Prior to the dark comedy by Martin McDonagh, most people would not think of Bruges as a destination in Belgium. Brussels stands as the capital of all things politically important to the European Union, Antwerp is renowned for fashion, design and diamonds, and the country’s decadent summer music festivals like Tomorrowland are a far more thrilling prospect for most. Bruges, by comparison, looks like it belongs in a Disney medieval movie where life moves at half speed.
Belgium has an ancient history pre-dating its separation from the Netherlands, and Bruges was established during the Roman era. Its prominence as a coastal region made it an important stopping point in Western Europe. In many ways, it’s not so different from Singapore’s rise to prominence as a port city. It stands as a Unesco site, at least within the old city centre, and although a host of new buildings have risen it remains styled as a classically Flemish city. In fact, it is one of the few cities that was undamaged by the two world wars. Its beauty, a landscape siren song that mesmerised the commander Immo Hopman who had been tasked to bomb it, saved it from devastation. Thanks to a barrage of investments by the Belgian government, Bruges is enjoying a revival. It remains a sleepy town, but tourists need not fear total boredom when they venture to this unique city that has remained the same for the last few centuries.
Life’s a parade
Even if you are not terribly religious, pay a visit to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a small chapel designed in the Romanesque and Gothic Revival style. It hosts a reliquary:
a phial that is said to hold a cloth stained with the blood of Christ. The architecture of the basilica’s lower chapel dates back to the 12th century with grand arches and little alcoves that are dedicated to figures of significance. The relic is kept in the upper chapel and stories abound about how it arrived in Bruges. Even better, visit the city on Ascension Day, and you will have the opportunity to watch the Procession of the Holy Blood, an annual parade with participants dressed up in medieval costumes, even suits of armour, re-enacting historical and biblical scenes.
Right around the same period on even years is the Zinneke Parade, a multi-cultural parade that sees professional artists collaborate with the citizens of Bruges to create installations that are paraded on the streets. Everything is manually operated and no electronic mechanisms are allowed at the event. Themes are set each biennale and for 2016 “Fragility” is the focus. It’s a parade unlike any I’ve seen, and after the afternoon spectacle, bars and restaurants organise their
own celebrations that linger on till late.
Incidentally, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, just adjacent to Bruges in June. The battle will be re-enacted on the 19th of the month. Not too long after, the city plays host to the alternative pop and rock Cactus Festival in July. Last year, headliners included Massive Attack, Mogwai, Banks and Austra.
Feast the Bruges Way
Unusually large meatballs made by hand are a delicacy of Bruges. Balls & Glory is a little eatery located on the Langestraat that serves up some 50 or so varieties of meatballs, each around the size of a baby’s fist. Made fresh each day using different meats, from pork to lamb, they are served with mashed potatoes or a side salad, and are available for in-store dining, takeaway and cooking at home, complete with instructions. Convenient and fun to savour, it’s the perfect midday bite when you are out and about.
Langestraat is the centre of activity and nightlife in Bruges, where affordable hostels and convenient pubs pour out a wide variety of beers – by wide, we’re talking hundreds, not 50. There are several that have live band performances, and comedy nights in the local Flemish tongue. On the same street is a menswear store, Men at Work, which offers a variety of stylish clothing for the urbanite. There are flea markets each weekend, and antique stores that are chock full of beautiful objects, some dating back to the 16th century. Scouring for vintage fashion is also a popular way to pass the time, but if you prefer contemporary threads, the high-street brands are mostly around the Nordzanstraat area.
It would be a crime to visit Brussels without tasting its famous beers and Bruges is home to De Halve Maan, a local indie brewery. Join one of its excursions organised for visitors and you can observe the whole process of beer-making. For a few more Euros, you can indulge in a beer tasting. Belgium has a long history with beer and some of the world’s best are Belgian made. The famous Beerwall that’s part of the bar 2be at Wollestraat has hundreds of different Belgian beers with their mugs on display. To add to the experience, visit the Beer Museum to discover all you need to know about the hoppy, malted golden liquid.
One other thing Belgium is famous for is its chips, and it’s probably only in a country so obsessed with fries that you can find a museum dedicated to the product. The Frietmuseum on Vlamingstraat traces the history of the tuber, the invention of fries and the various condiments the different fries are served with. The basement also has a store where you can sample freshly made fries.
All in all, Bruges has a quirky personality that makes it a romantic place to visit, especially in the old town with all its medieval architecture. It’s definitely a city worth exploring with friendly locals who will be happy to point you in the right direction if you ever get lost.
First published in February 2015