We had been lucky, our tour guide told us as he steered the boat gently through the centuries-old canals of Bruges. Just a few weeks earlier locals, and a few hardy tourists, had been walking on inch thick ice on top of the waterways which criss-cross the city. Now, in mid-March, the scene was bathed in an unseasonable sunshine.
Thousands of eager sightseers had begun to throng in the main Market Square, in the shadow of the imposing 11th century Belfry; clip-clopping along in open-top carriages, drinking one of the many Belgian beers on offer in the hundreds of taverns or shopping for the world-famous local chocolate and lace.
In London scenes like this would have proved chaotic. The English tend to become hysterical when the weather improves, even for a few hours. But here in northern Belgium the atmosphere remained gentile – as it apparently had for hundreds of years.
With so much on offer in such a tiny space, Bruges is stunningly well designed for tourism. We wandered through the streets taking in the medieval houses, miles of canals, ornate churches and – a particular highlight – the Don Quixote-style windmills on the edge of town.
This gentle pursuit is the main attraction of the destination. Always a busy trading centre, Bruges has at times been dominated by France, Spain, Burgundy, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. History has therefore left its mark on virtually ever inch of the city, offering visitors limitless opportunities to explore.
Surrounded by a moat it is also impossible to get lost. It takes an hour to walk from one side of the old city to the other, with the Belfry virtually always in view, offering a clue as to the way home. Hire a bike for a touch more freedom, or even take a balloon ride for the ultimate perspective.
Many fine restaurants cater to all tastes. There are as many as 14 Michelin-starred places to eat in Bruges at the present time, making the city the culinary capital of Belgium. Hertog Jan and De Karmeliet are among the most prestigious. Both offer modern French fare, but we were just as at home in the many smaller eateries which line the streets around the main squares.
Beware, however, restaurants in the shadow of the Belfry, which – while perfect for people watching - take their cherished position as reason enough to double prices. Our waiter jokes “we can do an hour with the dishes” and I half consider taking him up on the offer to escape the eye-watering bill.
My partner, however, politely declines the offer for us.
Belgians also seem to enjoy chips with every meal, meaning, along with all the chocolate, waffles, and beer, a trip to Bruges, even for a couple of days, can be challenging for the waistline.
The De Halve Maan Brewery - the last remaining active family brewery in Bruges – is also an interesting stopping point, if only to try the local speciality Brugse Zot.
Where to Stay
Accommodation in this smallest of cities is almost by definition boutique. Some larger chains – Kempinski and Crowne Plaza for example – have a presence, but it is much more rewarding to seek out an independent property.
That said, this being a thriving tourist destination, there are properties available to suit all budgets, with students as welcome as their more august counterparts.
While picturesque, the delights of Bruges will likely last most visitors no more than a day or two. Luckily, there is much to do close by.
A daytrip to the Flanders battlefields of World War I, centred on Ypres, will be of interest to some, while the coastal resorts of Blankenberge and Knokke are just a short drive away.
Ghent and Antwerp are also easily accessible by train from Bruges station.
Eurostar Fact Box
Situated just over an hour from Brussels, it is easy to reach the heart of Bruges with Eurostar. With one easy connection, passengers will reach Bruges in less than three and a half hours from London St Pancras International.
Eurostar offers return fares to Bruges from just £80. Eurostar also offers connecting fares from more than 200 stations in the UK.
With the option of flexible fares, Standard Premier offers the freedom to work, think, or simply unwind. You will be presented with calm, spacious surroundings with on-board staff offering a light meal and a selection of magazines.
For more information or to book visit the website.