Taste the silence, drinking the ‘World’s Best Beer’ in Bruges

It’s hard to imagine that the small, sleepy town of Bruges (or Brugge to give it its more appropriate Flemish name) was once a major centre for international trade. Yet by the 14th century it was famous for taking English wool and turning it into some of the finest and most desirable cloth in the world. It was an immensely lucrative business and Bruges grew fabulously wealthy.

Just at it attracts tourists from all corners of the world today, at the height of Bruges’ power in the 15th century, goods from all over Europe passed through its port on the River Zwin. War and competition from other cities, particularly Antwerp, reduced Bruges’ influence and wealth; but its death knell came when the River Zwin silted up and ships could no longer reach the North Sea.

Oude Civiele Griffie, Burg, Bruges, Belgium

Oude Civiele Griffie, Burg, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort and Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort and Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

By the 1530s Bruges’ long, slow decline was complete, and something truly extraordinary happened. Bruges was deserted by its people and forgotten by the world. Houses were abandoned, industries closed down, the port was empty, the canals unused. Bruges became a ghost town. Bypassed by history, it slipped into obscurity.

Unimportant politically, economically or militarily, Bruges was saved the ravages of centuries of European conflict, preserving its medieval buildings, cobbled streets and canals until the present. Tourism is its lifeblood today and, bizarrely, it was tourism that saved Bruges from obscurity.

Early 19th century British tourists, on their way to view the battlefield of Waterloo, stumbled upon a medieval town frozen in time and barely touched by modern life. Word spread quickly and Bruges got the nickname of the ‘Venice of the North’. Its fate was sealed. Tourism has been growing ever since, and now a town of fewer than 120,000 people receives over 2 million visitors each year.

Bruges’ Golden Age has bequeathed posterity an historical treasure trove – its medieval centre has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. The best way to see it is to stroll through its narrow streets, preferably with frequent stops to sample some of the extraordinary Belgium beers on offer.

If you’re in Bruges it would be rude not to try the beer. There is said to be a different bar for each night of the year, and at least two of them serve over 500 different types of beer. Faced with so much choice, decision making is very difficult, if not impossible. We headed to the delightful Cafe Red Rose which specialises in Trappist beers (motto “Trappist beer … taste the silence”).

It was here that I sampled the beer considered to be the best in the world, the dark, strong and decidedly tasty Westvleteren XII. At a hefty €15 per bottle it really had to be tasty. It’s not easy to get your hands on a bottle, the monks who make it only produce 126,000 gallons of the stuff a year and demand is high. They refuse to make more simply saying, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford to be monks.”

Begijnhof, Bruges, Belgium

Begijnhof, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Provinciaal Hof, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Westvleteren XII is strong stuff, and we were a bit wobbly on our feet as we left. Back on the streets, we meandered until we came across the Sint-Janshospitaal Museum. This 800-year old hospital has a great permanent collection, including a number of Flemish Primitives, but had a special exhibition called ‘Bruegel’s Witches’. After drinking the Westvleteren, a bit of witchcraft seemed appropriate.

It was a fascinating exhibition (it runs until June 26th), less for the actual exhibits as for the story it told. Although the idea of witches had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until 1565 that the stereotype of a wart-covered ugly old woman with a black cat and cauldron took root in the popular imagination. This image was invented by Bruegel the Elder and is still with us 450-years later.

Beer, Bruges, Belgium

Beer, Bruges, Belgium

Sign in the Cafe Red Rose, Bruges, Belgium

Sign in the Cafe Red Rose, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and medieval buildings at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and medieval buildings at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Belfort at night, Markt, Bruges, Belgium

After that bewitching experience, we set off to sample some more Belgian beers and to indulge in some of Bruges’ fine cuisine before heading to France and the Loire Valley …

A weekend in medieval Bruges

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?”

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Canals and bridges and cobbled streets, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

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.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

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.

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

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.

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Medieval buildings and canals, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Markt, Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

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.