Travel writer Maggie Hall strikes Bruges off the “to do” list, and gives a rave review of the city and her hotel, the Heritage.

Over many years of going to many places, somehow Bruges never became the destination. Well, I’m now happy to confirm that there is something in the maxim: save the best to last. Finally I have crossed the Belgian medieval gem off the “must-do” list.

My three day trip, to the Venice of the North, turned into everything I hoped for. Classic doses of culture, stimulating slices of sight-seeing and massive amounts of interesting eating and drinking experiences.

And on top of all this, the hotel I stayed in was so wonderful, I now have to revise my mantra that where you stay doesn’t matter. I would have loved Bruges – it is after all, a World Heritage Site – without, the appropriately named, Hotel Heritage. But with it, my visit was turned into a treat of a trip.

Hotel Heritage, BrugesWith 20 rooms and four suites it’s “boutique”, but has none of the pretensions frequently accompanying such establishments. The secret is more than its extreme elegance, attention to detail, charming history and quiet but central location. At the heart of its immense appeal are the owners, Johan and Isabelle Creytens. Not only are they personable, they are hands-on. One of them is very likely to check you in, while the other valet parks your car.

A hotel for 15 years, the building which was largely built in 1869 – and has been various grand homes and businesses – dates back to 1390. Remains of its earliest days are vividly on display in the tiny basement gym. There’s something inspiring about sweating away on a treadmill alongside a 600 year-old arched column.

The top of the hotel is just as breathtaking. With exquisite care the attic has been converted into the suites. Magnificent beams are a feature, dividing the sleeping and sitting space. But the design-highlight are the giant skylights. Apart from flooding the suites with sparkling light, they offer scintillating views over, above and around the towering brick spires, red-pantile roofs and wonky chimneys of ancient Bruges. Stick your head out and a distinct Mary Poppins feel takes over!

But enough of viewing this ancient city from this lovely, lofty perch. Time to hit the quaint, cobbled streets and alley-ways of Bruges. There is a multitude of essential things to do. But there is no argument about the best way to start: a boat ride on the network of narrow waterways, weaving around some of the most historic and picture-worthy buildings and homes in Europe.

I’m sure all the canal-guides are great. But on the basis that there’s always a “greater”, we lucked-out with the urbane Pierre Pesch. Not only was his English impeccable but his rather dry sense of humor, with lots of wry asides about life yesterday and today, in this the heart of Flemish society, made what could have been a routine commentary into a delightful introduction to Bruges. And as we alighted he pointed out the Church of Our Lady, just across the bridge from the canal-stop he operates from. It houses what is, for some, the greatest attraction: Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. As Pierre told us: “It is so special that our tiny city should have something so wonderfully unique.”

The delicate, marble statue, at the baroque altar, has been a part of Bruges since 1504. But it’s not the only thing to gaze upon. An enormous treasure trove of art graces the church. As it does the whole of the city. As our boat-driver friend opined: “Bruges is stuffed to the rafters with antiquities”.

Virtually next door are the two museums that are “musts”. The Groeninge is home to some of the finest Flemish paintings. While the Gruuthuse provides a glimpse into what life for a medieval noble-family was like. An eye-catcher is the 500-year-old kitchen. Now there’s a nudge in a right direction…..time to taste some of Bruges’ famed culinary staples.

In the end – after the requisite intellectual and sight-seeing pursuits, of which climbing the 366 steps of the 13 Century Belfry for the spectacular view is another must – indulgent taste-testing sessions are the only way of deciding which are the best waffles, hot-chocolates, chocolates and beers.

We fell into beer tasting without thinking about it. The owner of the small lunch restaurant was so lyrical about the quality of the wide-range of beers he offered, we couldn’t resist trying more than one or two. Make that three or more. In the end we worked on the principle that we were involved in testing a vital element of what makes Bruges tick.

That we were compelled to take a “nap” afterwards was made all the more pleasurable because we weren’t in just any old hotel room – but one that oozed old-fashioned Flemish style, with distinctive modern comforts.

When dinner-time rolls around, things become problematic. The choices are enormous. But, as Bruges is so compact (we never took a taxi) it’s easy to stroll from here to there, checking out a dozen likely spots, in five minutes. But for our first night we knew where we were going. Willemijn had been recommended to us, as away from the tourist throng that settles around The Markt. It was barely a 10 minute walk off the main visitor track. The fact it didn’t work out taught us an important Bruges lesson: most restaurants close during the week for one, even two nights.

The next night we walked another 10 minutes, or so, to Tom’s Diner. The name did not fill us with much confidence. But we were promised it was exactly what we were looking for: family run, providing local food for a local crowd. And it was, we were assured, open. Wrong. Though we darn near beat the door down to make sure it was closed. It looked just right.

Even so, on both evenings we ended up in restaurants we loved – Shrijverke and De Schilder – feasting on eel, rabbit and Flemish stew. In the first one our evening was made, not just by the food, but the delightful Alice. Any server whom, after you’ve declined to taste the house-wine tells you breezily to send it back anyway if you don’t like it, is gold. The second spot was tucked away, overlooking the peaceful dead-end of a canal. We patted ourselves on the back that we’d stumbled on such a “find”.

We never did get stuck into a bowl of mussels. Although the de rigueur dish, we couldn’t get anyone to recommend a place. The answer was: “I don’t know – I only eat them at home.” We found out why. At over £12.50 an order they were way too expensive.

On our last day we discovered the “real” Bruges – in St Anna’s Parish, on the Eastern edge of the city. We walked into the area to look at windmills. They get scant mention in the guidebooks, while the overall attraction of the neighborhood is ignored. But then that makes it all the more exciting to find out about.

From the center we strolled up Carmersstraat, and were immediately struck that we were where the local people lived, two storey row houses, intercepted with grander buildings and churches just as old and art-stuffed as those on the official tour. Even here, as around the canals and the magnificent architecture of the center of the city, there was a picture-postcard view at every turn. Thank goodness for digital cameras!

At the end of Carmersstraat we were presented with a dilemma. There on opposite corners – facing the windmills – were two very inviting bar/restaurants. We would have loved to have eaten in either but we couldn’t face an early lunch. We almost cursed the splendid buffet breakfast, with its cheeses, smoked fish, deli-meats, bacon, sausage and fruits, served at the Heritage.

After poking around the windmills, and walking along the canal, we headed back via St Anna’s main street, Peperstraat. Nothing to do with the name, but it is peppered with restaurants and what might look like hole-in-the-wall bars but are many notches up. Happily we were ready for something to eat when we saw café Hof Van Beroep, which translates into “court of appeal”. It’s opposite the Bruges court house. Hence, as well as laborers and office and shop workers, we sat alongside lawyers.

Owner Hans Tempelaere told us why we liked the area. “You’re in one of the oldest parts of Bruges but it is not touristic. This is where the local people live and where other residents of the city come to eat.” In other words: off the main tourist-drag of a famed city but so much going for it. A vital part of an exciting city…..

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