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City life: Bruges

A new breed of creative entrepreneurs and chefs are adding contemporary flair to Bruges — yet the city’s medieval charm endures

City life: Bruges
The canals of Bruges. Image: Jael Marschner

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There’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and I’m not entirely sure which side of that line Dominique Persoone sits. One of Belgium’s most prominent chocolatiers, the Bruges resident is telling me about the bizarre creations he’s rustled up in his kitchen. “Once, we made chocolate that could fly,” he says. “We used helium. We also made chocolate containing the love hormone that’s produced in the brain when you have an orgasm. You can’t do anything afterwards because you’re so happy — it’s amazing.”

Now that’s something I can get on board with. Can he sort me out with a few kilos? “Unfortunately, it’s illegal,” he sighs. “There’s a fine line between experimentation and the law.” Quite.

Suffice to say most of Dominique’s other inventions are above board. Even the device he made to snort cocoa powder, which was presented to The Rolling Stones as a cheeky reference to their rock ’n’ roll excess. That joke stopped being funny when the orders came rolling in. “I’ve sold 25,000 since,” he says, incredulously.

In between catering to rock stars and flirting with the law, Dominique sells exquisite confectionery in The Chocolate Line, his flagship store in Bruges. Located in the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), it’s a place where customers gaze longingly at tempting cabinet displays and the sweet smell of cocoa hangs deliciously in the air.

The Chocolate Line is one of only a handful of chocolate shops listed in the Michelin Guide. But as well as selling exquisite handmade chocs, his shop sells confectionery flavoured with the likes of bacon, wasabi and curry. “I even experimented with anchovy,” he says, as I quiver at the thought.

If by some miracle Keith Richards and Heston Blumenthal were to have a son together, I imagine he’d be a lot like Dominique. The chocolatier may be known as the ‘rock ’n’ roll chef’ — because he’s as mad as a box of frogs — but the way he’s taken a traditional, local speciality and turned it into something fun and contemporary is a fitting metaphor for the way Bruges itself is evolving.

What to see & do

Here’s something to consider: in an average year approximately five million tourists visit Bruges, which is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Norway. It’s easy to see why this city has such appeal. With picturesque canals, Gothic architecture and labyrinthine cobbled streets, Bruges has a profound and melancholic beauty that’s long been a draw for artists, as well as tourists.

Painters such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling carved their niches here and some of their work is still on display in the excellent Groeninge Museum. However, the city’s most celebrated artwork is an import called the Madonna of Bruges, which is the only Michelangelo sculpture that left Italy during his lifetime.

Housed in the towering Church of Our Lady, this white marble statue of Mary clutching baby Jesus is one of the city’s most revered attractions. This is no thanks to the Nazis, who stole it from the cathedral, along with many other famous artworks, as they retreated during the Second World War. It was located a year later down an Austrian salt mine by allied art experts, whose story of derring-do inspired the George Clooney film The Monuments Men.

If your appetite for history is not sufficiently sated, wander over to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where you can view a cloth stained with what’s claimed to be Christ’s blood. Preserved in a phial, it looks like your average bloody rag, to be honest. Far more impressive is the 12th-century chapel it’s housed in.

The museum at St John’s Hospital — Europe’s oldest infirmary — also warrants a visit. The 13th-century building features a particularly gruesome exhibition dedicated to primitive surgical techniques. If you’re feeling disillusioned with the NHS, this might soften your stance.

And then there’s Market Square, the centrepiece of old town Bruges. Dominated by the towering Belfry of Bruges, which rewards those who climb it with stunning views across the city, this bustling piazza is a place where you can dine in overpriced restaurants, ride in a horse-drawn cart and compete for space with the madding crowd. You probably should do it once.

The streets surrounding Market Square are the preserve of Belgian-flavoured tourist traps: dusty shops peddling lace, chocolatiers aggressively undercutting each other and off-licenses making competing claims to have the best selection of beer in town. Walk a bit further out, though, and the real Bruges opens up. This is where exciting things are happening. This is where the ‘inspiring makers of Bruges’ live, a breed currently setting the tone of the town.

Song Dong. Image: Jael Marschner

Art Installation by
Song Dong. Image: Jael Marschner

Where to eat

Bruges excels in the culinary department and I book myself into De Vlaamsche Pot, whose owner, Mario Cattoor, is an ambassador for Flemish cuisine. He’s also something of a celebrity around these parts, with several cookbooks to his name, most of which have been translated into English. Mario oversees a kitchen that makes ‘simple, easy food with not a lot of posh’. His prices are reasonable and portions massive.  

“We’ve traditionally been a locals’ restaurant,” Mario tells me, placing a steaming pot of rabbit stew and a bowl of chips in front of me. “But now there is a lot of interest in Flemish food and we have a lot of foreign people coming here as well.”

Mario serves fantastic food, but he also keeps an excellent cellar, featuring beer from some of the best microbreweries in Flanders. These low-volume producers are certainly taking the game to De Halve Maan, an award-winning brewery that’s made beer in the city since 1856.

If it’s fine dining you’re after, Park Restaurant is probably the hottest ticket in town. This elegant eatery occupies a sumptuous historic townhouse and ticks all the boxes: attentive service, excellent wine and exceptional cuisine. Nearby Pomperlut is another restaurant of distinction. Run by three brothers, it serves excellent Belgian fare. The menu is usually restricted to four or five main dishes, but if none of them tickle your taste buds, then I really don’t know what will.

Main course, Pomperlut. Image: Jael Marschner

Main course, Pomperlut. Image: Jael Marschner

Nightlife

If you’ve come to Bruges seeking a rave, the best advice I could give would be to get back   on the train and go to Ghent. This is not a party city. However, what it lacks in late night revelry, it more than makes up for with heritage boozers and quirky bars. 

If you fancy chin-wagging with the locals, prop up the bar at the Snuffel Backpacker Hostel, on up-and-coming Ezelstraat. I know what you’re thinking, but this weathered watering hole is a proper locals’ hangout. “I’ve been coming here since I was 15 and nothing has changed, not even the furniture,” one seasoned punter tells me. “Although it’s a youth hostel, this is where local people come to drink because it’s the cheapest place in town.”

If Snuffel has the cheapest beer in town, then Brugs Beertje has the best selection. Decorated with beer advertisements from yore, this local institution has around 300 different brews behind the bar, offering the most complete taste of Belgium in the city. And the oldest pub? That’ll be Café Vlissinghe, which first swung its doors open in 1515 — which happens to be 500 years ago this year. Legend has it the celebrated Baroque artist Rubens once ducked out of paying for his beer here by painting an imitation coin on the table and doing a runner.

A hidden gem if ever I saw one is Yesterday’s World Bar, which can be found tucked down Wijngaardstraat. Festooned with redundant items from bygone eras (analogue cameras, vintage dolls, dusty ornaments), it’s a bit like drinking in a museum or a hoarder’s front room. Of course, this makes it all the more charming.

Drinks at Café Vlissinghe. Image: Jael Marschner

Drinks at Café Vlissinghe. Image: Jael Marschner

Shopping

The ‘inspiring makers of Bruges’ are not a folk band (although with a name like that, you have to wonder). They’re artisans, creative types, hipsters — call them what you will — and they’re the face of a new project called Handmade in Brugge, which was set up to harness the creative spirit of local residents and breathe new life into this old city.

The concept is simple: twice a year, the authorities invite the citizens of Bruges to pitch their shop ideas to a Dragons’ Den-type panel. It could be an offbeat chocolate shop, a quirky clothes store or an art gallery, but it has to offer something different. And most of all, it has to excite the panel. If the ‘dragons’ are impressed, they’ll help the businesses to establish itself in one of the city’s empty retail units. This commitment includes a small subsidy, marketing support and, arguably most importantly, a ‘Handmade in Brugge’ sticker for the artisan to display in his or her shop windows.

“Bruges was always considered old-fashioned, so I think it’s good the authorities want to showcase something more contemporary,” says Sun Mae, as we chat in her eponymous lingerie shop. “There are lots of people starting businesses in the city now and you can feel there are lots of people attracted to Bruges again.”

Like Dominique’s radical confectionery, Sun’s line of luxury lingerie, which she makes in a workshop beneath her shop, is symbolic of how this old city is reinventing itself. “Bruges has traditionally been profiled as a city of lace, and I make lingerie out of lace,” she says, sitting elegantly in a chaise longue, surrounded by her sexy creations. “It’s a different image of lace, it’s something more contemporary.”

Sun Mae is included on the Handmade in Brugge map (copies are available at the local tourist offices), along with 73 other businesses. I unfold the map and use it to lead me around the city. As well as doubling up as a makeshift umbrella, it takes me to offbeat antique shops, jewellery stores, lace workshops, art galleries and a fantastic eyewear shop called Hoet, where visually-impaired punters such as myself can choose from a range of funky glasses.

The map also steers me towards the eccentric chocolatier Dominique, who’s probably the most famous artisan in Bruges. He produces exceedingly good confectionery, I’ll give him that, but unfortunately a man can’t live off chocolate alone — even if it does contain anchovies.

Sun Mae in her eponymous lingerie shop. Image: Jael Marschner

Sun Mae in her eponymous lingerie shop. Image: Jael Marschner

Where to stay

When it’s time to hit the hay, choices abound in Bruges, but the most luxurious place to rest your head is Hotel Dukes’ Palace, the former residence of Burgundian aristocrats. Although it has retained its 15th-century charm, this five-star hotel offers rooms with modern decor and mod cons, and comforts such as a spa, sauna and hammam.

For period appeal, it’s hard to beat Hotel de Orangerie. Housed in a former monastery, this grandiose, four-star property takes guests back to the Belle Époque with its sumptuous rooms, antique furniture and stately interiors. Overlooking the main canal, the hotel has hosted a roll call of celebrities of the years. David Hasselhoff has also stayed here.

Book yourself in to Hotel Montanus for something a little more down to earth. A five-minute stroll from Market Square, the owners have brought a modern aesthetic to this historic property, without compromising its character. The garden-view breakfast room doubles up as a fine dining restaurant come the evening.

Hotel Jacobs is one of the best options for those on a budget. Tucked down a sleepy side street on the edge of the old town, this traditional, step-gabled building has comfortable, albeit basic, rooms, which come with private bathrooms, free wi-fi and a very decent breakfast.

Essentials

Getting there
Eurostar has a service from London St Pancras and Ebbsfleet International to Bruges, via Brussels. Alternatively, fly to Brussels and take the 90-minute train to Bruges.
Average train journey time: 4h.

 

Getting around
Bruges is best seen on foot or in the saddle. Bikes can be hired from Bicycles Popelier from €12 (£9) a day.

 

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.35.
International dial code: 00 32 50.
Time difference: GMT +1.

 

More info
visitflanders.com
Pocket Bruges & Brussels. RRP: £7.99. (Lonely Planet)
Bruges-la-Morte, by Georges Rodenbach. RRP: £7.99. (University of Chicago Press)

 

How to do it
Railbookers has a two-night package to Bruges from £249 per person, including return Eurostar travel from London St Pancras to Brussels, return train travel from Brussels to Bruges and two nights at four-star Hotel De Tuilerieën.

Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)