Bruges, the Venice of the North
Packed in a motorboat, we gush past gorgeous gardens, beautiful buildings and ageing bridges. This is Bruges, the capital of West Flanders, also known as the Venice of the north thanks to its many, many canals. And seeing it from a boat makes us feel as though we are in an illustration from a book of fairy tales: we are surrounded by cobbled streets, winding waterways, gabled gingerbread-like houses, towers, and charming churches.
Every now and then, a bevy of swans sunning themselves by the banks distracts us from our captain-cum-guide’s informed and humorous commentary. Quickly, our cameras zoom in to capture them from our fast-moving boat. On board with us is a fluffy little pooch just as interested in the swans – though perhaps thinking of them as dinner, not delight.
Slowly, as we cruise down the spiegelrei (canal) towards Jan Van Eyckplein square (named after the famed Bruges painter), I begin to be lost in history, fancying how Venetian merchants must’ve arrived in Bruges – the commercial capital of Europe – centuries ago. They would’ve gathered beneath the wispy turret of the Poortersloge building, I think, and soon our attention is drawn to little statues of bears clasping the coat of arms. These are the symbols of the city, we are told.
A sweet beginning
Touristy as it might sound, perhaps the best way to explore Bruges is by signing up for these 30-minute boat tours that allow an awe-inspiring overview of a city that’s retained its medieval heritage over the years. It isn’t just the medieval architecture that makes Bruges so special. The city also doubles as a chocolate, beer and waffle hotspot. So after canal cruising, I give in to temptation an stroll into a cute café nestled in a nook, there to choose from over 20 variations of waffles. Contemplating which to eat could take hours, but I soon settle for a classic Belgian waffle that goes from crisp to melt-in-the-mouth under a scoop of freshly-whipped cream and juicy sliced strawberries. It is my first really sweet breakfast in a long time!
I am in Bruges just for a day, having popped over from my main trip in Paris. So I need to make the most of every moment. Next on my itinerary is the Church of Our Lady, and with the help of a map provided by our tour guide, I find my way there easily.
This church was built between the 13th and the 15th centuries, I am told. I’d already marvelled at its brick steeple from the canals – 122 metres tall, and dominating the city skyline. Now I’m overwhelmed to see it right before me.
The church is under renovation, but luckily some of the artworks are on display, and after paying €6 museum fee, I meander through a maze of valuable paintings and other artworks to find the high point of my visit: Michelangelo’s world-renowned sculpture of Madonna and Child.
On the way out, the aroma of hot chocolate draws me to an unassuming café where I down a warm cuppa before setting out for some serious chocolate shopping.
Chocolate and fries
Chocolate shopping can be quite challenging in Bruges since you have to take your pick from rows and rows of chocolatiers sitting on either sides of the streets leading to the Market Square. Each of these has chocolate-filled display windows with chocolate houses and fountains. My sweet retail therapy begins at Dumon Chocolatier. Dumon is undoubtedly a chocoholic’s dream come true. I feel like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in this chocolate utopia, and sample some fine artisan chocolate that melts in the mouth in seconds.
Then I saunter into another chocolate heaven, Leonidas, run by a mother-daughter duo, and pack bars of 54 per cent chocolate laced with Glen Ample raspberry morsels, roasted pieces of cocoa beans and my favourite intense dark chocolate with 70 per cent cocoa.
Fascinated by my Indian origin and my desire to see something less touristy, the proprietor books me a bicycle taxi to ferry me to the old fish market. And it’s the most entertaining ride I’ve ever taken: a super bumpy auto-rickshaw-like ride on uneven cobbled streets in the company of a driver who had once spent six months in Delhi, and who sings Chand Sifarish from the Aamir Khan-starrer Fanaa. Too bad the bumpy road ensures that my cold coffee spills all over me!
Five minutes is all I need to soak in its traditional atmosphere of this market. Then I hop over to Market Square. This is my last stop, the hyped Market situated in the heart of the city. This is where I feast on some more stunning historic buildings like the Belfry of Bruges, or Belfort and the Provincial Court.
Tourists can also trot off on horse-drawn carriages from here for a half-hour tour of Bruges. But I decide to skip the museums and tick off the last item from my Bruges bucket list: the famous Belgian fried potato chips, or frites, as they are called here. They are addictive and cost just €6.
I get my paper cone filled with these hot fries, dusted in salt and dipped in mayonnaise, from a local fry cart, sit down on a bench in the cobbled courtyard of the square, and watch the world go by.
Perhaps that’s why they say travel far enough to meet yourself!
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From HT Brunch, November 26, 2017
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