Travel: Belgium - Bruges's consolation prize

It may be invaded all year by tourists on short breaks, but Bruges has kept its annual early-music festival as a treat for locals. By David Laszlo
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS our second visit to the restaurant but, in Belgium's mini- break capital, that made us regulars. In the quiet canalside square, we were welcomed like old friends. Around us, the discreet and elegant facades of Bruges's houses and churches. Ahead of us, delicious seafood and a concert of German early music: the last evening of a week of gastronomic and musical feasting in one of Europe's loveliest towns.

The annual early-music festival is two weeks of top-flight Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic music from all over Europe. Despite its 35 years of existence, the festival remains something of an insider tip, and is hardly marketed at all. We heard about it from a musician friend who had performed there, but it took three attempts to get hold of a programme from the Bruges Tourist Office, by which time some concerts had sold out. Once we got there, however, we realised that despite the international repertoire and world-famous talent, this was, in many ways, a local festival.

In a city full of tourists, the audiences were almost entirely Flemish. The difficulties we experienced getting information and tickets weren't hostility or indifference, just lack of practice. And the festival isn't marketed in the UK because it doesn't need to be: the concerts are sell-outs without the help of foreigners. The concerts feel like a consolation prize to the citizens of Bruges for losing their city to the tourists.

Early-music specialists have been expanding the definition "early", and the next festival includes music up to the 19th century, played on authentic instruments. The focus of the 1999 programme will be music from Mediterranean countries.

Concert venues are mostly churches and ticket prices are reasonable. At the lunchtime performances, which are held in a concert hall, the repertoire is less well known so you can make some real discoveries. Tickets are sold on the door.

You do, however, need to book the evening concerts well in advance. Contact the tourist office for a programme as early as possible. During the two weeks of the festival, at the end of July and the beginning of August, you could attend two concerts a day every day. We had a week, and decided to combine concert days with days spent exploring the city.

Bruges is ideal for this kind of slow-paced tourism. The tiny medieval city, criss-crossed with canals and bridges, is full of attractive pubs, elegant shops, and small scale museums where you can happily spend the hours between the end of lunch and the early evening beer.

By the third day, we had tired of complete inactivity and joined one of Bruges's many bike tours. The flat towpaths and frequent stops meant that this was an easy ride even for out-of-practice cyclists.

In fact, the last thing you want to have in this city of narrow cobbled streets is a car. We travelled by Eurostar to Brussels, with a quick connection to Bruges, promising ourselves a day's car hire for a trip out if boredom set in. In the event, we didn't even consider leaving Bruges. We had found that rare thing, a genuinely relaxing holiday.