There’s the waft of freshly made chocolate and delicious waffles, mingling with the aromas of just- fried frites and mayonnaise. And the constant sound track of the clip- clop of horses on cobblestone, and bells of soaring belfries…Bruges was breathtaking on celluloid, and it’s even more breathtaking in person. Chocolates and canals, carillons and arched bridges, brick facades painted a salmon pink; Bruges, in the Flanders region of Belgium, is truly a fairy tale! Our guide educates us about the rise and fall of this glorious city. It used to be one of the wealthiest towns in Europe, and the centre of a lucrative cloth trade. The Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled over Bruges, were great patrons of art, and under them paintings, lace making and tapestries flourished. Long ago, canals used to come up here with wool and flax and finished goods used to be carried away. From the 16th century, the river connecting the town to the North Sea, silted up, and the city languished, till its revival many centuries later as a tourist town.
Bruges has two main squares and pedestrianised streets where walking is a pleasure. We start at the pretty-as-a-postcard Grote Markt, dominated by the Belfry. This was once the site of jousts and executions, today, its tourist melee. The lofty Belfry used to be the look- out in case of war and intruders, and the place where charters and privileges of the city were stored. Today, you can still climb the vertiginous 366 steps to get a panoramic view. In the centre of the square, are the statues of two heroes of Bruges- Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who resisted the French oppression in the famous Battle of the Golden Spurs. On the opposite side, are a row of gabled houses, which used to be medieval guild houses.
We take a boat tour on the canals, looking at palaces, churches , houses with gables and ‘spy windows’. Weeping willows overhang and ducks frolic. We pass under many of the city’s fifty plus mossy bridges, some so low, that we have to duck. Many houses have no windows or have covered panes, and our guide tells us the reason: a ‘window tax’ once imposed on the town’s people! We chance upon simple whitewashed homes, around a central courtyard, from the 15th Century. These almshouses called Godshuizen, used to be built for the poor, by the rich merchants and guilds, and today provide free housing for the older residents. There are swans everywhere and our guide tells us they are the mascots of the town. The tranquil, grassy Beguinage is our ‘moment for meditation’. It used to be a sanctuary for women, whose husbands were fighting in the Crusades and even today only Benedictine nuns and single women can stay here. This has a photogenic square lined with poplars and a meadow which is awash in daffodils in spring.
The other square that’s the beauty here is the Burg, flanked by the Renaissance law court and the Gothic city hall, a sandstone fantasy of statues, crests and heraldry. On the first floor of the city hall is a cavernous room, ablaze with colourful wall murals offering a quick history lesson and a marvellous vaulted, oak ceiling. Today, it’s the venue of local marriage ceremonies and political meetings. The double chapelled basilica of the Holy Blood, was built by a crusader in the 12th century, and is said to house a piece of cloth soaked with the blood of Jesus. On Ascension Day every year, there is a Procession of the Holy Blood, where hundreds of locals dress up as knights and ladies of that era, and venerate the holy relic.
Modest family- run restaurants dot the town, and there are almost no global chains. My friends feast on large pails of steamed mussels in garlic cream sauce and white wine while I enjoy hearty meals of goat’s cheese on bread with honey and quaff some local beer. The beer menus are longer than the food menus: other than the hop flavoured Trappist brews there are interesting ones with gruut- a mixture of herbs and spices. Each beer even has its own special glass!
Chocolate is the other grand passion of the town. Chocolate is intertwined with the town’s history, when Spanish explorers who came here bought cocoa. There are display windows with chocolate works-of-art: ducks, buildings and even flowers. Locals buy their chocolate daily, fresh, like we buy vegetables. There is white chocolate, dark chocolate and chocolate with a twist: including quirky ingredients like wasabi, onions and even ginger! We visit one of the oldest chocolateries of the town- Sukerbuyc, and talk to the chocolate maker, Kristoff Deryckere. He furthers our chocolate education. He explains why Belgian chocolate is so special: its ground down to the minutest microns. The shop creates its own blends, and the town has chocolate markets and guilds. Pralines-chocolate shells filled with a variety of fillings ranging from raspberry to fresh cream are my personal favourites. The show stoppers are the edible chocolate boxes with designs of the local gabled houses.
Walking through skeins of canals and arched bridges, we come to the majestic Church of our Lady, with a rocket like spire and hallowed candlelit interiors. There’s a masterpiece inside, which eclipses all the other art: Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and child’ in white Carrara marble, which has survived being stolen during French rule and the Second World War. Come nightfall, the doll -like houses are painted with a golden glow , the arched floodlit bridges are wispy reflections in the glassy canals and romance lurks at the alleyways. I find my defining moments in the bottom of a beer mug and in the last bite of a praline.