City break: 48 hours in the life of Bruges

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The Independent Online
For a short cut to the soul of the city, Martin Scudamore offers a guide.

Why go now?

One of Bruges' great charms is its network of canals, but they can be smelly. Visit in winter and minimise the offence. Also, a trip by car in December offers a wonderful chance to stock up with Christmas spirit and wine on the way back to the ferry. The exchange rate is favourable at the moment (59 Belgian francs to the pound). And, although Bruges isn't huge, you almost certainly will be by the time you return - it's a foodies' paradise.

Beam down

We took the car Dover to Calais (from where Bruges is an easy hour's drive) benefiting from an extremely cheap deal through AA Motoring Holidays, which continues until 31 March. We paid pounds 99 for a family of four, ferry plus three nights bed and breakfast, (children sharing parents' room), at the three-star Novotel, two miles south of the town. It's a perfectly acceptable, though unexciting, base. You need to be an AA member to book (although you can take non-members with you), and there's a pounds 10 surcharge for Friday and Saturday sailings.

If you're not driving, there's a jetfoil from Ramsgate to Ostend (100 minutes on Holyman Sally Line (0990 595522) then a 15-minute train journey to Bruges. Or, from tomorrow, travel by Eurostar (0345 303030) on the new high-speed link to Brussels, and take the train back to Bruges (50 mins). That should cost around pounds 79 return.

Get your bearings

The beauty of Bruges is concentrated by the compactness of its centre: the whole area is easily navigated on foot. Picture the city as two concentric teardrops: the larger one (3km by 2km) bounded by the main canal and ring roads, enclosing the smaller one, (2km by 1km), with Grote Markt as its focus, and in which virtually all the sights are to be found. The skyline is a joyful riot of church towers and staggered, gabled roofs, with almost every building redolent of centuries of Hanseatic history, although many are deceptively recent. Be careful with the language: the country is ostensibly bilingual, but in this northern Flemish-speaking area some may take offence if you make the effort to try French. Better to stick to English, spoken well everywhere.

Check in

For a four-star hotel in the centre, try the Prinsenhof in Ontvangersstraat, double room rate from about pounds 60 to pounds 110 (00 32 50 34 26 90); or the more modest but equally central one-star 't Koffieboontje (from pounds 30) in Hallestraat (00 32 50 33 80 27). Weekends up to Christmas are already heavily booked; to check availability call the tourism office in Bruges, where they keep track of vacancies (00 32 50 44 86 86) or on the Internet: http://www.brugge.be In winter the office is open 9.30am to 5pm weekdays; at weekends and public holidays 9.30am to 1pm and from 2pm until 5.30pm.

Take a ride

The relative lack of cars in Bruges' centre allows full rein for the traditional sightseeing horse-drawn cab. What's more, in this town of medieval-looking buildings, the old-fashioned rigs don't seem out of place. Half an hour around the sights for four or five people costs pounds 15, with rugs provided for cold hands and knees. A stop part way for the horse to rest and feed gives the opportunity to visit the Beguinage nunnery, founded in 1245; but be careful not to get locked in, as our party did - the nuns appear to belong to a silent order and cannot easily direct you out again.

Your first sight of the canal pleasure boats might suggest the other kind of trap - the tourist trap - but it would be a shame to miss the wonderful views of the city that can be enjoyed from the water. A trip takes about half-an-hour, complete with commentary. There are various points of embarkation around the centre: the cost is pounds 3 per adult, pounds 1.50 for children.

Take a hike ...

Make it a climb. The celebrated belfry tower in the Markt appears to have a slight lean, although this could be the effect of the Belgian beer. The winding 366-step staircase is a challenge, as there's barely room for people ascending to squeeze past those coming back down. Half-way up is a small museum in what was the medieval treasure room; two-thirds of the way is the mechanism for the magnificent 47 bells that play concerts three times a week, including Saturdays and Sundays in winter between 2.15 and 3pm. The belfry is open daily, 9.30am-12.30pm and 1.30-5pm, entry about pounds 1.60.

Cyclists in Bruges benefit from being allowed to pedal in both directions down 50 normally one-way streets. If you can't bring your own machine, cycles can be hired for as little as pounds 2.50 a day, from de Ketting, Gentpoortstraat 23 (050 34 41 96), or various other places including the station, at rates up to pounds 5 per day.

Lunch on the run

On Saturdays on 't Zand and on Wednesdays on Grote Markt, a gigantic market spreads out, selling mainly food, including the most enormous barbecued meat stall, with chickens and joints of lamb revolving on spits in a stately ballet.

Cultural afternoon

For a treasure, don't miss Michelangelo's marble Madonna and Child in the Church of Our Lady in Marienstraat, avoiding Saturday services at 4pm and 5.30pm.

Unfortunately, the outstanding Memling Museum, occupying the building which was the Hospital of St John in the Middle Ages, is closed for renovation until August 1998. Console yourself with a visit to the Groeninge Museum, with its fine collections of paintings, especially of Flemish Primitives, open in winter 9.30am-12.30pm and 2pm-5pm (not Tuesdays).

Window shopping

The area around Grote Markt boasts the best shops. One at the south-east corner is full of ultra-modern gadgets and designer items, such as a rubber vase which looked so much like porcelain that I just had to pretend to hand it to someone and then drop it at their feet.

Bruges opticians clearly feel a special need to flex their creative muscles: most displays seem to favour naked men (photos, sculptures) and one sports a particularly splendid display of phalluses in all possible shapes, sizes and shades, complete with amusing titles. For those who are easily embarrassed (why do previously glazed-over children suddenly become interested, and start asking questions?), the arrays of local lace in the dozens of shops devoted to this ancient craft are much less controversial.

An aperitif

We went on a tour of the Straffe Hendrik brewery in Walplein, which was already a going concern in 1546. It costs pounds 2, free glass of beer included. The brewing process itself is disappointing - the entire operation occupies one small room; the rest of the tour is devoted to the history of the brewery, but includes a clamber up to the roof to survey Bruges' terracotta rooftops. Tours are at 11am and 3pm all winter.

De mer dinner

The local speciality is seafood. Mussels are available by the bucket- load in every restaurant, and there are many other good fish dishes, some of which we enjoyed at 't Keteltje, Oude Burg 20, just off Simon Stevinplein. At 't Mozarthuis in Huidenvettersplein, right behind the fish market (mornings, Tuesday to Saturday), you dine by candlelight, with classical music in the background - but this has to compete with the billowing smoke and sizzling sounds from amateur chefs who have ordered the mixed grill, which you cook yourself on a hot stone at your table. The real chef's steaks are excellent too.

Sunday morning: go to church

Bruges has many churches, but two of the most impressive are close neighbours in the centre, their spires punctuating the horizon from all directions. The 13th-15th century Church of Our Lady rises in glorious brickwork to 122m, while St Saviour's Cathedral, barely 300m to the north, is Bruges' oldest parish church (12th-15th century) and contains some fine features. No sightseeing during services, which are at 11am at Our Lady, 10am and 6pm at St Saviour's.

Bracing brunch

The Cranenburg cafe is just one of many lining the northern edge of Grote Markt, where you can buy breakfast, snacks and sandwiches, and enjoy the view. Typical fare includes: beer (85p), coffee (pounds 1), croissants (85p), ham and cheese baguette (pounds 3), bacon and eggs (pounds 3.50), apple cake (pounds 1.65). Is that belt getting a little tight?

A walk in the park

If you have brought the car, the best place to leave it for free is at the southern edge of the town, off the ring road. That way you'll walk through the Minnewater park to reach the central attractions, and you'll already be familiar with the charming Lake of Love. This body of water is at a different level from the rest of the canals, so doesn't form part of the boat tour. Even if it's not market day, make a point of visiting 't Zand, the square at the western edge of the central area, not just to choose from among its wall-to-wall restaurants, but to enjoy the superb modern fountain, which is even more impressive when illuminated at night.

The icing on the cake

This has to be the justly famed Belgian chocolate, available from numerous outlets even on Sunday, when many other shops are closed. Stock up on those delightful, and very reasonably priced, two-tone chocolate "fruits de mer", or make a custom selection from the many hand-made varieties available. Just keep off the scales for a while after your return.

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