In (the real) Bruges

Bruges is known as the “Venice of the North” for its system of canals

You may already be familiar with this Belgian city, which was the backdrop for a recent Colin Farrell movie aptly titled “In Bruges.” Don’t let director Martin McDonagh’s dreary depiction of Bruges as a playground for hit men deter you from visiting this pearl of culture and medieval architecture, which is anything but gloomy.

Often called the “Venice of the North,” Bruges began as a fortress to fend off Vikings in the 9th century and through the ages, grew to be a successful commercial center with its many canals close to the sea. Clothing, tapestries and lace were purchased by foreign nobility and the subsequent economic success led to squabbles between the French and Flemish over the city’s ownership. One of the most infamous events in its history is the Bruges Matin, a revolt against French occupation that occurred in 1302. Today, Bruges is one of the top tourist destinations in Belgium, and rightly so.

Just an hour train ride north from Brussels or around two hours (give or take) to connect from London, Paris or Amsterdam, Bruges is a respite from the big city blues, particularly if you go at the tail end of tourist season. If you’re coming from French and Flemish speaking Brussels, make note that your high-school French is not going to get you by anymore. Bruges, or Brugge in Dutch, is located in the northern, Flemish half of the country and doesn’t do the same bilingual signage that they do in the EU capital city. That said, most everyone speaks English, so you’ll do just fine.

The center of town is about 25 minutes of a walk from the train station – just follow the soaring steeple off of Sint Janshospitaal in southern Bruges up to the Belfort (Belfry), a 300-foot octagonal tower that has risen along the city’s skyline since the 13th century. The tower lies at the base of the Markt, the stunning, cobbled, historic trading center of town that also features the Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Government Palace) and a row of brightly colored buildings with traditional stepped gables that are current-day cafes and restaurants.

Bruges is also home to cultural wonders, including the Groeningemuseum, which highlights six centuries of Flemish, Dutch and Belgian painting. The attraction at Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed (Basilica of the Holy Blood) is of a religious nature – a vial of blood brought back from the Crusades and said to have come from Christ’s wounds. Legend is that until 1325, the dried blood had been liquefying on Friday nights. Today, visitors can wait on line Friday evenings to see the vial and to receive a blessing from the priest.

There are fabulous finds at the canal-side flea market

For some kitschy souvenirs, stop by the weekend flea market on Dijver to find an array of items, including jewelry, antiques, candy, old pocket watches and more. The flea market runs afternoons between March and October and is located on the bank of a picturesque canal. By this time, you may be longing for a canal ride after seeing so many go by. For a charge of about six euros, you can hop on at any of the many docks offering tours and spend a half hour floating with swans past many of the major sights and some beautiful residences you may never have found otherwise.

The Hotel de Orangerie and other ivy-covered views of a canal ride

Bruges is a great option for a daytrip, but certainly could warrant more time to explore its many treasures by bicycle or on foot. If you decide to spend more than a day, look for the ivy-covered faà§ade of the Hotel de Orangerie, a lovely canal-side hotel worthy of a stay if you plan to spend the night. In these charming accommodations, we can pretty much guarantee your sleep won’t be disturbed by gunshots.

Hotel de Orangerie

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