Christmas Visit to Belgium – Bruges

Day two – Woke to gray skies but no rain. After a leisurely breakfast walked to the train station for the easy hour-long  journey to Bruges. If we had wondered where the tourist had all gone – few were wandering the streets of Brussels – the answer was clear; they were in Bruges. Masses of people filled the main shopping streets and the Markt, while the surrounding charming streets remained delightfully quiet.

Decked out for the Christmas season the quaint town of Bruges is particularly picturesque – store fronts trimmed in garland, the medieval buildings outlined in colored lights, Christmas markets along the main squares and an ice rink graced with trees trimmed in white lights on the Markt.

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Sint Niklaas B&B, just three minutes by foot from the Markt, is on a quiet back street of the same name. Our host, Anne, runs a tidy and well ordered charming B&B with just three rooms. The Belfort room is on the top floor, up a narrow and steep flight of stairs. This is not the room for those with difficulties managing stairs, but otherwise a spacious and comfortable space with views of the various Bruges bell towers. The breakfast is simple and well done with an assortment of breads and pastry, cheese and charcuterie, yogurt, fresh squeezed orange juice, a fresh fruit cup and eggs cooked to order. For me, however, the real highlight of our stay was Anne’s spot-on restaurant picks. Each restaurant she recommended was unique and served excellent food.

For mussels Anne recommends Breydel De Coninc, on Breidelstraat just off the Burg. A modern dining room minimally decorated in a fish motif with a colorful aquarium up front, this is not your cozy pub. However, these are the mussels you come to Belgium for. Yes, previous mussels have been good, but the mussels at Breydel, while a little more expensive, are wonderfully plump and perfectly cooked. A pot for two makes a nice lunch, especially if you ask for a basket of bread to sop up the juices and accompany them with a glass of the local Zot brew.

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After lunch we wander the medieval streets of Bruges, not believing the number of tourists out on the first day of winter and/or the day the world ends. What better way to end your days with great beer or even better chocolate in picture perfect Bruges.

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The small park between the Our Lady church and the Groeninge Museum is particularly enchanting.

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More chocolate shops than you can imagine dot nearly every street corner of Bruges, but for something divinely exotic you must try the chocolates at The Chocolate Line on the square at Simon Stevinplein. Flavors include – wasabi, bacon, tobacco leaves, hemp (yes, that’s pot), espellete (a Basque chillipepper), tomato and basil, cabernet-sauvignon, lavender, and the list continues.

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Dinner at Kok au Vin (another Anne recommendation) – a small trendy restaurant located on Ezelstraat, about a 10 minute walk from the Markt. This is where to come if you want to leave the tourists behind and delve into modern local cuisine. The limited menu offers choices of both fish and meat dishes thoughtfully plated with complex sauces and seasonal vegetables. The friendly servers are happy to explain the Dutch and French only menu. Started with the roasted marrow bones served with toast. The only drawback to this simple dish is that there was not nearly enough toast for the amazingly generous serving of marrow – three halves, sliced lengthwise, of large bones brimming with marrow.

Mains included the fish of the day, a type of cod, garnished with mushrooms, truffle potatoes and served on a butternut squash purée, and the lièvre civet or hare stew (sounds better in French).  I thought nothing could top the decadent marrow bones, but the stew came close.  A rich and complex sauce that marries the slight bitterness of fall vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, with the sweetness and acidity of red fruit.

The Markt after dark.

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Day three – more rain, ugh! Even with the church bells ringing a cheerful ditty every quarter hour and an abundance of Christmas lights, the continuous gray skies, now dripping wet, start to wear on my mood.  The hardy Belgians, on the other hand, don’t seem to be bothered by the dampness and fill the local Saturday market  (appropriately draped in awnings) as if rain is a normal event, which I’m beginning to think it is. The assortments of cheeses, meat products, smoked fish and even Provencal olives, among other goodies, is enough to brighten the gray as we continue on with our day.

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Thankfully there are interesting indoor attractions to keep us occupied starting with the Groeninge Museum. A smallish museum mostly known for the Primitives – a Flemish style akin to the Italian Renaissance. The collection includes a few world class examples that show up in university art classes such as Virgin and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele by Jan van Eyck, the details of which are extraordinary.

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Sadly the Bosch is on temporary loan to a museum in Lille, France, returning to the Groeninge at the end of January 2013.

On the same ticket as the Groeninge Museum is the small Arentshuis collection housed in a separate building. The upstairs is a retrospective of Frank Brangwyn, born in Bruges to British parents. His sketches of the Stations of the Cross make a powerful statement.

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On this rainy Saturday just before Christmas there is a queue to get into the Bierbrasserie Cambrinus. Happy to just be somewhere dry we stand in the crowded entry way of the pub and wait for table. Our patience is amply rewarded with the ultimate in comfort foods – carbonnade, a  stew of beef simmered in a complex Belgian beer sauce and Vol au Vent – a plate of tender chicken in rich white gravy overflowing a pastry bowl. Both dishes were accompanied by extra hot and crispy Belgian fries. Definitely worth the calorie splurge.  And yes, it is another Anne recommendation.

Back on the damp streets we head over to another chocolate shop, Dumon on Steenstraat just off the Markt, touted in Rick Steves’ has having the creamiest of Bruges chocolates.Whether it does or not, one must check it out and decide for themselves. The dollhouse like building and friendly service is worth the visit, even if I remain partial to the creaminess and variety of flavors offered at The Chocolate Line.

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Our next indoor activity is the 3pm beer tour at De Halve Maan. The only working brewery in the town center, they produce Zot and the stronger Straffe Hendrick (Strong Henry).  A crowded tour, divided by language, through the old brewery workings is given in witty repartee with the continuous promise of beer if we can just stick it out until the end of the 45 minute tour.

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For our last dinner we diverge from Anne’s recommendations and try In den Wittenkop listed in Rick Steves’. A cute restaurant with warm red walls lined with colorful 50s style metal signs of various beverages; Coca Cola and Pilsner seem to be favorites. Service is friendly and the limited menu offers Belgian dishes including mussels. While the food was good it was a definite step down from the previous Bruges dining experiences. The scallops in a light curry sauce with leeks were well cooked, but the sauce lacked interest. Don’s rabbit stew was rich and flavorful and my solette, a smaller species of a sole-like fish, were perfectly panned fried. The disgrace, however, especially for a Belgian restaurant, were the soggy fries served with nearly every dish. Distinctly unacceptable in a country that consistently produces (well almost) the hottest and crispiest fries in the world.

And so ends a delightful Christmas break in a country that manages to make you forget the dreary weather with a feast of lights, colors and tastes.

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