was attacks by Vikings which prompted Baldwin I (Margrave or Count of Flanders) to erect the fort.
Bruges got its city charter on July 27, 1128, and grew as a trading centre thanks to its then access to the North Sea but this began to decline as the Zwin channel to the sea gradually silted up.
The city developed an artistic reputation as the Flemish school of painters developed oil painting techniques.
The first book in English by William Caxton was published in the city.
The city began to prosper again in the 19th century, particularly becoming a popular place to visit by tourists,. It was a book — Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, published in 1892 — which spurred people to come and investigate the supposedly sleepy place.
The development of the port at Zeebrugge was a much-needed fillip to Bruges’ fortunes.
Wandering down the city’s old streets gives a great sense of Bruges’ long history. It was hardly damaged in both the First and Second World Wars despite being occupied in both conflicts by German forces, so that much of its historic past remains intact.
From the splendid scenic view of Rozenhoedkaai to the architectural majesty of Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, there is so much to see.
There are many museums such as the Museum of the Church of Our Lady and the Diamond Museum or you could sample the works of Salvador Dali on show at the Dalí Xpo-Gallery.
Other attractions include the Bargebrug (Barge Bridge), Arenthuis mansion, the 13th century Florentine loge merchant premises and the Gruuthuse Museum, as well as the Stadhuis and Tolhuis.
It really is a city to be experienced. There is a delight on every corner for the visitor.
There are usually events taking place throughout the year so there is always something new to experience.
Bruges is a lovely city with so much to offer for all ages. Any visit to Belgium has to include it but it is certainly an attraction in its own right.