A past masterpiece

A stay in the beautiful city of Bruges is like taking a step back in time, says Cathy Packe


WHERE?

WHERE?

Bruges is the nearest of the great Flemish cities to the North Sea coast, a 20-minute drive from the ferry ports at Ostend and Zeebrugge, and the same distance from the beaches of Blankenberge and Knokke-Heist. But if reaching Bruges by car is easy, driving around is almost impossible. Bruges is one of Europe's best-preserved medieval cities, and its narrow streets were designed for the traffic of an earlier age. Luckily, five underground car parks provide nearly 4,000 parking spaces for visitors, and these are clearly signposted.

Arriving by train is easier, with a service from Brussels Midi station every half-hour, connecting the capital with Bruges in just under an hour. The station is a mile south-west of the city centre. There is a small tourist office at the station, and as of 24 April, a new tourist information counter will be housed in the Concert Hall on t'Zand Square (00 32 50 44 86 86; www.brugge.be), open 10am-6pm every day except Thursday, when it is open from 10am-8pm. Bruges has a bus network, but it is easier to get around on foot, or to hire a bicycle from one of several places in the city. E-Kar at Vlamingstraat 44-48 (00 32 50 33 00 34) rents out striking yellow and black machines for €8 (£5.70) for four hours or €12 (£8.60) for the whole day. Or see the city from the water on a canal cruise. Five companies operate on the canals, and all offer half-hour trips along the same route - and prices are fixed at €5.70 (£4). There are five different landing stages, including those at either end of the river Dijver.

Bruges' main shopping streets are Noordzandstraat and neighbouring Zuidzandstraat, at least if you want to buy clothes or shoes. Elsewhere, you'll find plenty of souvenir shops and places to buy chocolate - especially along Mariastraat.

There is no shortage of accommodation in the city, although the hotels around the city's main squares tend to be pricey. One of the classiest is De Tuilerieën, on the canal at Dijver 7 (00 32 50 34 36 91; www.hoteltuilerieen.com). It is a pleasant old building, with a small garden and a tiny swimming pool. Rooms start at €125 (£89), with an extra €24 (£17) for breakfast. Nearby, and more modest, is Number 11, a classy B&B at Peerdenstraat 11 (00 32 50 33 06 75; www.number11.be), which overlooks the Groene Rei canal. There are only two beautiful rooms and a suite, all individually decorated with paintings by the artist who now owns the building. Double rooms here start at €115 (£82), including a vast breakfast. Close to the museums, the Hotel De Goezeput, located in a former monastery at Goezeputstraat 29 (00 32 50 34 26 94; www.hotelgoezeput.be), has established a good reputation in the short time that it has been open. Double rooms cost €75 (£54), singles €62 (£44), including breakfast. The Grand Hotel du Sablon is a three-star hotel in a good location at Noordzandstraat 21 (00 32 50 33 39 02; www.sablon.be). It has double rooms from €110 (£79) and singles from €ß89 (£64) including breakfast.

WHY?

Bruges is Belgium's most popular tourist destination, with attractive cobbled streets, flower-filled balconies and waterside cafés. During the Middle Ages, it was one of the wealthiest cities of northern Europe, a flourishing cloth town and trading centre, and the administrative centre for the Duke of Burgundy during the 15th century. It has changed little since then; take a map drawn centuries ago and you will still be able to use it to find your way around.

Rich merchants from former times patronised painters Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, and many of their works are on display in the museums here. But to find tranquility in this small city, just step off the beaten tourist trail into picturesque backstreets where a yawning dog constitutes the level of activity.

WHAT?

The highlight of any visit is Bruges' architecture, with the characteristic step gabling and mansard roofs. Though these can be seen throughout the city, nowhere's more impressive than the Markt: a vast near-perfect example of a medieval square. It is dominated by the Belfry, one of the city's highest points, from which there are impressive views over the countryside; the tower opens 9.30am-7pm daily except Monday, admission €5 (£3.60). Nearby Burg square is smaller than Markt, but it has some remarkable buildings, including the City Hall. The ornate Gothic Hall inside was used for the first session of Parliament in the 15th century; admission €2.50 (£1.80). The City Hall, and all the other main museums in the city (00 32 50 44 87 43; www.brugge.be/musea) mentioned here open 9.30am-5pm daily except Monday, and are covered by the Museums Pass. This costs €15 (£10.70) and covers entrance to any three of the 14 museums in Bruges.

The ensemble in the Burg is completed by the Basilica of the Holy Blood. On a throne, carefully guarded by a priest, are a few drops of blood, allegedly washed from the body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea. This is paraded from the church through the city streets every year on Ascension Day (5 May this year), starting at 3pm. The whole procession takes three hours.

Nearby are Bruges' two main museums. The Groeninge, at Dijver 12-16 (00 32 50 44 87 43; www.brugge.be/musea), houses the city's main fine arts museum, an important collection of Flemish art, from the middle ages to Magritte; and this summer the Memling exhibition, that will form the centrepiece of the Corpus 05 festival, will be held here (see panel, right). Adjoining The Groeninge, and accessible on the same ticket, is the Arentshuis Museum, whose first floor is devoted to the works of Frank Brangwyn, a 19th-century Welsh artist born in Bruges. Admission to the two is €8 (£5.70).

Unmissable among the city's ancient buildings is St John's Hospital at Mariastraat 38, which contains the Memling Museum, a small but exquisite collection of works by one of Bruges' most famous artists. His portraits are displayed in the chapel of the medieval hospital. It is fascinating to see an 18th-century painting of patients being treated in the ward, located in the same building which now houses the museum. Admission costs €8 (£5.70).

At any time of year Bruges is bustling with tourists, but it is still possible to find peace in the Begijnhof - helped, no doubt, by the rule of silence that has been imposed by the Benedictine nuns who now live here. Beguines were religious women, usually widows or spinsters, who didn't want to take holy orders, but who lived a life committed to the church, observing the vows of poverty and fidelity. This walled area is one of only a few such begijnhofs remaining in Belgium, and is a grassy, tree-filled courtyard surrounded by white houses and a church. Visitors can stroll through the grounds, open daily from 6.30am-6.30pm, and visit the church and one of the houses. This small museum is open daily from 10am-noon, and 1.45-5pm, and admission is €2 (£1.40).

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

Red! (Vlamingstraat 53; 00 32 50 61 40 06; www.restaurantred.com) is spearheading a change in this part of Bruges. The chefs use light, fresh ingredients in an innovative fashion. Open 11.30am-2.30pm and 6.30-11pm daily, bar Thursday.

Duc de Bourgogne (Huidenvettersplein 12; 00 32 50 33 20 38) is the place for traditional dishes such as carbonnade à la flamande or waterzooi, a kind of fish or chicken stew, beautifully cooked - and served in an unbeatable canalside location.

De Garre (00 32 50 34 10 29) is the place to sample some of Belgium's legendary beers, tucked away down an alley of the same name off Breidelstraat; look out for the gap between two tapestry shops. Reading the menu takes time: there are usually around 130 different brews to choose from. Snacks are served, too, but most people come here to drink. Open noon until midnight daily.

Café Craenenburg (Markt 16; 00 32 50 33 34 02). In the main squares, eating places tend to be devoted just to tourists. This French-style brasserie is the exception, complete with a sunny terrace and panelled interior. It offers a good choice of eggs and other breakfast dishes, onion soup, hearty main salads, pasta and dishes of the day which might include a typical Belgian dish like a stew, or rabbit in beer.

Bistro de Eetkamer (Eekhoutstraat 6; 00 32 50 33 78 86) represents a new style of Belgian cuisine. The menu changes monthly, and although the chef regards the dishes as typically Belgian, there is undoubtedly a modern touch. Menus are seasonally based. Open noon-2pm and 6.30-10pm Friday to Tuesday.

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