As our taxi drew up in front of a rather formal-looking town house in a quiet cobbled street in Bruges, as if by telepathy, a smiling hotel employee darted out and relieved us of our case. Uttering words of welcome, she ushered us into a pretty, colourful and bright interior which the austere exterior had utterly belied.
Our check-in swiftly accomplished, we were offered cool drinks in a little ante-room adjacent to the reception area. It was furnished with glittering chandeliers, fresh flowers, antique chairs upholstered in golden fabric and panels of flowery wall paper. The ceilings were high and the doors exceptionally tall. We realised that in its day this must have been a very impressive town house and now it was a pretty impressive hotel.
We found our room on the second floor cosy and perfectly adequate, if not very large. There was a gloriously comfortable-looking bed with that soft Egyptian cotton bed linen which almost guarantees a good night’s sleep, together with all the usual hotel accoutrements; a safe and bath robes in the wardrobe, a refrigerated mini-bar etc. There was also an iPad with free wi-fi, a Bose music system, a Nespresso coffee machine – and a big box of delicious Dumon chocolates – a real ‘welcome to Bruges,’ which, with it plethora of chocolate shops, is a branch of chocoholic heaven. In the bathroom we found plenty of shelf space, a selection of high quality Durance scented toiletries and one of those whopping magnifying mirrors which reveals just a little too much of one’s facial imperfections…..
However with the sun shining, the sky blue and the city beckoning, we were not inclined to linger indoors. Bruges is a very compact city, one can walk from one end to the other in about an hour and as Hotel Heritage is in the centre, just a few yards from two of the most important landmarks, the Markt and the Burg, we couldn’t have found ourselves in a more convenient location.
Where to go first? With so many exciting places to choose from it was hard to decide so we did what we usually do, simply stroll around to get our bearings. Here though, every few minutes found us oohing and aahing at the quality of the medieval architecture. The Markt is the hub of the city. The massive belfry is its most outstanding, or upstanding feature, 366 steps lead to the top and its 47-bell carillon rings out over the city every fifteen minutes. The Markt is always busy with milling crowds and horse drawn carriages rattling over the cobbles. It is also encircled by cafes and restaurants which we had been warned to avoid as this is so obviously the most touristy part of the city.
From Markt we then made out way to the nearby Burg, the most historic square in Bruges with many glorious civic buildings. Then, via Blinde Ezelstraat, Blind-Donkey Street (apparently years ago a nearby building was a mill driven by a blindfolded donkey) we continued to Vismarkt, the fish market where fish is still sold every weekday.
It was nearby that we had our fist glimpse of a canal and we made what turned out to be an excellent decision – to get to know the city from the water. The trees had taken on a golden autumnal glow and the sun was just beginning to set sending shimmers over the water as we boarded one of the canal boats for a 30 minute ride. This journey was both romantic and magical as, cruising along and ducking beneath bridges, the most delightful vision of the city was unfolded – pristine swans, exquisite old houses, church towers, and small but perfect canal side gardens.
We returned to the hotel and beyond the pretty ante-room we discovered a well stocked book-lined little bar and a pleasant sitting room with a log fire burning. Here we relaxed for a while, delighted with our first impressions of the city.
We learned from the manager that the house had been built in 1869 in Neo-classical style by the Bruges city architect, Louis Delascenserie who, as well as being involved in many restorations in Bruges, is probably best known for designing one of the most beautiful stations in the world, that of Antwerp. When however, the present owners Johan and Isabelle Creytens bought the building not only was it in a very poor condition but it had for some years been functioning as a bank – the restoration clearly involved a massive amount of work and money but the results are quite splendid.
After a good night’s sleep we discovered another of the hotel’s bonuses, the champagne breakfast. We were struck by the attention to detail: the table setting was impeccable; brilliant white napery, gleaming silverware and some of the prettiest china we’ve seen in years ( Raynaud Limoges ‘Histoire Naturelle’ painted with flowers and butterflies. We noted the name down as we thought of buying some until, that is, we saw the prices…)
The breakfast buffet was one of the most copious we have ever come across: a huge variety of breads, waffles, croissants and pastries, freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice, every sort of cereal and fresh fruit, cold meats fish and cheeses and well-cooked hot food including sausages, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and scrambled egg – something which is often just un appetising gloopy lump but here served as individual portions in little oven-proof bowls – a brilliant idea. (Other hotel please note.) The coffee too was very good which is not always the case even in 5* hotels. Then of course there was the champagne – bottles, of which stood in ice buckets awaiting our delectation. Whether as part of a bucks fizz or straight, this made a great start and, as we observed from some of the couples, a romantic start to the day.
We had heard that Bonifacius Bridge, otherwise known as the Lover’s Bridge which overlooks a series of old canal side houses, is one of the most attractive corners of Bruges and this is where we headed after breakfast. Sure enough, sitting there, arms entwined, were a honeymoon couple enjoying the sunny morning.
Opening on to this bridge is an amazing old house. We discovered that it is owned by the artist David de Graef who, when he is in residence, leaves the door open and invites visitors to enter while he is painting. To do so is rather like stepping back in time, so potent is the atmosphere – it was used as a location for the BBC series The White Queen. Originally a medieval mansion in which such guests as Winston Churchill and the Belgian royal couple Albert and Paola were entertained, now it is operated by David as a B & B called Nuit Blanche. One of the most charming factors was the tiny medieval hortus conclusus-style garden designed by Mien Ruys in the 1930s which we visited accompanied by David’s cat.
Bruges is very rich in museums; amongst them is a beer museum, a torture museum, a chocolate museum, a lace museum and one devoted to Belgian fried chips… The Groeninge Museum however we found to be somewhat more traditional. It is neither large nor overwhelming but contains a collection of some most beautiful canvases of the Flemish primitives including works by Jan van Eyck and Hans Memmling as well as several more modern paintings. This we enjoyed as we did the adjacent Arenthuis which holds works of the Bruges-born, Anglo-Welch, artist Frank Brangwyn
Maybe it was blissful autumnal weather which kept us strolling and in so doing we discovered Bruges’ Godshuizen or almshouses, many of which have attractive little gardens which are open to the public, free of charge, from 8am-6pm. We encountered no other tourists and found them delightfully tranquil. There are still over 40 of these historic institutions; some are rows of tiny houses while others are others disposed around flowery courtyards. They are marked on the city map and well worth seeking out.
Another Bruges ‘must see’ is the Beguinage, originally the residence of women who adopted the religious life without taking vows. Entered via an attractive old doorway, this is an extensive and peaceful green space surrounded by white-washed buildings which today are occupied by Benedictine nuns. On the nearby canal dozens of swans have a preening station while beyond stretches the Minnewater or ‘Lake of Love’ fringed with tall trees. Local legend has it that the minne was a watery ghost but Victor Hugo thought it came from the old Dutch word for love…Whatever the origin, it iand the surrounding park s a popular haunt for lovers.
We certainly walked and walked in Bruges and consequently were eager to sample another of Hotel Heritage’s special treats: The Restaurants Mystique’s Wicked Wednesday dinner, the menu of which is kept secret until it is served. This is popular and as well as a number of residents, mainly couples, we observed a jolly party of six girls enjoying themselves to the full and giving the restaurant a lively, buzzy feel.
The menu consists of 4 courses + aperitif, adapted wines, water and coffee and we began with an aperitif of Tattinger champagne and amuse bouches. Then came a tartare and ceviche of sea bass with cream of japlapeño, gel citrus and pickled half-radishes which was attractively presented and full of flavour. We both found the next course innovative and interesting; Iberico ‘Pluma’ (a cut from behind the neck of the pig which is exceptionally tender) with chestnuts and fried girolle mushrooms served on a ‘mushroom toast’ which amazingly, in spite of the scrumptious sauce, remained crispy. It decorated with two tiny mushrooms was a delicious little culinary work of art. (Congrats to Chef Slembrouck!) To accompany these we drank a 2015 Portuguese albariño-type wine from the Qunita de Sapiera which was a perfect complement. The main course was another inventive dish; a portion of rib eye grilled in the ‘Josper,’ (a state-of-the-art charcoal grill/ oven which imparts a smoky flavour, a bit like an indoor barbeque – now something of a chefs’ favourite toy). It was served with glazed carrots and turnip, sesame and yuzu (the trendy new Japanese fruit with a lemon/mandarin/ grapefruit flavour) another splendid dish. An Acustic 2015 from Monsant wine was scheduled to accompany this but we elected to stick with our first bottle. Pudding was another pretty dish; cream cheese and yogurt with raspberries, pearls of beetroot and wine vinegar. It was also a fine ending to a memorable meal – and an even more unforgettable visit.
Can you wonder we were sorry to leave Bruges!
Patricia and Dennis travelled with Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283, www.kirkerholidays.com
Kirker offers short breaks and tailor-made holidays to Bruges from £467 per person including three nights’ accommodation with breakfast at the Hotel Heritage, return travel by Eurostar via Brussels, A Bruges Museum Pass offering access to the Groeninge Museum, Kirker Guide notes to the best restaurants and sightseeing and the services of the Kirker Concierge to arrange private guides, tickets for exhibitions and events, or book a table at a recommended restaurant.