With Colin Farrell in Bruges
On the trail of two Irish hitmen in a genteel city of great diversity
1 MEDIEVAL MEETS MODERN
“A great place to die,” Irish actor Colin Farrell observed, writing in the visitors’ book of Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce (Burgundy Cross Inn), the small, luxe hotel with a rich past and present that was home to cast members of the 2008 hit film In Bruges. As Irish hitmen, Farrell and co-star Brendan Gleeson confront death here in Bruges, as did Valois duke Philip the Good, about 550 years earlier. The Burgundian Valois dukes, 15th-century rivals of the French crown, married into Bruges, where they built castles and held court with great princely pageantry. They lived well, enriching the city and its merchants, whose stepped-gable houses, civic buildings and art survive. The Old Town is a vibrant museum of their relics. But Bruges, an hour by train from Brussels, or two from London, also has a quirky modern style. Japanese artist Toyo Ito’s pavilion and pool on The Burg city square is a modern rarity, but the city’s cobbled streets and old buildings foster eccentricity. Its heart pulses with individual takes on the past, such as Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, which started life as a canalside merchant’s house (with gates in its watery cellars for medieval traders’ boat-docking). Arm yourself with a Bruges City Card and explore unusual galleries and a network of photogenic canals. A half-hour Bruges by Boat canal tour gives you a different perspective from the water of trailing tree branches and cruising white swans. Boats leave from five landing stages, March to mid-November. It’s a free trip with the City Card; from €46 ($70) for 48 hours. More: bruggecitycard.be.
2 NOW SEE THIS
There are museums devoted to diamonds, beer, torture, lace, Belgian fries, chocolate and lamps. Open to visitors, one of Europe’s oldest preserved hospitals, Sint-Janshospitaal, has wards, furniture, paintings, an apothecary and herb garden, and chapel. In a set of 17th-century almshouses, Volkskundemuseum features traditional workshops (cobblers, coopers, and milliners), classroom, inn, domestic interiors, and the history of the city’s traditional puppet show, Den Uyl. Art museums are equally diverse. Groeningemuseum spans Belgian art history from the Flemish Primitives (Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling), the museum’s speciality, to post-war moderns. In the Picasso Museum’s dark-panelled rooms and corridors, 120 of his original engravings, drawings, illustrations, ceramics and paintings accompany 200 works by friends such as Marc Chagall, Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Georges Braque and Claude Monet. Or imbibe history in the single wondrous room of polychrome-frescoed walls and vaulted ceilings at the 14th-century Stadhuis (City Hall) on The Burg. More: bezoekers.brugge.be/museums-and-places-of-interest.
3 CLOISTERED PEACE
The Princely (those Burgundian dukes again) Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde was founded in 1245. The last of the Beguines, semi-monastic Catholic religieuse, lived here until 1926. The white-painted, steppedgable houses, with dark roofs and a convent garden, are now a UNESCO World Heritage site occupied by Benedictine nuns since the late 1920s. The Beguinage (free entry) opens daily (there’s a museum in one of the 17thcentury houses), 6.30am to 6.30pm (on the dot). Different hours (and entry fee) for the Beguinale House.
4 SACRED RELICS
There is nothing sedate or retiring about OnzeLieve-Vrouwekerk, the Church of Our Lady, in the city centre. Its 115.5m medieval brick tower is the world’s second highest of its kind. Inside this chaotic treasure cave, gold-robed statues, soaring marble columns, high-arched windows, painted sepulchres, a goldcrowned Virgin above an offering of white lilies, and countless precious artefacts vie with scaffolding and cordoned-off areas, where ancient figures carved into the stone wall are emerging, uncovered during restorations. A prized possession is Michelangelo’s life-size whitemarble Madonna and Child. Take a leisurely canalside walk to Our Lady of the Pottery (Onze-Lieve-VrouwterPotterie), a 13th-century nuns’ hospital for pilgrims and travellers, now a museum of monastic relics, early nursing objects and paintings; its gothic church also has a baroque interior crammed with artefacts.
5 IN THE STEPS OF COLIN FARRELL
Seeking a spectacular view, visitors queue to climb the narrow, winding 366-step stairway of the 83m Belfry, scene of murder and mayhem in In Bruges. Pink, mirrored Gallery Xpo, in the tower, houses Salvador Dali graphics and statues.
6 DELICIOUS FINDS
Brilliantly coloured tapestries, lace (look for antique pieces at markets), linen (Linen House is good value) and chocolate are traditional souvenirs. But bypass chocolate beer stein displays and head for The Chocolate Line (Simon Stevenplein, 19), an innovative local creator. Family business Pralinette is the place for handmade delicacies from finest sugar-free chocolate and Patisserie Academie has Gault-Millau’s imprimatur for pastries. Explore Dijver Antique Market (weekends, March-November); food and flower markets (on Wednesdays, Market Square) and the open-sided old Fish Market (Vismarkt) for photo ops. Encyclopaedic vintage shop Madame Mim is at Hoogstraat, 29. More: thechocolateline.be; pralinette.be; patisserieacademie.be.
7 KEEP TURNING
An hour and a half’s walk out of town along a picturesque canal leads to Bruges’s four surviving windmills atop the city’s ancient ramparts. Two mills are open to the public: the 1770s Sint-Janshuismolen and Koeleweimolen. Steep wooden steps (like sturdy, nearvertical ladders) lead up the outside wall to a high door; inside, see a working grain mill and spectacular views.
8 BAR FLY
Slip into charming, four-star Hotel De Orangerie and pass the flower-decked atrium to find a snug, secluded corner lounge bar known as Salon. Though open to the public, I remain undisturbed, curled in a deep, button-studded lounge, cocktail in hand, amid fresh flowers and canal views. More: hotelorangerie.be.
9 DIVERSE DINING
Celebrated young chef Bernard Bonte champions innovation at Bonte B. Amuse-bouches include goat’s cheese cream, miso crumbs and crunchy savoury praline; shards of crystalline salt pierce whipped table butter. Chicken wafts in on a potent aroma of truffles, following an entree of razor clams, tiny orange mussels (at their best in July-August), micro leaves, purees and Asian flavours. At the traditional end of the spectrum, 400-year-old eating house De Koetse serves dishes such as waterzooi (fish or chicken soup with potatoes), steaks from a big open grill, fresh-daily North Sea fish (the sole meunière is heavenly), mussels, lobsters and eel. More: restaurantbonteb.be; dekoetse-brugge.be. 10 At Grand Hotel Casselbergh, a few guestrooms high in the roof retain their medieval ceiling b beams and rustic air. Elsewhere, the hotel is palatial, with wide staircases, chandeliers, paintings, 118 deeply comfortable chambers, and a spa in the 13th-century cellars. Or, with 16 individually styled guestrooms, Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce (pictured) stands directly over the canal. Comfortable antiques, rugs, flowers and valuable original paintings, a waterside tea terrace and beautiful breakfast room (sip morning coffee at Gleeson’s favourite canalside window), spell intimacy and welcoming warmth. More: grandhotelcasselbergh.com; relaisbourgondischecruyce.be.
Belfry Tower and Dijver Canal, top; Groeningmuseum, known for its Flemish art, centre right; The Chocolate Line, centre left; Brendan Gleeson, left, and Colin Farrell in In Bruges, above; one of Bruges’s four surviving windmills, below