Canals, cobbles and old-world charm
Just one hour by train from Brussels, Bruges is the go-to destination for day trips from Brussels, and is also a popular stop in its own right, topping the list for many as the most beautiful city in Belgium. A UNESCO World Heritage City, Bruges oozes history and continues to draw visitors with its medieval charm, cobbled old town streets, and of course its picture-perfect canals.
Architectural and artistic treasures
The old town centre is a feast for the eyes, with cobbled laneways lined with quaint shops and restaurants, and a number of impressive architectural sights, medieval buildings and towers. Among these are the 83-metre tall Belfry which houses a carillon of 47 bells, and the Bruges City Hall dating back from 1376. I had my sights set on the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) which houses Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, the Madonna and Child, a marble sculpture which was the only artwork to leave Italy during his lifetime, and which is the artistic treasure of Bruges. We arrived at the Church only to learn that is was closed due to the Procession of the Holy Blood taking place that day. Quel dommage!
A park and a convent garden
Our scenic stroll from Bruges train station towards the old town was flanked by trees and greenery (complete with swans and horse-drawn carriages) of the Minnewater Park. At the edge of the park, enclosed by walls and canals, sits the ‘Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde’, a tranquil convent garden inhabited by the sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. Built in a style specific to the Flemish cultural region, the Beguinage is a quiet oasis containing living quarters, a church and beautiful green spaces that are open to visitors.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heligbloed Basiliek) located on the Burg square dates back to the 12th century and houses the relic of the Holy Blood, a phial that is said to contain two drops of Christ’s blood, allegedly collected by Joseph of Arimathea and brought to Belgium circa 1149 by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. Since the relic is used in the annual Procession of the Holy Blood on Ascension Day, we weren’t able to view it, but the Basilca was nevertheless well worth the visit, with impressive stained glass windows and magnificent paintings adorning the walls.
Procession of the Holy Blood
Our first clue that something special was taking place in Bruges on the day of our visit was the rows of chairs that had been placed by the roadside throughout the city. We passed a mini procession but learned the main event would take place later that afternoon with a reenactment of the passion and resurrection of Christ. The centerpiece of the annual religious procession is the relic of the Holy Blood which can normally be found in the Basilica. Despite the crowds that had descended on Bruges for the event, bad weather led to the procession being cancelled just a few hours before it was due to start.
Chocolate, waffles and beer – oh my!
It would’t be Belgium without chocolate, waffles and beer and there is certainly no shortage of any of these in Bruges. ‘2be’ is a fantastic spot for beer lovers, with its beer wall feature, cosy bar and lovely terrace. ‘Juliette’s’ bakery offers a range of artisinal biscuits and sweets, including the traditional Bruges lace cookies or kletskoppen. Chocaholics should head straight to ‘The Chocolate Line’ to sample one of Dominique Persoone’s original chocolate creations, including caramel with cabernet sauvignon vinegar, calamansi jelly with pine nut praline, and the almond praline with crispy bacon and quinoa (aka Miss Piggy).