Even the most scenic cities in Europe have one quirk, one aberration, one distinguishing factor that convinces you that they are real, not fairy book perfect. In Paris, the depressingly dingy subway stations remind you that you are in a modern city that has to deal with mundane things like transport. In Athens, squat suburban buildings and graffiti-strewn streets stand in stark contrast to the still majestic ruins of the Greek empire. But in Bruges, the capital of the Belgian province of Flanders, you can scour the streets with a fine-tooth comb and still not find any imperfections in the city's well-preserved faÃ§ade.
Driving into Bruges from Brussels, you are immediately struck by how the perfectly proportioned cottages with sloping roofs stack up like gingerbread houses on spotless streets. Although Bruges is the capital of West Flanders, it has none of the bustle you'd associate with a state capital. Pedestrians outnumber cars, and cyclists stop at traffic lights to let commercial steamers pass through the city's many canals.
In its golden period between the 13th and the 15th centuries, Bruges was an important city of commerce. Its port, one of the largest in Europe, made it an important trading link between North and South Europe. There's still no better way to soak in the leisurely vibe of the city than by taking a boat ride down one of its ancient waterways. You'll see ducks swimming in the canals, their necks glowing blue-green in the dappled afternoon sunlight. You'll see moss stealthily creeping up on ancient brick bridges. You'll bend your head low to avoid smacking your head against those bridges, and when you look up, you'll wonder where the sun disappeared. You'll see a row of swans gliding by and marvel at their cushy life floating in safe waters, surrounded by your family. What's not to love?
In this compact city, everything is within walking distance. Walk the cobble-stoned streets to discover tiny houses where Belgian ladies weave their world-famous lace, or ancient chocolateries that sell decadent hot chocolate. Stop at the historic city centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and get a taste of chunky and perfectly crisp frites or Belgian fries, which the French appropriated and called their own. Slather the fries generously with mayo, mustard and ketchup and let your taste buds run riot.
There are some places that provoke you and others that placate you. Bruges can be called the latter -- it urges you to forget your diets and agendas and simply live in the moment.