Not even Winter’s icy grip could shield the fairy-tale city of Bruges from waves of tourists. Long known in Europe as the most intact and well-preserved medieval town, its popularity skyrocketed after the film In Bruges was released. So, when I found myself spending a weekend in Brussels, I naturally drifted towards Bruges like a moth to a flame.
70 minutes from central Brussels via train, Bruges is probably the most common day trip from the EU capitol. The train drops its passengers off outside of Bruges’ outer canal ring. From the station, visitors can spot the town’s distinctive clock tower based in its medieval center. Walking towards the tower, I crossed through cobblestones, softly rounded by centuries of wear. The streets were small, quaint and full of beautiful shops selling the Belgian favorites such as chocolate, lace and beer.
After 15 minutes of navigating through picturesque winding roads, I reached Bruges’ Markt – meaning market in Dutch, it’s more often translated as town square in English. Standing in the middle of this perfectly preserved medieval market square and UNESCO World Heritage Site was a pretty powerful experience. Bruges was at one point in its history considered to be the commercial capitol of the world, making this the middle age equivalent of Wall Street.
As the temperature dropped and the rain began to fall, the tourists began to scatter and the clip-clop of horses hooves around the square became more evident. In some respects, seeing Bruges covered in the dreary grey of Winter provided a more authentic experience for me. While the visitor numbers were still healthy, there was enough room to breathe and space to explore. I could smell the horses as they pulled their carriages around the square, hear the distinctive Germanic tones some of the residents and for I second I caught a glimpse of life here 500 or 600 years ago.
Rounding the corner from the main square, we ran into Bruges’ old town hall, called “Stadhuis” in Dutch (city house). Like the rest of the town, it was remarkably well preserved. A modest 2 euros gained us entrance into the main meeting room and adjacent museum. The Stadhuis’ main room was an impressive example of Bruges’ former wealth and prominence as a commercial hub. It was covered floor to ceiling with ornate decorations and paintings, all helping to tell of tale of the most powerful city in Belgium.
Through with our history lesson, we decided to spend the rest of our time in town freely exploring its nooks and crannies. We followed the path of one of its many canals, which took us through idyllic residential districts and gorgeous shophouses. The sweet tooth in me couldn’t help but stop and gawk at each chocolate or candy store we passed. After finally giving in and indulging in some of Belgium’s specialties – chocolate, waffles, fries, and beer – I must admit that this little country ranks very highly on my best-food list.
As the day wound down and the cold air crept in, we made out way past the canal along Bruges’ medieval border towards the train station. We made it back into Brussels for dinner with a camera loaded with pictures and my head full of memories. Easily one of the best day trip towns I’ve ever visited, it is every bit the fairy-tale village it claims to be.