A few months ago I saw a movie called In Bruges, which follows two gangsters sent to Bruges, Belgium to await orders from their boss. While they’re waiting, they tour the beautiful medieval city. The older gangster is captivated, but the younger one is completely immune to its charms — he calls it a “shithole”. That’s how you know the movie is fiction: in real life, no one could spend time in Bruges and not be awestruck by its beauty.
I arrived in Brussels on a Saturday night, the last stop in my European cruise-trip. And with much of the city closed on Sunday, I decided it was a great opportunity to have a day in Bruges. Happily, it’s only 45 minutes from Brussels on Belgium’s excellent rail service, so on a chilly winter morning I found myself exploring one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.
Like Cartagena with its 16th-century walled city, Bruges has managed to maintain its historic medieval centre almost completely intact. And it’s a wonder to behold. Wandering its cobblestone streets, you get the feeling that people in medieval smocks and cloth hats could come walking out of every doorway.
The feeling is magnified by the horse-drawn carriages that clip-clop up and down, showing tourists the sights — and even on a winter weekend, there were thousands of tourists enjoying their day in Bruges.
In many ways, Bruges resembles old Amsterdam, with its tall, narrow buildings and network of canals that snake through the city. And like Amsterdam, those canals once carried boat traffic that made it a thriving trade port. In fact, by the 1400s Bruges was one of the world’s most prosperous trade centres, a crossroads for goods from as far away as Scandinavia and the Middle East.
The beautiful market square, with its imposing city hall, was once flanked by a famous “water house” where boats could unload their cargo indoors in bad weather. Today the space is occupied by an equally impressive building called the Historium, where I viewed a cunningly recreated story set in the city’s past. Afterward, I climbed the stairs to sample one of Belgium’s famous beers in the Duvelorium, a bar with a panoramic view of the square — a great sight.
But I was just as impressed to walk the perfectly kept streets, peering in shop windows, following archways into hidden squares and marvelling at the grand public buildings, with their stone knights and kings standing guard in the spots where they’ve stood for 600 or 700 years.
After dark, however, Bruges became truly magical. Twinkling lights set off the quaint storefronts, candles glowed from windows, and the great stone buildings took on a soft glow that made you feel warm even on a blustery night.
And then it was time for a bite, and what better than one of the famous, delicious Belgian waffles and a hot cup of coffee — it was almost a crime not to have one before I left.
Near the end of In Bruges (spoiler alert), the older gangster is ordered to shoot the younger, insensitive one but doesn’t have the heart to do it. After an amazing day in Bruges, I think I might have gone the other way.