ADVISORY NOTE: It is never a good idea to schedule a flight the morning after your Christmas party. Travelling drunk and/or hungover is not a good idea. And so having failed to listen to my inner self when I booked my 6a.m. flight to Brussels a few weeks prior I found myself being driven to the airport at 4.45a.m decidedly drunk and generally rather worse for wear. On the plus side, I made my 6.00a.m take-off time and used the 1 and a half hour flight time to sleep off any alcohol from the previous evening.
On arrival at Brussels International unfortunately the inevitable hangover as a result of all that yummy Carmenere of the evening before was beginning to make an appearance but thankfully purchasing the train tickets was fairly painless and after a quick change at Brussels North to a faster train we were en-route to Bruges. I also managed to make a quick stop at Panos for a chocolate pastry to attempt to stave off the hangover. The countryside was pretty and reminded me a lot of the train rides we had taken around Northern Germany with wide open fields and cute apartment like 2 storey house styles with balconies.
The Bruges train station was large and modern and not exactly what I was expecting from a UNESCO world heritage town but as we followed the cobbled path into town and the church spires came into view the character of the place began to show through. We were staying above a restaurant at a small hotel called Hotel Graaf Van Vlaanderen. There was no obvious check-in area and so we walked into the entrance to enquire about our room. One of the waiters informed us he would be with us in a minute but thinking he thought we meant for food I tried to clarify by saying we were here about a room. This did not go down well and he was rather rude throughout our check-in and to be honest throughout our entire stay, but more of that later on. Our room was nice, clean with a separate washing and dressing area. After our early start we took this opportunity to take a half hour well-earned rest to set us up for the day ahead.
Our first port of call was for some food and so we picked Den Dyver out of Lonely Planet as a nice Belgian style restaurant and headed straight there. Our hotel was right at the edge of the UNESCO official town boundary and as we wandered further into town towards the restaurant I was struck with the beauty of the place. The buildings were charming and each one unique, we passed the Church of our Lady which is the largest church made entirely out of stones. The brickwork of the exterior was stunning and really took your breath away. Just around the back of the church we crossed the smallest bridge in Bruges which led us across our first canal! Looking across at the historical wooden houses that lined the side of the water was again simply beautiful. After our gorgeous walk we finally arrived at the restaurant and were seated right next to the roaring fire, which would have been lovely had I not had a high fever.
The place was labelled a wine bar which did not match the food with beer sauces description in the book. However, as we were there and starving we decided to give it a go. I decided to chance a ‘hair of the dog’ and ordered a French style Eden’s Riesling which although nice was quite powerful for my delicate disposition. We made the most of the fresh bread, meat and olives which were served prior to our meal. The bread was definitely one of my highlights. To start I had opted for a traditional Belgian starter of potatoes topped with Bruges Shrimp, a poached egg and hollandaise on the waiter’s recommendation and I was not disappointed. It was so tasty and the perfect size for a starter. However, after all that bread I was starting to feel very full and when my main of smoked duck and mushroom pasta came I was a little underwhelmed. There was a serious lack of seasoning and flavour.
Feeling extremely full we waddled along the canal to the boat tour entrance where just by chance we managed to walk by at the time of the daily Bruges Christmas Parade which was quite lovely to see. A lot of people were dressed in clothes to represent shepherds with real life sheep, carollers, Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus and real horses. It was great to see, particularly by chance and after watching the majority of it we bought our canal boat tickets and boarded our tour of the Bruges canal system. The boats are quite small and more like large canoes which added to the excitement, it didn’t feel like a huge corporate venture. The tour was fun and informative, albeit our guide did explain from the beginning that he was merely a boat driver and had no specific historical guide knowledge. His anecdotes and stories were interesting and funny but the best part was definitely the amazing views of the buildings from the canal. The canals are quite narrow and so being down at that level away from the hoards of tourists gave you a great perspective of the town. It was a shot 40 minute tour which went past the Church of our Lady, down past the smallest bridge and round to the mass of swans and then back to the beginning and then going the opposite way past the famous ‘ In Bruges’ jumping out of the hotel scene. It was a highly enjoyable and relaxing 40 minutes and something I would definitely recommend to everyone visiting the town.
Having got up at stupid o’clock, we were extremely tired even though it was only 4p.m. and took a walk around before stopping for a drink at De Carre in the main market centre. The café was nice and a good place to relax while waiting for darkness to descend. However, sparkling ice-tea may be one of the most disappointing discoveries of my life. As darkness began to set in we took another short stroll, including through the old Burg Square with some spectacular buildings and a rather pretty Christmas tree covered in lights, before heading back to the Market Square for some Christmas Market joviality.
At this point I realise I have given no context to this trip other than I was rather drunk at the beginning. Every year Nicola and I (and sometimes Jamie) visit a different European Christmas Market to drink copious amounts of mulled wine and to get into the Christmas spirit. So far we have visited Northern Germany (Hamburg, Lubeck and Bremen) and Scandinavia (Copenhagen, Lund and Malmo). This was our third annual trip and since we only had the weekend had decided to stick just to Bruges. And so, Nicola and I found ourselves wandering the main market square in Bruges checking out the stalls and the different wares for sale. We were not so impressed (does anyone actually buy anything from these markets??) and so after an acceptable amount of browsing time headed to the food and bar area, this has to be the highlight of the Christmas Market! By this point, I was feeling pretty terrible and so decided to stay safe by opting for some mulled wine with obligatory amaretto and an apple beignet (traditional Belgian desert). The mulled wine was disappointing (think stuff you get from aldi) and the beignet not much better. We watched the ice-skaters slip on the gradually melting ice, it was 13 degrees after all, and listened to some Christmas tunes but this market was not doing it for us. After finishing our refreshments we opted to go back to the hotel and watch Star Wars before falling asleep early in the hope that my illness would disappear in time for our last day. Bruges = Beautiful. Christmas Market = disappointing.