On Christ­mas shop­ping in Bruges

Fly to buy in one of Europe’s most beau­ti­ful cities

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - WIL­LIAM COOK THE SPEC­TA­TOR

MOST Bel­gians of my ac­quain­tance tend to be rather dis­parag­ing about Bruges. It’s a theme park, they say, a Flem­ish Dis­ney­land. An­twerp is live­lier, Ghent is more au­then­tic. A lot of its his­toric build­ings are ac­tu­ally clever fakes.

All of this is true, but that doesn’t stop it be­ing one of Europe’s most beau­ti­ful cities — and an ideal desti­na­tion for Christ­mas shop­ping. Given the choice be­tween Bruges and West­field, I know which shop­ping cen­tre I’d choose.

Like a lot of pretty cities, Bruges is a mon­u­ment to boom and bust. Com­merce paid for its or­nate me­dieval ar­chi­tec­ture, but then the river silted up and Bruges be­came a back­wa­ter.

Pre­served by poverty, it was re­dis­cov­ered by the Vic­to­ri­ans as a ro­man­tic refuge from mod­ern life. To­day’s tourists are merely the lat­est in a long line of es­capist trav­ellers, look­ing for some­where un­sul­lied by moder­nity (with all the mod cons, of course).

Nat­u­rally, it’s a fan­tasy, but Bruges has learnt to play the part. Horse-drawn car­riages clip-clop across the cob­bles; real life is cun­ningly con­cealed be­hind taste­ful mot­tled-brick fa­cades. Sure, it’s like a stage set — but who cares?

The only headache is sidestep­ping the stam­pedes of like-minded pun­ters, all traips­ing round the same must-see sights.

In­evitably, it’s im­pos­si­ble to es­cape the crowds com­pletely, but the big tour groups rarely stray too far from the Belfort (Bruges’ flam­boy­ant bell tower). Keep a wide berth from the Grote Markt (the city’s cen­tral square) and you’ll shake off the brash­est sight­seers. A five-minute walk away, you could be in another city — not the Bruges of guide­book mythol­ogy but an au­then­tic, at­mo­spheric place where lo­cal peo­ple live and work.

The best way to avoid the coach par­ties is to stay the night. A lot of visi­tors are daytrip­pers, and most are gone by night­fall. Bruges is at its best at dawn and dusk.

Ho­tel Dukes Palace is a mock-Gothic man­sion hid­den down a quiet back street. De Tui­lerieen (a mem­ber of Small Lux­ury Ho­tels of the World) is a grand town­house over­look­ing the canal. La Mai­son Ze­nasni is a charm­ing B&B (with a self­ca­ter­ing apart­ment in the at­tic) in a splen­did 18th­cen­tury build­ing only mo­ments from the Markt. So now you’re here, what to buy? Well, choco­late is a must. Even the masspro­duced stuff is de­li­cious. For some­thing more un­usual, try The Choco­late Line on Si­mon Stev­in­plein, one of the city’s loveli­est lit­tle squares. This is the flag­ship store of the so-called shock­o­latier Do­minique Per­soone. Some of his flavours sound im­prob­a­ble (laven­der, lemon­grass, Tabasco), but I’ve never tasted one I didn’t like.

How­ever, my favourite shop in Bruges is the Mu­seum Shop on Arentshof. Housed in a hand­some old coach house, this is a cut above the usual sou­venir stall. It sells classy books, jew­ellery and repli­cas from Bruges’ best mu­se­ums.

Bruges may be a mu­seum writ large, but it’s no more ar­ti­fi­cial than Venice and, like Venice, it’s one of those cities that you sim­ply have to see at least once.

Ad­vent is the best time to visit. Go for the Christ­mas Mar­ket, which runs from Novem­ber un­til New Year.

ALAMY

The Choco­late Line, far left, is on one of the city’s loveli­est squares; grand De Tui­lerieen, left

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