I didn’t know much about Bruges before arriving there. I mean I saw the movie – In Bruges (the 2008 flick with Colin Farrell playing a messed-up gun-for-hire), but Farrell’s character’s views weren’t that positive.
“I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm … Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t,” he said.
Among his list of problems with the city is how picturesque it is and how much chocolate is there – fortunately for me I had my camera and love chocolate.
Bruges is beautiful, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2000), and great for walking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s packed full of tourists, but as soon as you step one street over from the one marked on the tourist map, you can feel like you are all on your own. The place isn’t that big, you can wander “lost” and find interesting spots along the way.
Or go and see the historical and cultural parts of the city – see Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child (the only of his sculptures to have left Italy in his lifetime) at the back of a cold cathedral, the Basilica of the Holy Blood (where a vial of the Holy Blood is on display), the Beguinage (a silent monastery for the Benedictine sisters), and the Old St. John’s Hospital.
Many tour books, including the one we had tucked in our bag recommended the Groeningmuseum. If you are really into art, and if you are really into Flemish art in particular, do it. Otherwise save the 8€ and see the galleries in Amsterdam and The Hague.
Or you could take the 8€ and go on a canal cruise. Yes, it is a boat packed full of other tourists, yes in the middle of winter it is cold, but it is a really interesting way to see the city, with the many churches and old, expensive architecture. When I say expensive, you too could purchase one of the buildings for sale along the canal for €2 million (then completely gut and renovate it).
It’s not often that I say anything is a must see – because I think in travel the only must see is where you find yourself when you wander – but in Bruges, the must see is the view from the top of the belfry. It’s in the center of the city; between the bells and the view, it is worth the 366 steps. Keep in mind that these steps are not for the faint of heart. They are steep, and so narrow that if people are coming the other way you need to stuff yourself into whatever corner you can find to let them pass. Only 70 people are allowed in at any given time – the number seems arbitrary to me – the system counts it, one or two people out and another couple in.
The climb has a massive reward. As you gaze down from the top at the main square and it’s skinny, tall, colourful houses, you realize that one character from the movie, In Bruges, had it right … “It’s like a fucking fairytale or something.”