CHRISTMAS IN BRUGES

Bruges, Belgium  |  December 23 to 25, 2017

Find me a better place in Europe to spend Christmas and I'll give you a prize; I can confidently say that because I know it doesn't exist. Bruges (or Brugge as the Dutch spell it), dominates the charts when ranking the most charming cities in Europe. As a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bruges is a thousand-year-old economic hub that was once—and to a certain extent still is—the wonder of merchants and people from all over. I'd been planning a trip to Bruges for some time, and was overjoyed to finally be there—especially considering Christmas was just a few hours away.

Regardless of how you arrive, making your way to the Markt at the city center is the picture-perfect first stop. Beginning in the 13th century, Bruges became the crossroads of the Hanseatic League trade routes—the Markt played a pivotal role in the facilitation of commerce. The city became so successful, it was dubbed the Venice of the North. With canals and the adoption of merchant-capitalism, it is no wonder why the nickname stuck. The success of that era allowed the keepers of Bruges to build architectural wonders—many which still stand to this very day. The Markt is among the most beautiful, with traditional row houses lining one side; the monumental Belfry of Bruges (Belfort van Brugge) opposite the Markt; the Hostorium Bruges on the east side; and of course, the Christmas market that was smack dab in the middle. I spent a lot of time at the Christmas market—shopping around at all the booths, looking for gifts and unique keepsakes—and enjoyed watching the people go by.

After exploring the Markt for a bit, I wanted to see one thing that had been taunting me since my arrival: the Historium Bruges. The beautiful Gothic building houses a museum of sorts—a unique attraction with an immersive experience that transports you back in time to 15th-century Bruges, offering visitors a look at life during that era. I thought it was absolutely worth the few Euros and 30 minutes it took to go through the entire exhibit. Also, the viewing deck at the end of the exhibit presents an unparalleled view of the Markt (well, maybe not as good as the Belfry's view, but close), and you can see it in the picture above. It wasn't crowded so I was able to snap as many pictures as I wanted, and reveled in the beauty, history, and soul of Bruges.

For those of you who have seen the movie In Bruges (a film about two hitmen who are ordered to hide out in Bruges after a job), Ken, one of the main characters, climbs to the top of the Belfry and has a spiritual experience or awakening of sorts. While I didn't have quite the same dramatic experience as Ken did, I was utterly blown away (almost literally because the wind was so strong) by the experience. The view is simply breathtaking and is a piece of the Bruges experience you certainly cannot miss.

After spending nearly half of the day in and around the Markt, I realized I hadn't ventured out farther to see more. Behind the Belfry, in Burg Square (De Burg), lies the famed Basilica of the Holy Blood (Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed)—the small basilica known for housing a vial that contains a cloth with Jesus Christ's blood. While there is some debate around the legitimacy of this claim, just the possibility—even for agnostics like myself—is, quite frankly, fascinating.

Adjacent to the Basilica lies the 14th-century City Hall (Stadsbestuur Brugge), an architectural masterpiece which houses an art and Flemish history museum.

Walk a few steps through City Hall's narrow alleyway and you'll discover the canals that made the city so successful. One of the first  places I discovered was the Church of Our Lady Bruges (Onze Lieve Vrouw Brugge). The way the church and other buildings lay next to the canal constituted an undeniably gorgeous and captivating sight. It may be the moss that hangs on for dear life to the side of each building; it may be the remarkably well-kept, stone buildings—each of which make for a stunning moment. It all encapsulates the charm of Bruges.

At this point in my six-month Europe adventure, I had gained an appreciation, and even love for, museums. I'd especially garnered a passion for 16th- and 17th-century Dutch art. One of the lesser-known gems in Europe is the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. Full of engrossing and often violent paintings, the Groeninge Museum is one of the best museums I've been to in Europe, albeit its relatively small size. The first piece I recognized instantly was Hieronymus Bosch's The Last Judgment triptych—a rather violent and visceral depiction of Christ's judgment of sinners and blessed souls.

One other piece I just had to share was Gerard David's The Judgment of Cambyses Part 2, The Flaying of Sisamnes. The painting shows the Persian Judge Sisamnes, being flayed for corruption—a cautionary tale to Aldermen to remain uncorrupted.

Luckily, I still had quite a bit of time left in the trip, and I was just getting started on the things and places I wanted to see. I spent some more time exploring the canals and thoroughly enjoyed it. There's something remarkable about canals and the old buildings that somehow stay put right on the edge. I simply can't get enough of it all.

Away from the main touristy part of the city is a hidden gem you'd surely miss if you didn't know it was there—a secret garden, a place that I wanted to see real quick before moving on to other things. A unique community-run garden on Pottenmakersstraat with a warning that says, "Enter At Own Risk", this attraction is definitely worth spending a few minutes at.

One last place I wanted to share was the Jan Van Eyck Square (Jan van Eyckplein), a square with a statue that overlooks a picturesque part of the canal. Meant to commemorate Jan Van Eyck, one of the most prominent Early Netherlandish painters, this view of the canal and surrounding buildings has a magnetic pull to it. Don't miss it. Trust me, it's beautiful.

Quick Tips:

  • Upon arrival at my hotel, Monsieur Maurice (an absolutely wonderful and charming little hotel), I was given a small list of restaurants the concierge recommended. Based on what I was given, here is my list:
    • Bistro Den Amand ★★★★★
    • De Bocarme ★★★★☆
    • Laissez-Faire ★★★★★
    • Plaza Café ★★★★☆
    • Parkrestaurant ★★★★☆
    • Lodewijk van Male ★★★★☆
    • Chang Thong Thai ★★★★☆
    • Réliva ★★★★★
    • Bistro den Huzaar ★★★★☆
    • Clos du Midi ★★★★☆
  • I highly recommend avoiding the horse-drawn carriages, as they are ridiculously expensive and are said to be a somewhat lackluster experience. If it's something you're really into, go ahead, but the price coupled with the fact that it can be quite smelly given your proximity to the basin of horse excrement—I'd simply say there are more magical and romantic experiences to take part in.

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