Anyone who’s watched the expletive-filled Colin Farrell movie, In Bruges, about two hitmen hiding out in Belgium’s most visited tourist destination, knows that its medieval charms are completely lost on the film’s main protagonist. Ray, played by Farrell, says at one point, “At least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in f***in’ Bruges … maybe that’s what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f***in’ Bruges.”
When told that Bruges isn’t Ray’s ‘thing’, his gangster employer is incredulous: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f*****g thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f*****g fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”
It’s a very dark, not very politically correct comedy, utterly out of place in an historic town like Bruges. Which is sort of the point, I suppose. Yet, even while Ray rails against the tedium of Bruges, the city provides a stunning backdrop to the film. The tongue-in-cheek tone of the abuse seems to be a matter of pride for Bruges’ inhabitants, who have adopted the film as their own.
Bruges really is a fairytale medieval town but it’s also small. Tourist numbers in the summer can overwhelm its perfectly preserved medieval centre. Ray was forced to spend two weeks in Bruges, most tourists come on day trips so don’t need to worry about entertaining themselves for too long. We were there for a couple of days and nights, and I can sympathise with him a little.
Some late Spring sunshine had convinced us to hire a car and set off on a road trip for a few days. We were headed for the Loire Valley in France, but Bruges has been on our wish list for a while and helped break the journey. Spring is a good time to visit the town, flowers are blooming and, even on a weekend, tourist numbers aren’t so great that it feels crowded.
We arrived late and hadn’t realised that almost every restaurant in Bruges is closed by 10pm. I can imagine what Ray might have said about that. We’d been driving for hours and were feeling a bit desperate, but the hotel receptionist told us about a restaurant open until 2am. We thought it would be an overpriced tourist joint, but Christophe had excellent food and great service.
The next morning we set off to walk Bruges cobbled streets, winding our way alongside and over beautiful canals, meandered past ancient medieval buildings and through picture-postcard-perfect squares. In the early morning, with just a few dog walkers for company and the sun reflecting ancient buildings in the mirror-like canals, Bruges is extraordinarily beautiful.
The remarkably well preserved highlight of Bruges is the Markt, the old market place. It’s a vast open space surrounded by gabled buildings, the Provinciaal Hof palace and the most dominant structure in town, the 83-metre high 13th century Belfort. It’s fabulous, and largely pedestrianised, but by mid-morning it was busy with tour groups.
The Belfort, and the 365 steps that take you to the top, inevitably feature in In Bruges. There is one excruciating scene when Ray is particularly unkind about an overweight American family’s chances of getting to the top of the tower. When challenged to go up and take the view himself, Ray responds: “The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here.” We decided to take his advice and stayed on the ground.