Travel: Bruges. A delightful city full of history

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Bruges is a beautiful, historic vision of how things looked in a different era.

As a present for my 50th birthday, my other long-suffering half treated me to a surprise trip to Bruges. We flew Ryanair from Edinburgh to Brussels International airport (BRU), thereafter changing to the rail network where we took a train to Bruges.

Operated by SNCB it’s in the lower section of the airport and easy to reach.  Bruge is around 123km from the airport and a two-hour journey,  Tickets cost from approximately €22 per person.

We found the service efficient with clean trains and professional staff – a vast difference from what we put up with in the UK. On arrival in Bruges, we grabbed a taxi, of which there were plenty directly outside the station who took us to our hotel for the bargain sum of €12.

Bruges, the capital of West Flanders in northwest Belgium, is distinguished by its canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. Its port, Zeebrugge, is an important centre for fishing and European trade. Breathtakingly beautiful and picture postcard perfect, Bruges still testifies to a past steeped in history. Though seemingly quiet, atmospheric and arrested in time, it is also a highly vibrant city which comes to life at night.

In the city centre’s Burg square, the 14th-century Stadhuis (City Hall) has an ornately carved ceiling. Nearby, Markt square features the 13th-century belfry with a 47-bell carillon and a nosebleed-inducing 83 metre tower with stunning panoramic views across the city. The square has to be one of the prettiest locations in Bruges. Designed like a wheel, the main shopping streets run off the central square like spokes. On the periphery is where you will find a large number of cafés and restaurants offering outdoor dining and drinking – the perfect place for people watching.

If you want some more information prior to visiting, the Bruges Tourist Board are an excellent source and can be found here.

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Be aware, however, the restaurants surrounding Markt Square are for tourists, and consequently, the prices are very expensive, and, you won’t necessarily be getting the best food available either. You can expect to pay €10 for a toastie and €8 for a pint of beer (2014 prices). If dining on a three-course meal, we found we were paying on average between €60-80 with drinks for two. But, and it’s a big but, you do get the ambience of outdoor dining in a location that is very special. And, a nice extra, there’s no real rush to move you on, but then our trip was in May and it wasn’t yet high season, so that could change.

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Take a short wander into the side streets and you will find cheaper and better options – but don’t expect UK prices. On average we found the pricing structure to be around 15 per cent more expensive as a comparison with UK prices.

Being on holiday, we didn’t consider it would be that necessary to book a table at a rib joint – wrong! However, luckily for us, we managed to get a table for a no-show booking, so their loss was our gain. Ribs n’ Beer, just off the main square, does have a 4.5 rating from TripAdvisor, which would probably explain the reason for having to book a table in advance. Located approx 15-20 minutes stroll from the main centre of the city it’s easily reached on foot. That way you can also work up an appetite and lose some of the calories on the way back to your accommodation.

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It’s a rather dark bar style interior, but none the worse for that, it all adds up to the overall ambiance. Now here’s my tip, don’t bother with a starter if you intend on eating the “all you can eat” ribs deal, because you simply won’t have room – After three full racks, including a chocolate infused smoked rib, I can testify to that fact.

It’s a good menu and prices are on par for the area, but the best deal at €18 was the above deal. You’ll get a full rack of ribs, a dressed side salad, and either fries or wedges. There are various flavours available for the ribs, however, the smoky barbecue did it for me, beer and chocolate versions were a close run second though. It’s well worth a visit, and hopefully, we will get back for a longer visit.  For more info click here.

Top tip – for a cheaper meal, there is a McDonalds equivalent on the square where you can get a burger type meal with fries and unlimited refill drink for €9 if that’s your sort of thing, or are on a budget.  We didn’t try it, but it was busy with younger customers during our weekend visit.

Markt Square is where the carriages line up to take guests on a 40 min trip around the city for €39 but be aware the drivers expect a tip, and will make sure you’re aware of this! The mini bus city tours also depart from Markt square, priced at €16 p/p for a 30-40 min tour. We did both and would highly recommend the horse and carriage trip, We saw plenty, the carriage ‘driver’ was knowledgeable and pointed out all the passing historical buildings, and, being higher up in an open landau, we were able to get plenty of pictures.  The mini bus tours were a waste of time, and we felt this was a poor alternative as the bus doesn’t stop to allow passengers to take pics and a headset to listen to a taped commentary was broken, therefore I’d give this a miss.

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Carriage tours info here.  Mini bus tours info here.

We wanted to try and do as much as we could. To this end, a canal boat trip of the city was definitely on the cards, and it was money well spent.

There are approx four different boat companies operating tours but fear not which one you use as the tours are all exactly the same as is the price of €7-8 per person. The boatmen/guides are all excellent and give a running commentary in 3-4 languages.

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Tip for the day is – try and get a centre seat – each boat has 4-5 while everyone else sits on bench style side facing seats. This means you will do a lot of twisting to see the buildings – not ideal if you have a sore back or neck. Tours last approx 30 minutes and are an excellent way to see some buildings otherwise hidden from sight. We travelled with this company Bruges boat trips.

With more than a nod to technology, Xplore Bruges is the ultimate city app to experience heritage trails in Bruges. This app allows you to download themed routes, museum routes and city walks in no less than five languages (Nl, Fr, Eng, Ger and Sp). It has been developed for android and apple and is usable on smartphones and tablets. You can download the app here.

Returning to Brussels at the end of our weekend we departed from the main rail terminus in Bruge, called, oddly enough, Station Brugge. We were pleasantly surprised once more to find that the Belgian rail system was excellent. Clean trains, good services running on time, and helpful staff, what more does a tourist need. You’ll find helpful information on the railway network here.

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Ticket staff were at pains to help us buy the correct tickets, told us where to get off, which differed from the guidebook advice. If you’re looking to go from Bruges to Brussels International, most guidebooks tell you to change at Midi station, however, this meant a change of platform. We were advised to change by ticket staff at Brussels Central which meant no such change.

We stayed at a local hotel within 15 minutes walk from the main square – read my review of the Hotel Bryghia here.

Bruges is a city that will capture your heart. Its history has helped make it great, a fact borne out by being granted a Unesco World Heritage City. Although not necessarily the easiest to get to with no direct flights from Scotland, it’s worth the effort.

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