Bruges is especially lovely in springtime, before the summer rush begins. The weather is fresh and mild, and there are far fewer tourists tramping its cobbled streets than you'll find here in midsummer.
Yet in a small city with so many visitors, even outside high season, you can still sometimes feel like a cog in a huge sightseeing machine. Hidden in a quiet side street, a short walk from the busy central Markt, La Maison Zenasni provides a refuge from the coach parties and tour guides.
The rooms inside the splendid 18th-century townhouse are hidden behind wooden shutters – there's no sign on the door. Step inside, and you're immersed in a scene from Amadeus: marble fireplaces, tall windows and high ceilings, tiled floors and polished floorboards. Yet despite the stunning architecture, the decor is functional and the ambience informal.
This beguiling mix is duplicated in the bedrooms. The White apartment, on the second floor, has two bedrooms, a shower room and a well-equipped kitchen-diner. The Blue and Red rooms are both doubles on the first floor. The Blue room is smart, but it's not en suite; the Red room is the plusher of the pair. In every room, the furnishing is a comfortable blend of traditional and modern.
Breakfast is eaten around a big wooden table beneath an ornate Art Nouveau window. The food is classic continental – bread, cold cuts and salami. Local treats include gouda cheese and Jacques chocolate and they'll cook you fresh eggs if you want them.
Djamil Zenasni and his wife Dominique bought this magnificent property six years ago. They're only the third family who've owned this house since it was built, in 1782. They live with their three children in an apartment across the hall. Djamil was born in Algeria and has restored this palatial hideaway, infusing it with his warm Maghrebi hospitality. "Here we preserve the spirit of the house," he says. He treats his guests like friends of the family. "People ask why there's no sign outside," says Dominique. "We like it like that. We live here." As soon as you step inside, you feel at home.
Bruges, a perfectly preserved medieval city, is an idyllic place in which to wander. The only problem is avoiding all the other sightseers, doing exactly the same thing. Your best bet is to get as far away from the Markt as possible. The Memling Museum (00 32 50 44 87 43; www.museabrugge.be) is a peaceful sanctuary from the tour groups. Housed in a medieval hospital, it contains exquisite paintings by Hans Memling, the master of medieval portraiture. A short walk away, the Groeninge Museum (same contact details) tends to be a bit more crowded, but has a wonderful collection of Flemish primitives including Van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch.
The Pit Stop
Assiette Blanche (00 32 50 34 0094; assietteblanche.be) is a charming restaurant, just around the corner from La Maison Zenasni. The menu is classic Belgian-French: no rich heavy sauces, no fancy presentation. The service is polite and unpretentious, the furnishing is unobtrusive and subdued. Three courses cost €€35 (£29) without wine, very good value for such an elegant restaurant.
One of Belgium's best chocolatiers, Dominique Persoone, is based in Bruges, and a visit to his pretty little shop, the Chocolate Line (00 32 50 34 1090; thechocolateline.be) is always a guilty, tasty pleasure. Dominque's trademark is combining chocolate with unusual flavours and spices: gazpacho, guacamole, tequila, Tabasco. It sounds bizarre but it's delicious.
The Bottom Line
La Maison Zenasni is a real curio. I think it's delightful. The building is grander than many four-star hotels, but the level of comfort is more akin to staying in a family home. Some people may prefer a place where they'll feel more pampered. But if you're the sort of person who travels in search of unique and authentic experiences, the Maison Zenasni is a real find.
La Maison Zenasni, Riddersstraat 10, Bruges, Belgium (00 32 478 232 107; lamaison-zenasni.be). B&B in the Red and Blue rooms both cost €100 (£82). The White apartment costs€€120 (£98).
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