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Short break to Bruges and Brussels
11:11am Saturday 26th May 2012 in Leisure
It’s not just the chocolate and beer that make a trip to Bruges and Brussels a brilliant Belgium break, as PETER MARTINI discovers.
‘NOTHING ever happens here’ is not a slogan one would expect from a tourism official. But it was one expounded quite proudly by Jan, our guide around the village of Damme, in north-west Belgium. And in truth it’s an excellent selling point.
Over the past 20 years or so, tourism of the genteel variety has sprung up as a boost to Damme’s economy but otherwise it’s farming and tranquillity all the way. Nothing else has indeed happened there for literally ages.
Several centuries ago, though, things were different, and it’s that history which has garnered new-found interest in the area from within and without Belgium.
Eight hundred years ago a canal to Damme from the North Sea created a gateway to the city of Bruges, which back then was a bustling trade centre and today is justifiably one of Europe’s busiest tourist havens.
Damme’s little port, it is said, had up to 1,000 ships crammed in at any one time – a figure which is hard to believe if you take a stroll around the undeniably quaint village that today is home to only 700 people. Its lovely town hall was even built in the 1460s with tax money from Swedish herring and Bordeaux wine traders.
It was also so strategic a village during the war of independence between the Dutch from Flanders and the ruling Spanish aristocrats that it was fortified, again in a way which is hard to imagine these days, notwithstanding the few telling remnants that remain.
Since then, though, the erosion of that canal and changing times have seen Damme quietly shrink in importance and wealth.
Otherwise nothing much has happened – and the beauty of this is that nothing much has changed.
A few restaurants and hotels, and a tourist centre employing Jan, have opened in the last decade or two to cater for the visitors, and some farming practices have gradually modernised, but most of the old village remains intact. Indeed, there’s still a ‘ye olde’ windmill from yesteryear which to this day is in working order. Making sure it still produces flour is the best way to preserve it.
The peaceful nature of the area is almost overwhelming. A bike ride down the canal, however strenuous, is a pleasure, not a chore. A walk is a stroll.
Those qualities have made Damme one of the most expensive places to live in Flanders – and a place to visit when in Bruges.
It’s only five kilometres from the city centre along said canal, be it by bike (it’s flat for miles and, like Amsterdam, everyone bikes around here – in fact Jan pedals a 40-mile round trip every day but loves the solitary peace his journey provides), on foot or by car.
Bruges – pronounced Brugga, don’t you know – is effectively Damme’s big brother. Not unlike our own York, it’s an historically significant city but can easily be seen on foot and has the vibe not of an industrial town but a giant village with lots of good stuff to see and do.
Like many tourists, we couldn’t resist checking out two things Belgium and Bruges are famous for – chocolate and beer.
We saw chocolates made at a small independence shop, Sukerbuyc, and had a tour around the Halve Maan Brewery (halvemaan.be), plus a fine lunch in its bustling bar. The guides here are wonderfully entertaining. Ours clearly loved her beer – describing the four per cent stuff as kids’ drinks (children were actually fed beer in the olden days as it was healthier than drinking what was ostensibly canal water) and 11 per cent brews as refreshingly healthy.
The history of Bruges, the churches, the cobbled streets, the waterways, the horse-drawn carriages, the gastronomy – it’s tourist heaven.
Oh yes, the gastronomy. It’s not unlike French, only without the Parisian attitude. The restaurant next to Damme’s tourist office, for example, does wonderful skewered steak, while Zeno in Bruges (restaurantzeno.be) centre is very high brow.
We also saw the building Colin Farrell famously leapt out of in the film In Bruges, and the hotel where co-star Ralph Fiennes upset guests by taking a gaggle of beauties for a naked midnight dip. Allegedly.
We had got to Damme and Bruges by flying from Leeds-Bradford with BMI to Brussels and taking a 60-minute bus journey.
The beauty of doing it this way is the opportunity to see Brussels, too.
If Bruges is Damme’s big brother, Brussels is the Godfather. It’s the big city, right in Belgium’s epicenter and home to a million people, out of Belgium’s population of 11 million. It’s also the de facto capital of the European Union, making it one of the most important cities in the world.
The hotels are testament to this. Try the Dominican (thedomincan.be), on Rue Leopold, which has Grand Place suites from 990 euros per night. Deluxe rooms – and they are very deluxe – and start from 145 euros.
But aside the EU, the city has an enlightening history going back centuries. It’s one of battles, wars and occupations. It’s also been at the crossroads of everything European – the cultures, the trends, the gastronomy.
Restaurant Switch (switchrestofood.be) serves sumptuous fish dishes and the local delicacy that is white asparagus. Chez Vincent (restaurentvincent.com) has kept its century-old character, with diners walking through the kitchens to reach their seats.
All that said, Brussels is not as big as other capitals so maintains an affable atmosphere. It’s also quite quaint in parts. Take the aptly named (if said in a Belgian accent) Mannekin Pis – a statute of a small boy, ahem, taking a leak in public. The boy is dressed in different garb several times a week, such as a soldier’s uniform or karate attire. It was once dressed in Tottenham Hotspur kit, bizarrely.
Perhaps Brussels’ identity is not as clear-cut or romantic as other European capitals, but that’s also a plus-point. It can still fall back on the fact it’s Belgium’s capital and therefore has arguably the best chocolate and beer in the world.
For information about visiting Brussels and Bruges phone Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 (Live Operator Line, Monday to Friday) or check out visitflanders.co.uk
Getting there: bmi Regional offers two flights per day from Leeds Bradford to Brussels on weekdays with one flight on Sundays. Fares start from just £60 one way including taxes and charges.
For more information, visit flybmi.com Book now using your smartphone: mobile.flybmi.com