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Bruges, Belgium and Beer!
Member Name: GuruOnAMountain
Advantages: Beautiful place where you don't seem to get ripped off.
Disadvantages: Not a great deal to do especially for kids.
Bruges was never a place high on my list of 'places to visit'. I had never seen the film In Bruges and had no interest in seeing it. I don't drink beer and quite frankly, Belgium sounded a bit sterile. I had heard a few people rave about how beautiful Bruges was but I like being kept busy with things to do and look at and it sounded to me like beauty was all it had in its favour. Not for me, I thought to myself. My boyfriend, however, had other ideas. He loves Medieval history and the idea of visiting a Medieval city really appealed to him. He also loves beer, especially Belgian beer and I'm sure that had something to do with his interest in visiting! He convinced me that being surrounded by Belgian chocolate for a week could surely never be a bad thing and that was it, I was straight online to do a bit of booking for Bruges! The whole of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so that gives you an idea of just how special it is.
Considering that it is a relatively popular place to visit, I thought getting there would be easy but alas, I was wrong. There are plenty of deals available where you go by bus to the ferry terminal, spend a day in Bruges and then get back on the ferry home but we wanted to spend a bit longer than a day. I'm sure we could have travelled to the ferry ourselves and made our own arrangements but since neither of us drive, flights were more convenient (and cheaper). There isn't an airport particularly near Bruges, however so we decided to just book flights to Brussels and get a train out from there. We also decided that this would give us a bit more freedom. If we arrived in Brussels and really like it and wanted to see more, we could spend our first day wandering around Brussels and then get the train to Bruges at night, or we could leave Bruges early on the last day there and travel to Brussels to see more of it if we wished. On arrival in Brussels, we weren't impressed, so we found our way to our hotel and in the morning found our way to the train station (using trams and the metro, if I remember right) and getting lost more than we really should have!
The train station was also a bit of a maze but luckily trains to Bruges are frequent so it wasn't a panicked case of trying to catch the only train that ran per day. After walking around looking lost, looking at signs and finally finding the ticket office, we managed to get our train tickets. I can't remember how much exactly they cost but I am extremely stingy and would have definately have remembered if they were expensive! So I reckon it probably cost about 10 euros each each way. We found our platform after again, more time spent being lost and got on our train, not entirely convinced that we were on the right one! The train was extremely comfortable and the journey to Bruges only took about an hour.
At the other side we walked out the wrong exit to the station and had to double back on ourselves to find the right one (if you haven't gathered this yet, we are a tad navigationally challenged). By this time we were both a bit exhausted with the constant getting lost and I convinced him that we should just get a taxi to the hotel. Bruges is a small place but we didn't know our bearings yet, so the taxi was the easiest option. Ten minutes later and we were at our hotel.
We spent a week in Bruges so we managed to see pretty much everything that was on offer, apart from a couple of things.
The Museums: Both me and the boyfriend love a good museum and so one of the first things we did was purchase a museum pass. As a student, I got mine for very little. My boyfriend had to pay more, of course. I think his cost around 15 euros and mine cost 5 euros. This got us into most of the museums. I'll give a little info on each below:
-The Groeninge Museum: This is really an art gallery rather than a museum, displaying the works of Flemish painters. I'm not a huge art fan at the best of times, although will wander round a gallery if there is one. My boyfriend loves art but particularly that of the Italian Renaissance. I always find Flemish painting a bit dark and depressing, so although we took a wander round here, neither of us found it very exciting. It is also, like all the museums in Bruges, quite small. I suppose it really makes sense considering Bruges is a small place and you can't expect to find something the size of the Louvre in a tiny place.
-Gruuthuse Museum: You can find antiques and art here and it is one of the main museums in Bruges. Again, it wasn't really to our tastes but that's probably just us.
-The Archaeological Museum: I was very excited by this as I studied Archaeology for 2 years during my degree and excavate as a volunteer every summer at different sites but it was a huge disappointment. When we went inside it was clearly aimed towards kids but I thought that it still would be fun (as I'm a big kid at heart!) but it didn't really tell you or show you anything and neither was in very interactive. I don't think either kids or adults would be impressed but at least entry was included in our pass for us so we didn't waste money.
-St. Salvator Cathedral: A Cathedral with free entry that also houses a small museum. Entry to the museum is included in the museum pass.
-St. Janshospitaal en Memling Museum: Originally a hospital, it now houses 15th century art.
There are also private museums, not included in the museum pass. These include:
-The Choco Story: This was high on my 'hit-list'. It tells you the history of chocolate and then you go downstairs to admire some chocolate sculptures and get a demonstration of how to make praline (with a free trial of a praline)!
-The Diamond Museum: Neither of us wanted to go here and only went because we had nothing to do on our last day and walked past and thought that we may as well go inside. The museum tells you everything you could ever need to know about diamonds but the really interesting bit is the diamond demonstration where you are shown the techniques used to cut, shape and polish a real diamond. Was well worth a visit in the end!
-Half Moon Brewery: Not really a museum, per se, but a brewery with a cafe that also runs brewery tours.
Of course, we can't forget the Belfrey tower and the Markt, the square that it is in. Our hotel was right behind this but as my boyfriend is afraid of heights, we didn't go up it.
The city itself is truly picturesque so walking around it is nice in and of itself (we walked round the city outer limits one evening, too, which was nice). Canal boat tours run for which the cost is set by the City so you can't get ripped off (every tour company has to charge the same price) and you can also pay for horse and cart tours although these are quite pricey. When we were there, the canal tours cost, I think 6.90 and lasted about 40 minutes with a multi-lingual guide.
I'm religious and love visiting churches and although my boyfriend isn't religious, he does love church architecture so we visited a lot of churches while we were there. I've already mentioned St. Salvators but we also visited the Church of the Holy Blood which is in the Burg. If you have seen In Bruges (which I watched on my return), they state that they are in the Church of the Holy Blood at one point in the movie. In actual fact, they are in Jeruzalemkerk (another church in the city) as the Church of the Holy Blood wouldn't allow them to film. The Church of the Holy Blood holds a relic of a vial meant to contain some of Christ's blood and they have a festival of the Holy Blood once a year which includes a procession through the city. At certain times of the year, they bring the blood out for pilgrims to view. I'm not Catholic and believe that most religious relics are far from genuine (not that I'm suggesting that the churches that own them are deliberately trying to fool people as I believe many of these churches genuinely believe that their relics are real) but when we were at this church the relic was out for display so I went for a little peek at it. It is guarded by a Church official, but people were touching it and so forth. I just went for a little look and then scuttled off.
Jeruzalemkerk is also worth a mention. It is meant to be based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem so I was keen to visit as I've also been to Jerusalem. I didn't see many similarities with the church of the Holy Sepulchre myself but then I can only vaguely remember what it looked like. Jeruzalemkerk also has a lace museum attached and when we were there, there were ladies making lace who you could go and watch. Lace is one of the items Bruges is famous for, so it was interesting to see it being made for a small fee.
The Lover's Lake, Minnewater is very picturesque but the horse and carts stop here to water the horses so depending what part of the lake you stand at, you might have to smell lots of horse poop! Koningin-Astridpark is also a nice place for a walk. My boyfriend and I used to go at night when it was quiet and then play in the kids playpark like the big children we are! This playpark features in In Bruges as well (remember where Colin Farrell was when he was going to kill himself? Well this is the park.)
The atmosphere in Bruges is great. We went fairly early in the year (mid-spring) when it wasn't too busy. The weather was nice, not too cold or too warm and there were tourists but not so many that you felt like one in a herd of cattle. It has a very laid back atmosphere very different to what I've experience elsewhere. At the risk of sounding like Ralph Fiennes here, it really is like a fairytale and doesn't really feel like a working city but has a laid back vibe to it. It is such a pretty place that no matter where you go, you just are surrounded by beauty and it really is a lovely, relaxing place to be.
Now the Important Bits
It's all very well knowing how to get there and what there is to do, but what about the beer and the chocolate I hear you cry! Well, I want leave my audience waiting any longer. Beer and chocolate exist in copious quantities. There are a huge number of chocolatiers in the city (some of them with very elaborate and impressive window displays). Some are, as you would expect, far more expensive than others but I found a few shops all under the same ownership that were very reasonable. My boyfriend says that he doesn't like chocolate but when I came out of one of the choc shops with a box of mixed chocolates, he seemed to suddenly find a love for them as his hand dipped in and out of it! I also bought little boxes of shaped chocs to bring home as presents and again, they were a bargain with them on offer for 4 boxes for 10 euros or something along that line.
As for the beer, Belgian beer really is some of the best beer in the world. The bloke of mine was pleased to find a bar that featured a beer wall that contained empty bottles of all the different beers brewed in Belgium and the wall was very extensive! He then tried to sample as many of them as possible during the course of the week. Some of the Belgian beers are strong, though, so be warned. The local and cheap tipple of Jupiler is a bit dire, a bit like the Belgian version of Tennant's, but my man was thrilled with the cheap price of his favourite beer, Leffe, which was costing him around 3 euros in most places whereas in pubs in Glasgow he can spend £5 or £6 for the same thing! I also found that you don't get ripped off in Bruges in the same way that you do in other tourist spots such as Paris. We went to a cafe right next to the Belfry at night on the way back to the hotel as my man wanted to sample a beer there. I laughed and told him he'd be paying through the nose for it due to the location of the cafe. We sat outside, him sampling his beer, right smack bang in the middle of the Markt, right next to the Belfry. It was a massive tankard of beer and when the bill came I was expecting tourist prices but it only cost 4 euros!
I'm sure there are rip-off restaurants and cafes somewhere in Bruges, but we certainly didn't come across any.
I would definately recommend Bruges and go back there myself! However, I think children would probably be very bored there. It is definately a more adult location and although the children would like the play park and would possibly enjoy parts of the Choco-Story, I think by and large they'd be climbing the walls after a few days.
We spent a week there and found that at the end of the week we had done and seen pretty much everything we wanted to. We weren't packing our days full but chilling out a bit, sometimes having long lies and then getting up to start the day late etc. It wasn't like previous holidays I've had to Paris and Rome where it is a mile a minute stuff just trying to pack everything in. As I say, we wanted to see a lot of museums and churches etc. so a week was ideal for us, but I think most people would probably be quite happy after a couple of days here.
Summary: A lovely, relaxing holiday location.