TRAVEL: Keep things simple with a mini-break in Belgium

All pictures by Lawrence Smith
All pictures by Lawrence Smith
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Sometimes, when picking a travel destination it’s a good idea to think small, especially if you’re only going away for a few days.

The hustle and bustle of big cities like Paris will always have a certain appeal but the amount of frantic sight-seeing involved can be exhausting.

All pictures by Lawrence Smith

All pictures by Lawrence Smith

That’s why I recommend Bruges. It’s a destination for those who want a getaway where they can actually get away for a short while.

Bruges is a very small city and it’s famous for its tranquil atmosphere, excellent food and impressive selection of beers and chocolates. Visitors don’t need to worry about trying to speak French or Flemish, as most restaurant staff speak English and actually prefer it if you stick to this lingua franca.

A good tourist company will help keep things simple too by providing a loose structure to the holiday and showing visitors most of the sights early on.

When we went to Bruges in August, my travelling companions and I chose Riviera Travel. They meet up with you in the channel tunnel, escort you onto a coach at Lille and give you a guided tour of the city. The company also provides a boat trip along the canals, as well as a day-trip to Ypres.

All pictures by Lawrence Smith

All pictures by Lawrence Smith

We arrived in Bruges at about 5pm on the first day. After dropping off our bags at our hotel – Martin’s Brugge just behind the belfry – my travelling companions and I went out for a meal. At our first restaurant of the trip, Belle Epoque in Zuidzandstraat, I had a delicious cheese croquette for starters, followed by heavily spiced chicken with fries. My drink, Kasteelbier, packed quite a punch at 11% but the high alcohol content gave it a pleasant sweetness that’s hard to find in weaker beers. During our holiday we went to many other charming pubs and restaurants where the food and drink was equally fantastic.

We spent the rest of the evening taking in Bruges at night time. Day-trippers usually head home before 8pm, so the cobbled streets were virtually deserted by the time we’d finished our meal.

It’s definitely worth exploring the city at night. The odd but pretty architecture – complete with those strange crow-stepped gables – takes on a magical character thanks to the soft yellow lighting and occasional streaks of neon pink and blue from trendy bars. It’s also a time to get a good view of the fabulous shop window displays with hundreds of brightly coloured chocolates, sweets and toys competing for the viewer’s attention.

The fountain in t’Zand square is striking at night with its bronze cyclists, mermaids and fisherman looking otherworldly and noble.

All pictures by Lawrence Smith

All pictures by Lawrence Smith

The next day (our first full day) started with a guided tour, from the huge 12th century belfry in the market square to the whimsical Church of Our Lady in Mariastraat.

With the weather remaining cool and mild, we were lead along picturesque canals and through narrow old-fashioned alleyways to see all the sights, like the peaceful Minnewater Lake and its swans and the ornate Basilica of the Holy Blood.

After the tour, we made our own way through the city, following a widening canal, past Jan Van Eyckplein and its statue of this celebrated renaissance artist, towards the north east corner of Bruges to see a trio of windmills awaiting us.

Our second full day began with a soothing boat trip along the canals. The driver pointed to sights we’d already seen, but the ride itself gave us a very different perspective of the city, taking us past fascinating homes and hotels that back onto the water. Our driver pointed out the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce hotel, recognizable to film lovers as a major location for the movie In Bruges. We also caught a glimpse of the city’s most famous four-legged resident, Fidel, a Labrador who’s often seen slumped over a window frame, either dozing or happily watching the world go by. Try a quick Google search for evidence of this canine’s popularity.

A boat ride is fun but be warned: the canal tour passes under a lot of bridges, including the lowest one in Bruges. Tall people are advised to duck.

That afternoon, Riviera Travel took us on a coach trip to Ypres.

However, before we got to the city itself, our coach stopped at the understated Hill 62 memorial, built to honour the Canadians who fought in the First World War. Afterwards, we had just enough time for a brief look around Sanctuary Wood Museum, a quirky establishment with an enormous trove of First World War weapons, shells, posters, uniforms, medals and photographs.

The museum also has a section of genuine First World War trenches, which offer a grim insight into the conditions that soldiers had to endure. Our next stop, In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, was a bit underwhelming in comparison. It’s housed in the spectacular Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle), which was rebuilt after being completely destroyed in the war, but the items on show aren’t particularly interesting. However, the museum does offer a full explanation of how and why the war happened in chronological order and I found it far more informative than Sanctuary Wood.

If you want to get a sense of how many British and Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives in the war then it’s important to visit the Menin Gate before leaving Ypres. The walls of this giant memorial are covered in names, engraved in Portland Stone panels, to commemorate 54,389 soldiers who have no known grave.

Tyne Cot cemetery offers a sobering experience too. It’s well-kept with row after row of simple white tombstones, each in memory of one fallen soldier. Some of the stones are inscribed with names and ages, but many represent unidentified fighters. The simple words “Known Unto God” highlight the painful reality of war.

On the final day, we were back in Bruges for a chocolate demonstration in the wonderful smelling workshop of the Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc, which apparently means ‘sugar belly’ in English.

It’s a small family business that specialises in all sorts of fine hand-made chocolates. One of their exclusive products is an edible box, the facade of which is actually a meticulously detailed image of Bruges scenery, actually painted in chocolate.

It would be nice to say that the trip ended on this sweet note, but we actually had a few hours to explore the city before heading back to Lille, during which we were drenched by torrential rain. However, seeing as the weather in Bruges is very changeable, I think we were lucky overall.

Besides, with the city’s abundance of restaurants, bars and high street shops, it’s nice to have an excuse to go inside for a bit of retail therapy.

Our trip to Bruges

Dates: Sunday, August 17, to Wednesday, August 20

Journey and accommodation: £339 per person (plus small single room supplement). Booked through Riviera Travel. Visit www.rivieratravel.co.uk.

Where we stayed: Martin’s Brugge, 5 Oude Burg. Click here to find out more.