‘In Bruges’, the 2008 film starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson was the number one reason why this small medieval Belgium city was ever on my radar.
In the film, Ray (Farrell’s character) hates it – “Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in f***kin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realised, f**k man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in f**kin’ Bruges.”
It is a fantastic film.
Wanting to see just how truly awful it was, Mum and I booked our Eurostar tickets for the August bank holiday weekend to get her a fix of European medieval art and churches, and my hit of movie locations, moules frites and Belgium chocolate.
Here is a top tips list of recommendations from our visit:
What we did
Aside from wandering up and down the lovely cobbled streets and just admiring the beauty of Bruges, we did make a b-line for some of its key sights. As well as the impressively high belfry (where a key scene in the film plays out) I made a quick visit to the park and bandstand where Ray and Ken have a heart to heart. The whole city was used as the film backdrop, but the best part for me was looking up on a canal boat ride and seeing the original golden labrador hanging out of the window of his owner’s apartment, as seen in the opening credits of the film! As the tour guide pointed out, everyone here is involved in the tourism business, even pets.
For more of the traditional reasons tourists flock here, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Blood – a beautiful and impressive painted basilica known for hosting a phial of Jesus’ blood. We also went to the Church of our Lady to view Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, the only statue of the master Italian sculptor outside his home country. And I couldn’t come to Bruges without seeing its most famous art gallery, full of Flemish greats – the Groening Museum has fantastic artworks by Jan Van Eyck and George Van der Paele, if you’ve ever studied art I suggest this is top of your ‘must-see-in-Bruges’ list.
Getting out and about
We didn’t just stay in museums and churches, though, and made it out of the city to the surrounding areas.
Ghent Castle – A gothic, 12th-century castle with turrets, arrow slits and torture chambers. It might not scream ‘weekend away with mum’, but actually, it was a really fun day trip, away from the crowds of Bruges. A short train ride across the Flanders countryside, it opened my eyes to a real working city in this area of Belgium. Ghent too has the classic guildhall architecture along the relaxing canal-side (though canals are wider here) but with fewer tourists, some great food and even more medieval history and museums – and of course the Count’s imposing castle – Gravensteen.
Cycle ride – Wanting to stretch our legs even more, we hired some bikes and hopped on the cycle path to Damme – a short 25 min cycle. A beautiful flat ride alongside a working canal, past old windmills and abandoned churches it is a lovely way to get out of Bruges and Damme is a quaint town a perfect pit-stop for a drink and pastry for a morning’s activity.
What we ate
Belgium is famous for beer, chocolate, waffles and moules frites. So, as a non-beer drinker but not wanting to miss out on one of Belgium’s most famous exports, I went for a sweeter fruitier cherry beer as my preprandial of choice. We went to De Torre restaurant as its canal side patio lured us in for a quick drink in the sunshine, but there are many pubs and bars where you can get a whole selection of local beers across the city.
For dinner, we ate at De Koetse – a small, intimate place with a seafood inspired menu and the best service. We also dined at Poules Moules, a central square restaurant for some juicy moules – would recommend both places highly. Bruges is set up for tourists so finding a great restaurant isn’t hard.
There are chocolate shops all over the town, great for some edible souvenirs. I liked this one in particular because of it’s old fashioned till in the shape of the belfry.
Where we stayed
iRoom Bed and Breakfast, Verversijki 1, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
A beautiful family run and owned guest house in a perfect location. Anne the owner was so welcoming – she invited us sit in her private back garden and gave us a tour of the rest of the house in case we were feeling a bit nosey! It is chic, stylish, has big rooms, a tasty continental breakfast and was the best bolt-hole for our weekend spent exploring.
When to go
The best thing about our visit, which on our part was entirely by chance, was that our stay coincided with a historic parade through the town which happens every five years. Called ‘Gouden Boom’ or Golden Tree – the event commemorates the celebration of the 1468 wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York. It has been organised since 1958 and involves up to 2000 actors in full costume with huge puppets and floats. It is a truly remarkable spectacle.
Next year it is on again, so if you are thinking of Bruges as a destination in your travel planning, book your hotel and tickets for mid-late August 2017 and see this incredible pageant while you are there – you won’t regret it!