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Of belfries, bridges and baroque at Bruges in Belgium

Its leafy parks and vibrant cafés are like none other and its canals, architecture and bustling downtown radiate energy enough to power a ship. The Belgian city of Bruges is one intoxicating place, finds Neeta Lal

Leisure

Best time to visit: Easter
You need: A week

Wherever I look in Bruges, I’m surrounded by loveliness. It has leafy parks, quaint boutiques, vibrant cafes, canals, bridges, steeple-gabled houses, exquisite architecture and a bustling downtown that radiates enough energy to power a ship. All of this constitutes the stunning cultural tapestry of this north-western Belgian city that is at once modern and medieval, classic and contemporary.


While in Bruges, don’t forget to ride the canal in the Old Town. PICs/THINKstock

This mix of anything and everything is what, perhaps, makes Bruges so intriguing. And though this is my third visit to the city, the place continues to reward my explorations by unveiling more secrets. One moment I’m immersed in the shadows of low-ceilinged rooms, the rich textures of brick walls and cobblestoned courts. Next, I’m gawking at Flemish al fresco art in an ancient square, or tucking into toothsome food in a 13th century restaurant with a haunting past.   


Bruges’ exquisite downtown is a sight to behold. Pic/Neeta Lal

Being the economic capital of northern Europe from 11th to 13th century, Bruges flourished on a rich diet of international commerce and high-society soirees of the rich and famous. It was a thriving hub of international trade in wool and cloth. Full of entrepreneurial energy, it sought to make colonies of England and Scotland’s wool-producing districts. No wonder the city still carries the air of affluence.


You’re never too far from chocolate in Bruges. Pic/Neeta Lal
 
An enviable Gothic and Flemish architectural legacy — rivalled only by Italy or France perhaps — are manifested through the city’s rich trove of buildings — the famed Basilica of St John, the Town Hall, the Law Courts, the Church of Our Lady, the St John Hospital, the Bell Tower and more. Stunning statues and public art surprise me in square after square even as talented street performers jazz up the city’s cultural quotient.


Gothic and Neo-classical architecture abounds in the city

The Old Town beckons
I saunter into Old Town and get sucked into the vortex of its gravelly, medieval-ness. The cobblestoned streets offer kaleidoscopic images of a bygone era that have dominated Belgium’s socio-cultural matrix for centuries.

Bruges sends out an energising vibe with its sun-splattered streets spurring one into action. Trams are everywhere. These quirky wooden carriages radiate the charm of a museum piece as they rattle and shake their way along metallic tramlines cutting through the cobbles. I take a ride in one of these vehicles. It’s safe, relatively less polluting and so much fun to ride.

Known as the Venice of the North, a boat trip on the city’s canals is de riguer. These water bodies encircle Bruges like a bejewelled necklace. You can throng the promenade around the canal — to stand and stare Prufrock-like and admire its beauty from a vantage point. The labours of enthusiastic photographers like me are rewarded with snaps of graceful swans gliding on the water, or caught mid-flight — their pristine white wings aflutter and reflecting in the water below. 

Shop, eat, love
I gravitate towards Grote Market with its imposing belfry built between 13th and 16th century. The market is the city’s nucleus, the pivot around which Bruges seems to flow. For gasp-inducing aerial views of the city, nip up the 366 steps of the belfry. Or simply amble around this magnificent slice of real estate studded with boutiques, chocolate shops, cafes and bars.

Bruges is also the city of museums. These are not places serving up cloying mummified exhibits in glass cases. These are fun and vibrant venues, often themed on food, which is unsurprising in a city with a penchant for all things epicurean.  

I’m drawn to the Frites Museum, perhaps the world’s only museum on French fries. The trajectory of how the humble spud became the world’s most loved finger food is an enthralling watch. Choco Story, a mini museum, showcases the story of the cultivation and transformation of the cocoa bean from its origins to the finished product, complete with a rich, deep colour. The Diamond Musuem, the Lamps Museum, the city’s wealth of unusual museums is indeed interesting.

However, one of the most fascinating spots is the Beguinage of the prince de la Vigne, once a religious home for widows or the unmarried, now inhabited by Benedictine nuns. Open to public, it is a living remnant of the past. And stunning in its simplicity and starkness.
 
Close by is a park with its delightful Love Lake. This is where love-struck couples go hand in hand. Legend has it that a love-sick knight buried his beloved here after she died of grief when forced to marry another! 

As the day melts into night, the city is awash in myriad hues of blue. I’ve an onward journey to make. Yet, I’m struck with a lingering desire to stay back and delay my voyage. This is the intangible power of Bruges, a city so easy to fall in love with.

Fact File 
Go:
All major international airlines fly to Brussels from India. There are plenty of plane and train connections from the Belgian capital to Bruges. The most economical is a train ride and the distance can be covered in one hour & nine minutes at a cost of US$ 23 for an economy ticket.
Stay: The Ibis hotel is situated next to Bruges Train Station at the edge of the city, which can be reached by public transport in 10 minutes. A room can be had for about US$ 80 per night.
Don't miss: Belgium is the land of chocolates, beer and waffles. All three are abundantly available across Bruges at kiosks and bars.

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