Anyway I don’t really need an excuse to come to Bruges. I first came here two years ago on a singing tour and fell pretty catastrophically in love with the place. On that trip, we arrived in the hotel in the late afternoon. I opened the window of the quirky little room and the bells were ringing out across the city. It was magical and I was hooked.
It really is a strikingly appealing place. Lots of little cobbled streets and preserved and restored medieval buildings and dinky churches and twiddly canals. It’s adorable, like a model village. And nuns. A surprising number of nuns.
It’s the perfect place to take children too, because everything is wonderfully close together so not even Sparklydaughter, famously unable to walk down the stairs before she complains her legs are tired, was able to moan. Actually Sparklydaughter was in heaven because the streets of Bruges are paved with chocolate. It is pretty much her spiritual home; she was sniffing the air delightedly as she passed the chocolate shops (every other doorway in fact) and she could be persuaded to admire any amount of Flemish art with the promise of some of those seashell pralines at the end.
Both daughters were ludicrously excited by the diamond museum too. It turns out that diamonds really are a girl’s best friend. At the end there is a display that allows you stick your finger in a little hole and ‘try on’ some famous diamond wedding rings – Princess Di, Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly. ‘Who are these ladies, mummy? DID THEY LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER??’ Reader, I squirmed a little and smoothed over the truth of the fate of these ladies. But if you ever catch yourself looking at your own little splinter of a diamond and think – I wish I had a big stonking diamond (not that you would ever be that shallow of course) you can comfort yourself with the fact that big stonking diamonds, it turns out, don’t always lead to that fairy tale ending. Thank God we went to Elizabeth Duke.
And there’s the Belgian cuisine. Basically this consists of stew and chips, followed by waffles and beer. Who could possibly improve on that? Not the French with their endless fiddling about with sauces or the Nordics with their tendency to bury fish in the ground or the Germans with their fondness for serving up internal organs as ‘local specialities’. Chunks of meat, cooked in beer, served with potatoes fried in fat. No intestines or teeny portions in sight.
Of course the only complaint I have heard about Bruges is that it’s a bit too touristy. I honestly don’t get this one at all. I mean, I AM a tourist. So are you, sometimes, I’m willing to bet. I like a bit of exploring, sure, even a bit of adventure from time to time but I like going on holiday and on holiday I am a tourist. I want to sit in nice places and look at lovely views and buildings, whilst eating delicious food and drinking – ideally – some marvellous beer brewed by Trappist Monks. That’s what keeps me going through the long days of winter, through those endless hours trying to enthuse teenagers with the Joy of Semi-colons: the thought of drinking a ‘small’ glass of Leffe (i.e. a massive goblet) in the sunshine. The glinting cobbles, the clopping horses, the gentle whooshing sound of Euros zooming out of my purse and into the pockets of these surprisingly attractive waiters and waitresses. I don’t really want the genuine medieval experience thanks very much. If I want the smell of manure and back-breaking agricultural labour I can stay at home. I want to be charmed and Bruges can provide charm, with extra kitsch to spare. I can handle a little bit of fake. I’ve been to EuroDisney, after all.
I like the Belgian sense of style, too. That kind of kitschy-chic European quality but without the studious coolness of the French. I like the fact that there was a poster for the film ‘In Bruges’ in the tourist office, a film jammed full of nasty violence and seedy drug-taking, during which the Colin Farrell character is incredibly rude about being stuck in Bruges: ‘Maybe that’s what hell is, an entire eternity spent in ******* Bruges.’ It’s not exactly a tourist-sponsored soft-focus portrait of the place. That’s the Belgians for you.
Anyway if you are tired of the tourist experience and want to see the ‘real’ Belgium then you could always travel to and from Bruges on a Eurolines bus. That’s definitely enough REAL life for anyone. More of this tomorrow and I warn you it involves police escorts, sniffer dogs, intrusive searching and absolutely no tea for me for about 12 hours.
I’d rather be in Bruges. (It’s in Belgium.)