A tale of alcohol, battlefields and cycling in the fairytale city of northwest Belgium.
What did I know of Bruges? Belgium even? I knew I could cover it with an outstretched hand from FL370 but that was about it. Bruges is nearby, but under the conventional city-break radar, away from any airport: a perfect excuse for avoiding a busman’s holiday and trying out the Eurostar via Lille.
It is famous as the star of In Bruges, a dark-comedy caper starring Colin Farrell & Ralph Fiennes as duelling rookie assassin and paymaster. The moral: if experiencing your last city on earth, you could do a lot worse than Bruges. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s a photogenic city of mercantile history, founded upon the canal network: Bruges itself comes from the old Dutch for bridge: brugga.
At street level it’s quirky: leering gargoyles, ornate metalwork and Catholic shrines on street corners. The local celebrity dog, Fidel, reclines in the open window of a huge house backing onto the main canal. Another resident adds his own character outside the beguinage (convent): the bust of a nun in an open attic window. Her attire relays a personal weather forecast for the following day: sunglasses and a baseball cap the day I saw it. Further afield, sculptures appear atop an old chimney high above the roofline.
Imagine a linguistic faultline line bisecting Belgium East-West. Bruges is the state capital of the West Flanders region within Flemish (Dutch speaking) Northern Belgium. The Walloon (French speaking) region occupies the south. There’s little interaction across this divide except for bilingual Brussels, on the frontline of linguistic conflict.
Regardless of translation, the national motto is ‘strength through unity’. I’ve always found Belgians to be accommodating and funny with a true patriotism. Remarked a friendly local: ‘We like the Dutch, but their beer is not so great. In Bruges we say that Dutch beer is what leaves our shire horses after they drink Belgian beer.’
De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) is the last ancient brewery still running in the city. Unless you’re a chemist, I find brewery tours seldom stick in the mind, but this was conducted in a very hands-on, humorous style. What did I know of Belgian beer before? It was strong, fruity and often had a monk on the label. Afterwards? The monk indicates Trappist denomination, still brewed in working monasteries. There are eleven Trappist monasteries worldwide and Belgium has six: that is how seriously they take the craft. It was beautiful: rich and strong with a variety of flavours and I consider myself converted. It’s also just the thing to wash down the local rabbit stew and fries. Perhaps maligned as just fries and mussels, it turns out Belgian cuisine is much more subtle and original than I gave it credit for.
Worth a mention are the Christmas markets (pair with equally regarded Lille), Belgian chocolate shops and for art-lovers, old masters Memling and van Eyck. Best thing for me? The trip up the 13th century belfry, immortalized in the film, to see the hourly chiming, a vast chorus of bells with the automated mechanics on display. This reminded me of the last aircraft I saw undergoing a full winter check, stripped back to bare pulleys and wires. For the centenary of World War One, the bells currently play the unofficial peace anthem ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. Iconic status was confirmed when a lone soldier climbed the belfry in nearby Mons to sing it in response to the armistice of November 1918.
Cities always claim to be compact; Bruges really is. Even in August, tourists weren’t straying too far from the old town, which gives a chance to get lost amongst little humpback bridges and alleyways of jaunty buildings. A short walk takes you beyond the city, onto the windmill-belted canal that encircles it, hence the potential for using it as a base.
As above, so below
Bruges was spared in both World Wars making it feel uniquely authentic, contrasting the brutality dispensed just outside. Today, Flanders Mud rolls gently with maize and dairy pasture but clues to the horrors are immediate: fields regularly punctuated by well-tended cemeteries, memorials and whipping flags. Other nightmares are more insidious: the Belgian Army is regularly called to farms across the region to dispose of newly unearthed ordnance.
Tyne Cot (near the site of the Battle of Passchendaele) is the largest Commonwealth cemetery worldwide. The true price of a mile in 1917 is here in battalions of immaculately cut headstones. It’s powerful, even in the sunshine with birdsong in the trees; locals suggested the time to really witness the atmosphere is on a moody, bitter day. Nearby Sanctuary Wood is the opposite: an informal, hands-on museum containing preserved trenches you can scramble through and rows of shells and barbed wire, fossilized in a century of mud.
As stalemate developed, desperate minds were forced underground. The first Allied trenches were dug in 1915 by hastily recruited pitmen, hardy souls used to the terrors of the dark. Tactics and counter-tactics pushed opposing forces ever deeper, using primitive microphones to detect enemy ‘clay-kickers’ silently easing downwards to fill galleries with explosives. This frontline also gave us the air-war, described in the striking account of early wartime aviation Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis. A period fighter ace, Lewis vividly describes being overhead the opening salvo of the Battle of the Somme: explosions that reached seismographs in Switzerland and ears in Downing Street.
Grappling with what occurred here a century ago is near-impossible, the scene perhaps best depicted by the bleak, monochrome photography of the period: weary faces limping along flooded duckboards in a landscape darkened by smoke, trees reduced to matchsticks. Especially poignant in the context of Calais: the times change, the conflict continues and we’re still using trenches and barbed wire.
Belgians, particularly in the Flanders region are fanatical about cycling - the black Flandrien lion a symbol of dominance. Many gritty one-day races head through the region in spring, including the local Tour of Flanders (Die Ronde van Vlaanderen).
These races began in the early twentieth century and given the annihilation occurring soon afterwards were originally known as The Hell of The North. The name still applies given the notorious weather and treacherous sectors of cobblestones known locally as kinderkoppen (children’s heads). These are not dainty British cobbles, they’re upturned soup-bowls, buffed slick over hundreds of years. Flanders also has some nasty bergs (as in ‘mountain’) with ominous names: Koppenberg and Wolvenberg. Weather, road surface and gradient combine to form something uniquely brutal and iconic.
The beauty of a Tour of Flanders weekend is a chance to ride it and then spectate on consecutive days. During the ride I found myself slamming over a section of cobblestones, cheeks burning in a group of burly riders. Hearing an unusual noise, I looked down to see my gearing disintegrate and tear the back wheel apart: the kinderkoppen had destroyed my bike after one hour. The following day was impressive but bittersweet: watching the professionals seemingly glide over the same surface at twice the speed for 260kms of inhumane duelling.
So next time you find yourself approaching descent into London, the lights of the Low Countries laid out like fluorescent brain coral, consider somewhere under the radar for the next break.
Bruges tourism: www.visitbruges.be
Halve Maan brewery: www.halvemaan.be
The Tour of Flanders: www.rondevanvlaanderen.be
The Eurostar runs direct from St Pancras to Lille, with a short coach transfer to Bruges: www.eurostar.com
Bruges is also situated near to the other picturesque Flemish cities of Ghent and Antwerp.
Nearby Ostend-Bruges Airport (EBOS) operates predominantly for seasonal Belgian holiday traffic.
The nearest well-connected airports are Brussels and Charleroi, which offer rail and coach connections to Bruges
Zeebrugge (Bruges-on-Sea) is served by P&O Ferries: www.poferries.com
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