Most Belgians of my acquaintance tend to be rather disparaging about Bruges. It’s a theme park, they say, a Flemish Disneyland. Antwerp is livelier, Ghent is more authentic. A lot of its historic buildings are actually clever fakes. All of this is true, but that doesn’t stop it being one of Europe’s most beautiful cities — and an ideal destination for Christmas shopping. Given the choice between Bruges and Westfield, I know which shopping centre I’d choose.
Like a lot of pretty cities, Bruges is a monument to boom and bust. Commerce paid for its ornate medieval architecture, but then the river silted up and Bruges became a backwater. Preserved by poverty, it was rediscovered by the Victorians as a romantic refuge from modern life. Today’s tourists are merely the latest in a long line of escapist travellers, all looking for somewhere unsullied by modernity (with all mod cons, of course).
Naturally it’s a fantasy, but Bruges has learnt to play the part: horse-drawn carriages clip-clop across the cobbles; real life is cunningly concealed behind tasteful mottled-brick facades. Sure, it’s like a stage set — but who cares? The only headache is sidestepping the stampedes of like-minded punters, all traipsing round the same must-see sights.
Inevitably it’s impossible to escape the crowds completely, but the big tour groups rarely stray too far from the Belfort (Bruges’s flamboyant bell tower). Keep a wide berth from the Grote Markt (the city’s central square) and you’ll shake off the brashest sightseers. A five-minute walk away, you could be in another city — not the Bruges of guidebook mythology, but an authentic, atmospheric place where local people live and work.
The best way to avoid the coach parties is to stay the night. A lot of visitors are daytrippers, and most are gone by nightfall. Bruges is at its best at dawn and dusk. The Duke’s Palace is a mock-Gothic mansion hidden down a quiet back street. De Tuilerieen is a grand townhouse overlooking the canal. La Maison Zenasni is a charming B&B (with a self-catering apartment in the attic) in a splendid 18th-century building only moments from the Markt.
So now you’re here, what to buy? Well, chocolate is a must. Even the mass-produced stuff is delicious. For something more unusual, try the Chocolate Line on Simon Stevinplein, one of the city’s loveliest little squares. This is the flagship store of the ‘shockolatier’ Dominique Persoone. Some of his flavours sound improbable (lavender, lemongrass, Tabasco) but I’ve never tasted one I didn’t like.
However, my favourite shop in Bruges is the Museum Shop on Arentshof. Housed in a handsome old coach house, this is a cut above the usual souvenir stall. It sells classy books, jewellery and replicas from Bruges’s best museums. Bruges may be a museum writ large, but it’s no more artificial than Venice — and like Venice, it’s one of those cities you simply have to see at least once. Advent is the best time to visit. Come for the Christmas Market, which opens on 22 November and runs until New Year.