BRU. In hindsight, I should have realised those were the first three letters of two Belgian cities. Nonetheless, when I boarded my Brussels Airlines flight at 5.55am, I was rather surprised to hear the flight attendant announce that our flight time to Brussels would be an hour and 5 minutes. With my Bruges itinerary all set and aeroplane mode now strictly enforced, I frantically tried to envisage how far these Belgian cities were from one another. Knowing absolutely nothing about Brussels, the window of time I had set aside for napping was reallocated to reading snippets of information about Brussels in the inflight magazine. With only four hours sleep under my belt, I sipped on revoltingly bitter aeroplane coffee.
A very quick Google upon landing mercifully revealed that Bruges was only an hour and forty away on the train. Uninspired by my inflight reading, I cracked ahead with Plan A. With twelve hours until my connecting flight to Geneva, I willingly sacrificed almost four to sitting on the train. Without a minute to lose and with my suitcase checked all the way through to Geneva, I zipped through customs and down to the train station. I was standing on the platform, a return ticket in my hand, 15 minutes after landing. If only the trains moved as swiftly. The direct train to Bruges, which only ran on the hour, was cancelled. The second train, which required a change at Brussels-Midi, was delayed indefinitely. I gathered this information through Chinese whispers down the platform, unable to decipher the Dutch updates over the intercom. Before long, I found myself teamed up with a London family and an older American couple. The American man dubbed us ‘the brotherhood of those of share the mark of pain’. A Schweitzer reference, he added. (Collective eye-rolling). After a hairy transfer, where I shock off the brotherhood, I arrived in Bruges two and half hours later, slightly frazzled and rather hungry.
My research promised that the best place for brunch was a bagelsalon called Sanseveria. The sign above the door declared it ‘the hip side of medieval Bruges’ and the queue of fashionable dressed people told the same story. Based on my eavesdropping, most of them were Parisian. I opted for the Madison bagel – smoked salon, avo, scrambled eggs – and a Belgian hot chocolate (which arrived as a steaming mug of almond milk paired with a handsome wedge of dark chocolate on a skewer). Both were delicious: the bagel was salty, the hot chocolate was rich and bitter. Having walked straight from the train station to the cafe, I found myself in the middle of the city, amidst gingerbread houses and snaking canals. From here, I spend the final hours of the morning meandering and taking photos until I found a cheap boat tour to explore the rest of the city by water.
The architecture of the Bruges is magical. Ralph Fiennes’ character out of In Bruges is right: ‘how is a fairytale town not someone’s fucking thing?’. The undeniable charm of the city in real life makes the violent carnage in that film even more deliciously noir. Perfectly proportioned and pristinely kept, it feels like strolling through a Wes Anderson set – pastel colour palette and artisanal patisseries shops to match.
As the afternoon arrived, the streets became increasingly busy. Had I not been in a hurry to get back to the airport for my flight onwards (leaving myself plenty of time for the train), it would have been ideal to sit in one of the beer cafes and people watching. The picturesque buildings provide the perfect backdrop to ogle the people beautiful walking back and forth (everyone was well dressed). I only managed a flying visit through the Memlingmuseum and The Church of Our Lady (home to Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child) but the gallery scene also seems worth of a more leisurely pace. Based on the way Bruges came alive in the afternoon, I imagine it would be a wonderful place for a lazy weekend, with late mornings and long nights. I can only imagine how pretty the canals would have looked at golden hour and then after dark, with the lights from the windows reflected on the water. The big handsome parks would also make a great spot to sit and read a book in the sun. Definitely somewhere I’m curious to return, if only to sip the hot chocolates at the Old Tea House. After brunch, I was too intimidated by the bowl-sized mugs and the three pages of flavours but I won’t make that mistake twice…
Key Recommended visits:
Sanseveria Bagelsalon: delicious food and cool vibes (think big cacti, gramophones and mustard-coloured velvet sofas). Very slutty hot chocolates. Ideal location within the heart of the city, next to a bike hire shop. Cycling definitely seems like the way to go, with so few cars on the cobbled streets.
A canal tour: for €8 the canal boat tours wind under Bruges forty-one small bridges. Nowadays, tour boats are the only vessels allowed on the canals, but historically they were the veins of the city. There are still many windows into this past. Notably a water-side ambulance stop next to St. John’s Hospital, and three metres down the canal, a collection point for funereal boat. Medieval one in, one out policy.
Memlingmuseum: excellent collection of Hans Memling paintings, the preeminent Flemish Gothic artist.