Three Days in Bruges
Arrival and first impressions
When I told people I was going to spend a few days in Bruges, I didn’t meet a single one who hadn’t already been there. They all said what a beautiful place it is so it was definitely time for me to check it out.
The journey was painless and I arrived late afternoon. I walked to my hotel which was close to ‘T-Zand through King Albert Park and via the Tourist Information Centre where I picked up an excellent map for 50c which I used a lot during my stay.
If you are interested in visiting a lot of museums it could be worth purchasing a City Card. Alternatively some of the museums are grouped together so you can buy a day or three day ticket for several. Generally all the tourist attractions seemed to cost around the same: eight Euros. It is also worth knowing that most museums are closed on Mondays.
Having checked out my room which was on the quiet side of the hotel, I thought I would just have a wander round to get my bearings and have a little look at back streets off the tourist trail. The nice thing about having three days is that you have the leisure to scratch a little bit below the surface and give yourself time to relax and explore on your own, maybe discovering some surprising things.
I had a nice cup of coffee at ‘Bistro de Pompe’ which came on a silver tray with a doily, complete with a chocolate and ‘hairdresser’ biscuit. Very impressive and at a nice table outside to do some people watching without being in the main square.
I decided to be a bit more organised than normal in choosing a restaurant. I usually have an idea of where I want to go, spend ages looking for it only to discover it’s either not suitable or I can’t find it. By this time I’m so hungry I end up going anywhere and getting a second rate meal. This night I sat on a wall in a patch of sunshine and drew up a list of recommendations from the Rough Guide. I wrote the times they were open and a little description together with whether they would be good for supper or lunch/coffee. Then I numbered them and marked them on the map.
Out of the 14 I had picked out there were 9 which looked as though they would do a decent evening meal. Five of these were fairly near where I was sitting and by this point I was getting a bit peckish. The first was closed down and the second was closed for holiday. Great start! Three left, including the place where I had a coffee earlier. Of these I was drawn to one in particular In den Wittenkop as Phil had singled it out in the Rough Guide as one of the most appealing restaurants in town. I was invited in by the owner’s father-in-law and spend a very relaxing evening in this delightful place. The food was delicious, original and of excellent quality.
Checking the weather forecast showed me heavy rain for the following two days so my first full day had to be the day to hire a bike.
I haven’t been on a bike for a while but don’t let that put you off; I had the best time. I hired my bike from B-Bike which is to the left of the Tourist Office on ‘T-Zand and down some steps. The bikes are in excellent condition, being replaced every six months and with very comfortable saddles. I would advise you to check the saddle height before you set off, however, as I have a beautiful bruise from bashing my knee on the front wheel as my saddle was too high!
You can hire bikes for an hour, four hours or a whole day and I went for four hours. The bike path is usually separated from the footpath which is more relaxing for riders and walkers and I followed the river up to Damme, pausing to check out the four windmills en route. If you have the whole day you can explore the area around Damme, in particular the Nature Reserves. I had a wander round and found an exhibition of paintings by Arnold Vanhee in a great old building. My favourite part was the old Herring Market where few tourists seem to venture; a peaceful spot which would have been very different four hundred years ago when herring from Sweden was sold here.
Oh, and remember to pass other cyclists on the right! Beyond the ruined church I followed a tiny footpath alongside a river; beautiful and peaceful. Returning on the east side of the canal back to Bruges I had a dedicated cycle lane but there was more traffic. I had lunch at the Restaurant du Phare which has a huge terrace alongside the river, very pleasant.
Back to the hotel for a quick shower, another item on my list was a boat trip, definitely one for dry weather as the boats have no covers. There are only five companies that are allowed licences to have boats on the canals and each one is only allowed four boats. No other boats are allowed there. It’s a very popular trip and I had a little wait to get on. Sitting next to the canal was no hardship, there’s so much to look at. There were four different nationalities on our boat and the guide gave the commentary in each language. It was an interesting trip, giving a different perspective on the town and I got to see parts of buildings which can only be seen from the water. It is good to do this early in your visit so you can piece it together when you are walking round.
Relaxed after my trip I thought it must be time to check out a tea room. I chose ‘t Eekhoetje which is close to the canal and has a lovely courtyard garden as well as quite a lot of space inside. The menu is extensive and everything looked delicious. I chose a glass of hot lemon which was quite like Citron Presse which I enjoy (very sharp!).
Sitting in the courtyard I felt the first spots of rain. That wasn’t forecast! I tried to ignore it and set out on my mission to check out possible eating places and cafes for my stay. I got as far as Jan van Eyck square when it really started pouring. I hadn’t a brolly or coat so, after sheltering for a bit, headed back to the hotel using my trusted map for the shortest route. As I wasn’t going anywhere soon I thought this would be an ideal time to check out the hotel pool. It was good to stretch my limbs after the bike ride and this probably helped me not to have any aches the next day.
For my evening meal I didn’t want to go far as it was still raining. One promising place was the Gran Kaffee de Passage which offered good Flemish food at reasonable prices. Perfect. There are lots of tables here but it filled up quickly. It’s quite dark inside but full of character. I chose the carbonnade flamande, a beef stew cooked with beer, with chips! It was delicious. The service was so good I was finished very quickly.
Not wanting to go back to the hotel yet I had a wander. I was looking for somewhere for a coffee but I could only see restaurants and the teashops don’t open in the evening. I watched a bit of an open air rock concert in the Burg. There was a great atmosphere with a whole mix of people, not seeming to mind what kind of music it was, nor the fact that it was raining. I strolled back up to the Markt where the carriages were lined up, waiting patiently for customers. The Café Craenenburg is big and I was able to get a coffee there before heading back.
Saturday morning is market day and that’s where all the locals head. After early morning rain the sun was shining again and I decided to get my breakfast there. T-Zand is full of stalls on a Saturday between 8 am and 1 pm. With several of every type of food, it was clear people had their favourite stalls; some having long queues. I chose a pain au chocolat which had surprise crème patissiere inside, chicken leg, yoghurt with fresh strawberries and a coffee. All very reasonable and I sat on a bench to eat them while taking in the hustle and bustle. I did get a couple of looks from elderly people as I was sitting on the end and my legs meant they couldn’t take as tight a corner as they would have liked!
One of the tips I had picked up was to walk from ‘T-Zand down Hauwerstraat to the produce market in Beursplein.Walking down Hauwerstraat was like walking through the Ideal Home Exhibition with salesmen demonstrating all manner of time-saving gadgets you shouldn’t be without. The produce market is wonderful: beautiful flowers, a multitude of herbs and salads, lovely fresh veg and fruit, and a pet stall! Dogs are very popular in Bruges so obviously have to be catered for. I whizzed past the cages of rabbits and birds destined for the pot and chose some fruit for my picnic. There were lots of free samples on offer and everything looked perfect.
I decided to walk back towards the hotel along the river. There are a lot of parks and waterways and that’s always my favourite way to get from A to B, even if it does meant going via C! The park with footpaths and cycle paths follows the river on both sides for a long way and you could spend a few happy hours just ambling along here.
Still no rain so I thought this would be a good day for the walking route I had downloaded. I had two indoor activities up my sleeve which could wait. The route started from the train station so I picked it up at point 23 to do the end section first. The route is well written to take in the most important historical and scenic parts of the town with interesting comments and some history. I looked out for the remaining restaurants and cafes to check out which I was walking around.
Unlike a lot of towns and cities the town planners of Bruges thought about what they should do with the area between ‘T-Zand where the old railway station had been and the new station. It was decided to create a park and this was done after the 2nd World War by ex-servicemen who had found themselves without work. They did a great job and it makes for a very pleasant walk from the station to the town centre, no need for a taxi or bus unless you have masses of luggage.
Near Minnewater I heard the music from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and stopped to have a chat with a busker. He was playing an instrument I hadn’t seen before: a violin, crossed with a trumpet with an amplifier from a gramophone! Very effective anyway. By the Begijnhof is the fountain where the carriage drivers stop for a break I came to the rescue of a horse who had knocked his bucket over, filling it back up again. My good deed for the day.
I had a picnic lunch on the grass by the river where I had cycled the day before, with a good value roll from a baker in Katelijnestraat. Refreshed I carried on with the walk, pausing for a coffee at the excellent de Proeverie teashop. I was disappointed with the Memling Museum as they no longer provide an audio guide and it wasn’t easy to find your way around. It seemed as though most of the paintings were done by ‘Anonymous!’ I was, however, intrigued by the temporary photographic display in an upstairs gallery, a series of portraits, showing one person for each age from 6 weeks right up to 100. Fascinating.
Katelijnestraat is the place to buy chocolates if you’re taking them home. I chose blocks as I thought they were less likely to melt but you can buy packs, figures or select your own individually.
At the end of my walk I still had a bit more energy so decided to locate the remaining teashops and cafes on my list and decide where to have my supper. Heading roughly for Genthof I had a fun game of ‘Dodge the Tourists’ going down alleyways and small streets, missing out the busy main streets and squares. Yes, I know I am a tourist but I move a lot quicker than most of them! I had a cherry beer at Restaurant Jan van Eyck and made sure I hadn’t missed anything highly recommended in the Rough Guide. I didn’t want to leave too much for my final day.
I had a little wander around the St Anna Quarter and popped into Sint-Walburgakerk. Bruges has a Roman Catholic tradition and it’s quite fun to spot the numerous statuettes on corners of streets. Each church has its own Mary statue which is traditionally dressed up and paraded around the town on Saints Days. In the church during August there was an exhibition of eight Madonna and child statues from Bruges and other places. A rare opportunity to see them up close in all their glory; their ancient costumes are beautifully made with intricate designs.
Not having a particular destination led me to notice so much I might otherwise have missed: murals, weathervanes, carvings and ancient buildings. The planners in Bruges have been so strict it is sometimes hard to tell whether a building is truly old. If you see a blue shield you know that building has been designated as of historical significance. There are a lot of those.
I stopped for a coffee at the Cafe Vlissinghe which is a very old inn with a garden, possibly the oldest inn in Europe. The food is reasonably priced and it’s a popular place with a great ambience.
I returned to the Bistro de Pompe for my final supper. Most of the recommended restaurants don’t have a huge selection but as long as you’re not fussy you should get a high quality meal. My only complaint was that they would not provide tap water and I didn’t really want to buy two drinks. The dessert was particularly well presented. I was the last person to leave this restaurant and it was dark outside. It was lovely to walk through Markt down to the canal with all the buildings lit up. Reflections in the canal were particularly beautiful and I went back to the hotel pondering what a lovely time I had had in this vibrant town.
Sunday morning I got up reasonably early and climbed up the Belfry. The366 steps are about the same number as the Monument in London and there is a great view from the top. This is the top thing to do in Bruges and it was good advice to visit on a Sunday morning to beat the crowds. I wasn’t as early as planned arriving at about 10 am but there was quite a queue when I came back down and they will only let 70 people go up at a time.
My final visit was to the Groeninge Museum which is set in lovely grounds and has just 12 rooms so is a good size to explore in one go. You are provided with a floor plan and the paintings do have descriptions but I found the Rough Guide helpful for further detail and would recommend obtaining a more detailed guide either from the Museum shop or elsewhere to get the most from your visit.
For lunch I went to Het Dagelijks Brood in Philipstockstraat and had the delicious soup of the day with bread. I sat at the communal table but it was very quiet so there was no one to talk to! They also have a sunny terrace at the back.
The Rough Guide to Bruges was great. I love their style and it’s handy to have a few phrases to use to show you are trying to respect their language rather than assuming everyone speaks English. I also picked up a lot of tips from other people’s blogs etc. Much appreciated. I loved the advice not to wear stilettos because of the cobbles!