In my imagination, Bruges is a quiet, boring Belgian town in the 1920s where a few antiquarians and eccentrics visit to indulge a quaint medievalism but there are no tourists, no chocolate shops and no selfie sticks.
Of course, it’s not like that. That Bruges only exists in my imagination and in my attempts to exclude people from photographs of the old buildings. But it’s still magical and, like JK Rowling’s Platform 9 and 3/4s you can see it in the interstices of the everyday reality if you look hard enough.
Come and see the real thing
- On a previous visit, I remember walking into a church that had been converted into an art gallery and there was an extraordinary and beautiful installation where you had to walk across a small lake of oil or reflecting water. It was secular art but, with a different set of religious beliefs, it could have been part of the ritual of the place. Sometimes new can seem old.
- Hotel Heritage, where we stayed, is tucked away in a back street in the historical centre. They suffered my terrible Dutch and indulged me when I wanted to practice. Immaculate rooms and just enough luxury to make it feel indulgent without being oppressive. (Don’t you hate it when you feel like you have to dress up to stay somewhere. The Bulgari Hotel in Milan is like that. For scruffs like me, it’s not good.)
- The tiny Pierre Marcolini shop on the main square. Unlike most of the chocolate shops in Bruges, this firms uses high quality beans not melted-down bulk-buy chocolate. Expensive but worth it.
- The Nieuewe Koetse felt more like a local restaurant than a tourist spot. I always try to avoid the cafes on the main square but this place felt like the exact opposite. It was relaxed without being casual, hospitable without being over-solicitous. The food was excellent. I had a lobster and Mirela had a fish kebab; we both had the delicious fish soup. Neighbouring tables had the obligatory moules et frites, which looked and smelled perfect.
- We went to a beer shop – this trip is not just about wine – and they were very instructive. We learned a lot about trappist beer and bought six bottles of the ultra-rare Westvleteren beer as well as some Italian and American trappist beer; so we will have had beer from all 11 of the trappist breweries. Imagine if you could drink every single Pinot Noir from Burgundy! Impossible. But with beer you can be a completist.
When in Rome…
We did the tourist things too, of course. We queued for a few minutes to climb the tower before giving up. We did a boat too with a hilarious guide who sounded like he had learned his tri-lingual spiel phonetically on a tape player that was running too slowly. ‘Onnn yooouurr lefttt-haand siiide, yoouuu caannn seee°≠’ etc. We had a sandwich at a tourist caf®¶ that took 40 minutes to arrive. But we didn’t buy a fridge magnet.
We bring our fantasy of Bruges with us when we arrive and we take away something more profound when we leave. Bruges was here before the tourists and Bruges will outlive the tourists. That’s what makes it special.