The enchanting city of Bruges combines the best features of many must-see European locations in one stunning package that just oozes class, charm and beauty.
It has the late medieval/Gothic grandeur of Prague (but on a more compact scale and without the stag parties), the stunning canals of Venice (without the vast swarms of tourists) and the architectural splendour of Vienna (without the ostentatious gargoyles).
Bruges is situated in the Flemish speaking region of Belgium but English is universally and impeccably spoken in this delightfully romantic city.
We arrived in the picturesque Markt in the historic centre at noon – just in time to be welcomed by the light chimes of the 47 bells in the 12th century belfry which dominates the square.
If you can manage the 366 stone steps to the top of the 83-metre high tower you are guaranteed an unequalled view over the whole of Bruges.
While indulging in a delicious Belgian waffle topped with sensationally sweet strawberries and rich cream at one of the many restaurants in the Markt, we savoured the atmosphere taking in the imposing buildings surrounding us.
Predictably, prices are higher in the cafes around the pretty Markt square but it is well worth taking some time out with a coffee or chilled wine to begin imagining what lies in store beyond the medieval marketplace.
Suitably refreshed, it was soon time for us to explore the warren of cobbled streets, one of which leads to the other main square in the city, the Burg.
Also worth seeking out on the way, is the wooden-beamed Staminee de Garre tavern.
Although just a short walk from the Markt, this quirky, ancient ale house is hidden in a discreet alleyway – all quite reminiscent of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films.
Once through the arched doorway, an almost impossibly narrow staircase leads to the upper floor and a vast range of tempting Belgian beers – including the extremely potent (11%) house brew.
The magical quality of the Minnewater Lake ((literally the ‘lake of love’) is another intoxicating experience. A stroll along the peaceful waterway, lined with graceful trees, is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the city.
Away from the tranquillity, exquisite Belgian chocolate purveyors line the main shopping streets interspersed with shops selling luxury lace and tapestry items.
While wonderful to savour in the warm summer sun, Bruges has also been voted one of the top five Christmas markets in the world so its charms can be fully enjoyed the year round.
When it comes to food, hearty Flemish stew, made with locally brewed beer, is served at an array of quaint Flemish family-run restaurants throughout the city. We enjoyed a wonderful dining experience in De Vlaamsche Pot on Helmstraat famed for its local stews and casseroles.
But diners should make sure they’ve worked up an appetite – the portions are huge and the centrepiece of my delicious chicken casserole (waterzooi) was a whole chicken.
For luxury, charm, decadence, comfort and impeccable service the Hotel De Orangerie is without parallel. The boutique 20-room hotel is a converted 15th century convent with an imposing position on the banks of the Dijver Canal and perfectly situated in the historic centre.
As part of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ group, it is a place where you ‘breathe history and enjoy comfort.’
Its theatrical entrance, with heavy drapes and dark antique furniture, belies the lighter French country style of the individually designed bedrooms.
Breakfast is served in the opulent dining room and is a meal over which to linger and savour. On request, it can also be taken outdoors on the waterside terrace. And appreciate it we did – a combination of watermelon with mint and lemon followed by an array of delectable delights – with bacon and eggs cooked to your personal taste. English afternoon tea is also served daily either in the impressive dining room, which boasts portraits from the 17th and 18th century, or on the terrace.
The elegance of the hotel certainly reflects the overall sophistication of Bruges.
While the city is best appreciated by walking, there are horse and carriage sight-seeing tours and bus tours operating from the Markt. However, cyclists are everywhere and pedestrians have to be on alert at all times.
The city is also only 45 miles from Ypres and around the same distance from Dunkirk just across the French border, so it is an ideal base to visit the Flanders war graves.
During a famous scene from the Colin Farrell ‘In Bruges’ movie, Ralph Fienne’s crime boss character Harry incredulously questions one of the movie’s two hitmen about his dislike of Bruges: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s thing?”
My thoughts exactly Harry!