If you're going to visit Bruges, do it now

Enough like Amsterdam of 25 years ago to be nostalgic but sufficiently itself to be challenging, Bruges is one place that demands to be seen out of season. By Juliet Clough
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The Independent Travel
We had been married during a cold Scottish January and, 25 years later, felt like celebrating, but where? Honeymooning among the warm galleries and frozen waterways of Amsterdam had given us an enduring taste for northern cities in winter. These are the places that know best how to cope with cold weather, thoroughly understanding central heating and the need to sustain body and soul with hot chocolate and high culture.

It had to be Bruges: enough like the Amsterdam of 25 years ago to be nostalgic, sufficiently itself to be challenging, easy to reach from Scotland and long billed as the perfect place for spoonies.

The omens seemed good. "A magic town to be with someone you love," said the last entry in the hotel visitors' book. Small, friendly and individual, the Prinsenhof proved a haven whose standards of comfort gave every impression of being the dearest concern of its young proprietors. Our room was warm and welcoming, the hotel ideally placed in a quiet backwater five minutes from the old town centre. What more could one ask?

To say that Bruges is chocolate-boxy is like saying that Mrs van Eyck was no oil painting. Obvious but, in an important sense, missing the point. The portrait of Margareta, missus of one of the most luminous of the 15th- century Flemish painters, hangs in the Groeninge Museum The fashionable wimple draws attention to a shiny forehead. her bony nose is slightly reddened: the lips, pressed firmly together, speak wifely volumes. On the back Margareta wrote: "My husband Johannes finished me in the year 1439 on June 15 - my age was 33". But it is the painter's own postscript: "als ich can" - loosely translated as "I gave it my best shot" - that transforms the portrait into a labour of love.

The same sense of duality adds spice and depth to Bruges's own easy prettiness. When it comes to postcard perfection, the inner city is in a league of its own. Baroque gables, crow-stepped or curled like dollops of beer froth, nudge each other for ever more picturesque positions along reflective canals. The guide books, ominously, tell you just where to stand to take that unforgettable holiday snap. More times a day than you care to count, a 47-bell carillon in the market tower bashes "Land of Hope and Glory" out over a townscape spiked with Gothic spires.

They pointed to a heaven whose attainment must have seemed, to the city's medieval bankers and wool tycoons, the natural conclusion to lives whose prosperity had been at least partly diverted into endowing the city and its churches with the most sumptuous works of art that money and talent could produce. Sunk into brutal folds of self indulgence, the face of Canon van der Paele, donor of one of van Eyck's most celebrated religious triptychs, says more of Mammon than God.

This is a city out of whose very pores chocolate seems to seep. Chocolate and lace, luxuries of the most deeply non-essential sort, beckon visitors from window after genteel window to orgies of coy self-indulgence. All along Wollestraat, chocolatiers' with names like Princesse, Pralinette and Moeder Babelutte emit seductive gusts of syrup, roast nuts and violet cachous. After a bit you begin to wonder just how many dainty hostess pinnies (style, Ladybird Book circa 1957) western civilisation can absorb. This is a whipped-cream-with-everything city; beware the undrinkable cappuccino, chilling fast under its suffocating duvet.

Buildings come lacy too, like the sumptuous 14th-century Stadbuis, on the Burg. Outside, in a shower of rice fast pudding into pudding, a wedding party - bride, groom and baby clad in unrelieved black - drove off in a battered van, the clatter of Stella Artois cans attached to their bumper causing a respectable-looking nag to almost to bolt with his carriageful of tourists.

But Bruges is not just for the sweet-toothed. The T-shirt in another Wollestraat souvenir shop window read with the kind of irony that Britons think is their own national preserve: "I like Belgium because People are nice;They Don't Pay Taxes, There are Beautiful Women; Politicians are Correct; They Earn a lot of Money." Belgian self esteem, said local friends, had been undermined by the current paedophile scandal; by wide assumptions of graft among police and of self-seeking among politicians divided by the old French-versus- FIemish factor

This last is a long-running story. A patriotic statue in the main marketplace illustrates a Monty Pythonesque episode of 1302 when, according to The Blue Guide, the citizenry massacred every interloping French git who proved unable to pronounce the Flemish maxim schild en vriend ("shield and friend'').Trying to ask directions to the old canalside restaurant, `t Bourgoensche Cruyce, where a superb Flemish meal awaited us, we realised that we would have stood little chance.

"It is within the family that all the best standards are maintained," said our friends as we shared one of the Sunday lunches that are among this country's most agreeable rituals. The cafe, one of the brown variety with small paned windows and gravy-coloured panelling, was promisingly full of real people: pairs of middleaged women in take fur collars; whole families demolishing platesful of mussels, or pheasants with endive, and dropping the scraps to large, bored dogs.

Coming to Bruges out of season was an excellent move. In summer the city overflows; tourists, on some nightmare days outnumbering the 20,000 inhabitants of the old quarter, often finding themselves billeted in Zebrugge or Ghent. I had hoped for frozen canals, for a Breughei scene complete with skaters; chestnut braziers and urchins bowling hoops under a leaden sky. Failing that, I wanted to hire a bike and cycle along the canal to the old village of Damme, to find the Flanders of the landscape painters - all poplars, cows and sodden polder. My husband observed that, if you've never ridden a tandem bicycle, your 25th wedding anniversary could be a bad time to start.

Just too late for the big freeze of the first scenario, but much too cold for the second; we wrapped up and walked in testingly unromantic weather, revelling in the stripped integrity of the scene. Swans huddled unhappily on the broken floes of the Minnewater so-called Lake of Love. An elderly nun, dumpy in her black anorak, scurried across the tranquil leafless spaces of the Beguinage. The substantial mercantile houses of the Hanseatic quarter, almost deserted of passers by, regarded each other with unimpaired dignity across waterways clotted with melting ice and half submerged litter.

We had the little Museum De Potterie to ourselves and sat listening to the organist practising Bach in a chapel whose windows celebrate a series of touchingly domestic miracles. A baby falls downstairs, a dandy is sick into a bucket; a thief almost succeeds in making off with the crockery; the Virgin in Superwoman mode, hovering beneficently above each scene.

It is the small scale and settled richness of this city that so beguiles. We were defeated by the chill of Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk. where our breath rose like smoke around the gilded effigies of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy and canned plainsong seemed merely to emphasise its emptiness. By contrast the two main picture galleries are jewelled places of warmth and intimacy. You can stand in front of Petrus Christus's Annunciation or Rogier van der Weyden's Saint Luke Painting the Virgin in the Groeninge Museum and look behind the main protagonists at a painted landscape still instantly recognisable as the one a few yards away outside.

If you are celebrating continuity, there is something sustaining about seeing the exquisite Memling triptychs in St John's Hospital, unmoved from the place for which they were commissioned more than 500 years ago. The hospital's 15th century Dispensary breathes reassurance in a chancy world: with its stacked jars of hyssop, rosemary and snail water its barrels of liquorice and lichen, its chests of styrax myrrh and aloes - the very names charms to conjure away life's ills.

Time, alas, does not suspend its envol but Bruges is as good a place as any I know to hail the good things it can bring. On our last morning, my husband steered me meaningfully in front of a Flemish tapestry in the Gruuthuse Museum, depicting a bucolic wedding in Arcadia. Over the bride's head ran an optimistic caption: "Your happy days are not yet over, because you have a Handsome Young Man."

FACT FILE

Getting there

The author flew to Brussels with Sabena. Tel : 0171-290 1450.

Accommodation

Holiday arrangements courtesy of Inntravel, Hovingham, York YO6 4JZ Brochures and reservations: 01653 628862.

A two-night, self-drive break in the four-star Hotel Prinsenhof, including B&B and ferry crossing starts at pounds 110 per person in shared room, extra night from pounds 43 each. Two and four star hotel options from pounds 74 each for two nights, less if travelling in a party of four or five.

A cheaper way to Belgium is to take the train from Victoria, ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend and then onwards by train - total journey time six hours. Sally Line (0990 595522) sell cheap returns including the rail sections, from around pounds 40. If travelling on Eurostar (0345 303030) you'll get there faster but it'll cost from pounds 59 to Brussels only.

Further Information

Belgian Tourist Office, 29 Princes Street, London W1R 7RG. Tel 0891 887799 (calls cost 39p per minute cheap rate and 49p per minute at all other times)

Further reading

`The Blue Guide' Belgium and Luxembourg, published by A&C Black, pounds 14.99; the new `Rough Guide to Belgium and Luxembourg' is due to be published in May.

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