Crossing the bridges of Bruges

One of the really nice things about Belgium’s UNESCO World Heritage city of Bruges is that it can best be appreciated by simply wandering the streets, without the need for guidebooks or traipsing from church  to museum.

Of course, the latter is a worthwhile endeavour too if that’s your thing, but Bruges has so many interesting and enchanting streetscapes, avenues, alleys and alcoves as well as quaint bridges over its  crosshatch of canals, that it is entirely possible to say “been there, done that” without entering a single historic building.

I am clearly not the first to have come to this conclusion, as the local tourist guide Bruges on Foot doesn’t dwell too long on indoor sightseeing either.

There are also canal boats and horses and buggies to relish the views from a different perspective.

Bruges is a Flemish city with a strong Dutch influence and, as its name translates to “bridges”, it’s not surprising there’s lots of them, some lifting or turning to allow broad barges to pass through narrow  canals, others small and quaint and part of the town’s essential charm.

It was a bitterly cold day in March when I set off to discover the attraction of Bruges, a chill wind turning light rain into a flurry of sleet as I memorised street names and landmarks en route to the city  centre.

This pleasant walk made it clear that Bruges is not about a street of fine houses or an occasional example of medieval architecture – it is a complete city full of well-preserved buildings from the 15th  century onwards, with a few older examples thrown in for good measure.

By simply following my nose, the random choice of streets brought me to the picture postcard street Groene Rei, where prime views of the buildings lining the opposite side of the canal have turned it into  one of the most popular spots for photographers and artists.

Yet another Bruges bridge emerges beside the magnificent Gothic town hall. Built between 1376 and 1400, its towering white façade is topped with turrets and drips with ornamentation and neatly stacked  statues.

Nearby is the crypt of St Basil and the Chapel of the Holy Blood where a heavily gilded shrine is said to contain a vial of the blood of Christ, brought back from the crusades by Count Thierry of the Alsace.

A magnificent white and gold overhead bridge beckons towards the narrow Blinde Ezelstraat (Blind Donkey Street) which eventually leads to the main Market Square.

Here, it’s a 360-degree view, from the 83m belfry tower and its narrow flight of 366 stairs around to the Gothic revival Government Palace and Post Office building and then the signature row of colourful old  houses with their quaint step-gables.
 
Different objects on each façade identify the original purpose of each building.

Sit in the square and enjoy and you’ve met the prerequisites of a good tourist.
 
From here, it’s the simple pleasure of wandering through the maze of tiny cobbled streets, each offering up a surprise, whether it’s an ornamental dome, a gilded doorway, a stone coat of arms or yet another  quaint bridge.

There are two big advantages to seeing Bruges in the off-season, as not only does the weather enhance its fairytale magic, but it also means that it is not over-run with tourists, and it is unmistakably a  popular tourist destination.

There are so many chocolatiers it is obvious that whole population of Belgium could never consume it all, even if it is superb.
 
Along with the Belgian lace, it’s the perfect souvenir.

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Image: Canals, grand facades and chocolates flavour a visit to Bruges.