TRAVEL: More to Belgium than Bruges and booze

A typical street scene in Bruges. Photo: Jan D'Hondt.
A typical street scene in Bruges. Photo: Jan D'Hondt.
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THINK of Belgium, and beer and chocolate immediately spring to mind.

Yes, this popular European territory is famed for its variety of lip-smacking fine ales and delicious sugary treats, with seemingly a chocolate shop at every turn! But this only scratches the surface.

Swans on the canalside in Bruges. Photo: Jan D'Hondt.

Swans on the canalside in Bruges. Photo: Jan D'Hondt.

Delve deeper and your eyes are instantly opened to an abundance of cultural sights waiting to be explored, where old and contemporary collide. From the hustle and bustle of the industrious capital Brussels to the time-locked Flemish treasures of Bruges and Damme, there’s something for everyone. It is indeed, Europe in a Nutshell.

Our 72-hour stay begins with a leisurely hours’ drive from Brussels’ international airport to the well-preserved historic city of Bruges, a UNESCO world heritage site with its maze of delightful canals, bridges, meandering alleyways and cobbled streets.

Taking to these picture-postcard thoroughfares, it’s easy to fall in love with this unique city, referred to as the Venice of the North.

Strolling in the footsteps of film stars – the city was the location for the 2008 action flick In Bruges starring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes – brings you across such architectural delights as the medieval Belfort tower and the Provincial Court in city’s beating heart, The Markt.

View towards The Church of Our Lady in Bruges. Photo: Jan D'Hondt.

View towards The Church of Our Lady in Bruges. Photo: Jan D'Hondt.

Other highlights among the flurry of museums and art galleries include the towering Church of Our Lady, the grand City Hall in the Burg square and the former Hospital of Saint John.

After you awake from your historical reverie, you face your next challenge, dining out. The city is renowned for its gastronomy, from cosy cafes and trendy bistros right up to Michelin-starred restaurants; there’s plenty to whet your appetite.

This bike-friendly city offers the ideal opportunity to take to two wheels – or alternatively boat or foot – for a scenic jaunt along tree-lined canal-paths.

Six kilometres northeast of Bruges is the picturesque medieval town of Damme, one locked in time where our tour guide readily admits “nothing really changes”.

STUNNING: The gothic Town Hall in the famous Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium. Photo contributed.

STUNNING: The gothic Town Hall in the famous Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium. Photo contributed.

Billed as Flanders in a nutshell, Damme, like Bruges, is renowned for its gathering of gastronomical delights as well as its history – sites of interest here include the gothic Town Hall, the imposing Damme Church and, if you look really carefully, the remnants of this former port’s star-shaped fortifications. A beautiful working windmill stands tall on one side of the canal.

Lunch is taken overlooking the market place at Eetcafé De Spieghel, offering appetizing Belgian and French cuisine.

Back in Bruges, and no visit would be complete without a trip to the city’s oldest chocolate business Chocolaterie Suckerbuyc, or an entertaining 45-minute guided tour of the inner workings of the city’s last working brewery, De Halve Mann. The latter costs 6.50 euro per person, beer tasting included, but the 200-plus steps ensure you earn your prized tipple. You can also enjoy a hearty lunch in the tavern.

From the capital of chocolate to the capital of Europe, we leave the Flemish region behind and conclude our tour in Brussels.

BUSTLING: A typical narrow cobbled street in Brussels, lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. Photo contributed.

BUSTLING: A typical narrow cobbled street in Brussels, lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. Photo contributed.

At first glance a business city and residence to the decision-makers of Europe, behind this modern façade is a stunning range of diverse architecture, and at forefront is the must-see Grand Place. Surrounded by the Town Hall, Guildhalls and the Breadhouse, each remarkable in their own right, they together make-up one of the most beautiful squares in the world – an amazing sight illuminated at night.

And amid the shops and glass colonnades are warrens of narrow streets lined with restaurants and cafes serving up a cacophony of international fare, summed up by our own dining experience – from trendy eatery Switch to the more traditional Restaurant Vincent.

All in all, a visit’s sure to leave you drunk… on Belgian culture!

FACT FILE

Getting there: bmi Regional offers two flights per day from Leeds Bradford to Brussels on weekdays with one flight on Sundays. Fares start from just £60 one way including taxes and charges. They also fly to Brussels from East Midlands Airport: two flights a day Monday-Friday, one flight on Sundays, fares from £65 one way including taxes and charges.

Accommodation: We stayed at the central three-star Novotel Brugge Centrum and the luxury four-star boutique hotel The Dominican, Brussels.

Interested?: For further information about visiting Brussels and Bruges, contact Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 (Live Operator Line, Mon – Fri).