With a smile, the shop-owner handed me a pharoah's head and two hedgehogs and said that her husband was busy downstairs finishing off another batch of chocolates. Happily sucking on a hedgehog, I walked out of the small chocolate shop with a $3, 100-gram assortment of Bruges' best pralines — filled chocolate delights.
Belgian chocolate is considered Europe's finest. And in Bruges — an hour's drive or train ride west of Brussels — locals boast that their chocolate is the best in Belgium. You'll be tempted by display windows all over town. Godiva's chocolate is thought to be the best big factory brand, but for quality and service, drop by one of the many family-run shops. (Pray for cool weather — chocolate shops close down when it's hot.)
With Renoir canals, pointy gilded architecture, and stay-awhile cafés, the marvelously-preserved medieval town of Bruges is a delight. Where else can you bike along a canal, munch mussels, drink fine monk-made beer, see a Michelangelo, and savor heavenly chocolate, all within 300 yards of a bell tower that rings out "Don't worry, be happy" jingles?
The town is Bruges (broozh) in French and English, and Brugge (BROO-gah) in Flemish. Before it was French or Flemish, the name was a Viking word for "wharf" or "embarkment." Right from the start, Bruges was a trading center. By the 14th century, Bruges had a population of 35,000 (in a league with London) and the most important cloth market in northern Europe. By the 16th century, silt clogged the harbor and killed the economy.
Like so many of Europe's small-town wonders, Bruges is well-pickled because its economy went sour. But rediscovered by modern-day tourists, Bruges thrives. Bruges' Markt (market square), ringed by great old gabled buildings and crowned by a leaning belfry, is the colorful heart of the city.
This bell tower has towered over the Markt since 1300. Climb 366 steps to survey the town. Just before the top, peek into the carillon room. Be there on the quarter hour, when the 47 bells are played mechanically with the giant barrel and movable tabs. (Free concerts, with a live carillonneur, ring out several days a week.)
Within three blocks of the tower you'll find a day's worth of sights. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is famous for its relic of the blood of Christ, which, according to tradition, was brought to Bruges in 1150 after the Second Crusade. The City Hall has the oldest and most sumptuous Gothic hall in the Low Countries. The Gruuthuse Museum, a wealthy brewer's home, is filled with everything from medieval bedpans to a guillotine. The Church of Our Lady, standing as a memorial to the power and wealth of Bruges in its heyday, has a delicate Madonna and Child by Michelangelo said to be the only statue of his to leave Italy in his lifetime (bought with money made from Bruges' lucrative cloth trade).
Touring the De Halve Maan brewery is a handy way to pay your respects to the favorite local beer: Brugse Zot. The happy gang at this working family brewery gives entertaining and informative tours. At De Halve Maan they remind their drinkers: "The components of the beer are vitally necessary and contribute to a well-balanced life pattern. Nerves, muscles, visual sentience, and a healthy skin are stimulated by these in a positive manner. For longevity and life-long equilibrium, drink Brugse Zot in moderation!"
Belgians are Europe's beer experts, and this country boasts more than 350 types of beer. The potent local brews, are, even to a Bud Lite kind of guy, obviously great beer. Trappist is the dark monk-made beer, and Dentergems is made with coriander and orange peel. Those who don't usually like beer enjoy the cherry-flavored kriek and strawberry-flavored frambozen. Each beer is served in its own uniquely shaped glass...and locals insist they get it right.
Walk off your beer buzz with a stroll through the begijnhof — a tranquil courtyard of wispy trees and frugal little homes. For reasons of war and testosterone, there were more women than men in the medieval Low Countries. The order of Beguines gave women (often single or widowed) a dignified place to live and work. When the order died out, many begijnhofs were taken over by towns for subsidized housing, but some, like this one, became homes for nuns. You'll find begijnhofs all over Belgium and the Netherlands.
Sitting on a bench, watching the sisters of the begijnhof pace this timeless courtyard deep in prayer, I find myself reviewing the memorable images and calories enjoyed during a day in Bruges.