At the end of a narrow cobbled street in the heart of the Unesco city of Bruges towers a cream and red-brick turreted palace that has recently opened as Bruges's first five-star hotel. It is the latest incarnation of the Prinsenhof, built in 1429 by the powerful Duke Philip the Good – then the richest man in Europe – to celebrate his marriage to Isabella of Portugal.
Although it stayed in the family for some years, the palace's glory days ended with the death in a riding accident of Mary of Burgundy in 1482. Her elegant tomb, as well as its remarkable interior paintings uncovered during archaeological excavation, can be seen in the prominent Church of Our Lady, a few hundred metres from the hotel. The palace subsequently passed from hand to hand, losing much of its land and becoming a school and a convent before its renovation as a hotel.
Most of what is left of the Prinsenhof is 18th-century or later and heavily restored, but the early Flemish feel remains in the central wooden staircase and landings and the leaded windows. The public spaces are distinctly modern, particularly the Atelier Bar with its large central sculpture of oversized paintbrushes, white walls displaying contemporary paintings and multiple glass doors opening out on to the hotel garden. The garden is known to staff as "The Duke's Art Gallery" since it displays a changing range of modern sculpture – currently a 3.8 metre-long sweet entitled Wrapped, and several colourful Matisse-esque figures. The garden art will change every four months.
When you return from pounding the cobbles of Bruges' medieval centre or admiring gabled houses and ancient churches from a boat along its picturesque canals, there is a modern Yoaké spa (incorporating the palace's only remaining bit of 15th-century wall) in which to relax, with a swimming pool, sauna and hammam. Alternatively, settle in the lounge, bar or garden terrace with one of 25 local beers (chosen from Belgium's 700 varieties), including draft Kriek (delicious cherry beer) and the strong blond Steenbrugge triple, brewed on the edge of Bruges to an ancient monastic recipe.
The intimate restaurant, which looks out at the cobblestone courtyard and hotel façade, serves excellent modern international cuisine with a changing seasonal menu. Dishes might include gazpacho with cucumber sherbert or roast turbot with fresh pasta and vegetable julienne in lobster sauce. Breakfast is a lavish buffet with a wonderful selection of fresh fruit.
Kempinski Duke's Palace Hotel, Prinsenhof 8, Bruges, Belgium (00 32 50 447 888; www.kempinski-bruges.com). The hotel is just minutes from the Markt, the central square with its famous belfry, and the stunning gothic and renaissance delights of Bruges' second square, the Burg. The most popular sights are all within walking distance.
Bruges is also a bicycle town and from next month, the hotel will have its own bikes with pre-programmed GPS-guided cycling tours.
Time from international airport: Brussels Airport is just over an hour away by car or direct train. The hotel is only 1km from Bruges railway station – which is three hours from London via Brussels on the Eurostar.
The 93 rooms (22 of them suites) are decorated Flemish-style, with wide-striped wallpaper in dark red and matt gold and furnishings and curtains to match. The large windows, mostly overlooking the gardens, give lots of light. Each room has photographic reproductions of 15th-century portraits of Philip the Good and Mary of Burgundy.
In my room, Mary hung bejewelled above the bed, with a mirror at the far end of the room providing a perfect reflection. The kingsize bed came with a feather-topped mattress and sink-into pillows. The bathroom, behind a frosted glass wall, was designer-modern black and white with bath and walk-in shower.
Freebies: More expensive rooms have Molton Brown toiletries, while others have Kempinski's own brand. In reception there is a bowl of Belgian chocolate bars.
Keeping in touch: All rooms have a direct-dial telephone and flat-screen TV with radio and TV channels. There are broadband internet connections in all bedrooms and Wi-Fi in the lounge charged at €6.95 (£5.80) per hour or €19.95 (£16.60) per day.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Double rooms start at €285 (£238) per night, room only. The triplex Prinsenhof suite, complete with private roof terrace, starts at €860 (£717). Breakfast costs an additional €25 (£21) per person.
I'm not paying that: B&B No.11, Peerdenstraat 11, Bruges (00 32 50 330 675; www.number11.be), is in its smaller way as comfortable, historic and stylish as the Duke's Palace. It is full of character and art and just the other side of Bruges' two central squares. Large doubles start at €150 (£125), including breakfast.Reuse content