Discover the hidden legends, beauty and culture that have been drawing Brits to Bruges for decades
Bruges - the capital of world class beer and chocolate - attracts millions of British tourists each year. And with daily P&O Ferries from Hull, travelling there from Yorkshire is simple and stress-free.
But there’s much more to this picture postcard city than great food, drink and architecture as intricate as the lace it is also famed for.
‘British people were the first tourists here’, said guide Marie-Jeanne Caes as she took us on a tour of legends, beauty and a shower of culture. Visitors first came to Bruges in the latter half of the 19th century, many on their way to see Waterloo, said Marie-Jeanne.
With them they brought the city's resurgence as a tourist destination, after its wealth from trade died off in the 1500s. Right now tourists are packing into ferries for the Christmas market which turns the already stunning main market square into a wintry scene just made for Instagram.Wander away from the central cobbled shopping and eating streets though and there is no end to Bruges’ charms.
Step back in time at the beguinage, a 13th century female convent where you may glimpse an elderly sister of the St Benedict Order clad in black robes.It’s just around the corner from the old St John’s Hospital, with an 800 year history, located on the romantic canals where some 120 city swans float down to Love Lake (a mistranslation of Flemish, but it stuck)And then there are the museums. Whether you want to learn more about torture, archaeology, diamonds or chocolate, there’s a museum here for you.We enjoyed the Groeningemsueum, located in a gorgeous garden, naturally. Here work by Flemish master painter Jan van Eyck - known for his emphasis on realism - is on show. The court painter, who also travelled to Lisbon to paint a potential bride for the Duke of Burgundy as he had never seen her, will be celebrated in Bruges next year as 2020 is the 'Year of Van Eyck.' There will be three exhibitions, including Jan Van Eyck in Bruges, dedicated to two of his masterpieces from March, and the Jan Van Eyck walking tour where visitors can follow in his 15th century footsteps.
At the other end of the culture scale, we discovered the creation of hexagonal chips and journey of the humble potato in the quirky Frietmuseum.And at De Halve Maan brewery their own museum showcases traditional techniques, a stunning rooftop view and a very modern underground pipe carrying 6,000 litres of beer per hour to a bottling plant 3km away. It is the only one in the world.‘There is literally beer flowing beneath your feet in Bruges’, said the guide, amidst jokes about Heineken.
Stop off at the Beer Wall - home to 2,000 beers and a sublime outside terrace - before dinner if you want to try more, and there is also a beer experience overlooking the bustling market square. Choosing somewhere to dine will be almost as difficult as selecting a beer, as Bruges is a melting pot of restaurants. One of the award-winning option is Restaurant Patrick Devos, a hidden gem where fine dining meets seamless service, and 30 years of experience, shows. Chef Patrick hails from the coast and paid homage to it with beautiful local fish cooked to perfection, as well as heavenly venison, all matched with wines.
It was a short stroll along quiet streets back to Hotel Monsieur Ernest.Of course it is another fine building - one wonders if Bruges’ 120,000 residents are now blind to beauty - with stylish rooms and staff who can’t do enough to help. The breakfast room overlooking a canal that once fortified the city boundary made for a particularly elegant start.If you have time, squeeze in a trip up The Belfry of Bruges (just 366 steps) for panoramic views, Church of our Lady, home to the Madonna of Bruges statue, or the festive ice rink and illuminations next to the convenient P&O coach park.
You also could visit the windmills dotted around the city, browse the shops piled high with chocolate delicacies, or take a scenic boat tour. Or do as so many do, as we will do, and plan to go back again and again.
Key travel facts P&O Ferries operates an overnight sailing between Hull and Zeebrugge daily, with a range of onboard facilities and cabins available. Fares start at £158 each way.For more information about Hotel Monsieur Ernest, visit www.monsieurernest.com.Standard double rooms start at €105 per room per night, or €115 for a standard double room with a canal view.For more information about Bruges, visit www.visitbruges.be or www.visitflanders.com.