One surreal day in the achingly beautiful town of Bruges

Bruges is the loveliest canal town…

A labyrinth of meandering canals, cobbled streets and centuries of history. Nicknamed Venice of the North. UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a fifth of the city’s 105,000 residents.  And just hour-and-half by bus from Belgium’s capital. Compelled to witness the aching beauty of Bruges?

Set the mood right with a stroll in the Minnewater Park, the beautiful green lungs of the city. Cross the Lovers Bridge over the Lake of Love to ensure eternal togetherness. Slow down near the 30 white-painted gabled houses built around a central green courtyard dotted with tall trees. That’s the Beguinage, a convent-like shelter established in 1250 for single and widowed women. Benedictine nuns still live here, so technically, you’re an intruder. Careful with those crisp leaves crunching beneath your feet. Shhhh!

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A second canal bridge and little gabled houses indicate that the Old Town is near. At the corner of Wijngaardstraatm, the famous Christmas decorations store, Kathe Wohlfahrt greets you with festive flair. The aroma of waffles and Belgian fries floats up from windows counters and pushcarts. People throng outside boutique hotels, fine restaurants, attractive bistros, hip creperies and cafes under green striped awnings. Tables overflow with mussels served in big metal pots and creamy fish stew. Linger over a mouth-watering meal under the warm sun.

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Quit the main walkways where you have to avoid stepping onto others’ toes. Head for the cobblestoned alleyways lined with vintage shops and minuscule chapels. Listen to the sound of your footsteps echoing in solitude. Peek into the tiny window-fronts of lace shops showcasing home decor items made of the famed Bruges bobbin lace. Testimony to the history of a painstaking, local skill dating back to the early Renaissance era, when Emperor Charles V decreed that lace-making should be a compulsory skill for all girls in convents and beguinages throughout Flanders.

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Wearing lace was a status symbol then and the lace trade reached its peak in the 18th century. Flanders linen was considered most superior in all Europe in the Middle Ages and Bruges was the most important outlet for textile and lace. When the Zwin channel silted up and Bruges lost out as a transportation hub, Bruges lace and cloth industries saved the city from financial ruin. Sadly, today, Belgium’s entire lace weaving industry comprises of just 1,000 weavers who produce everything manually. Some pieces are so intricate that they require the use of over 200 bobbins. Study the delicate reminders of those times…doilies, tablecloths, table napkins, cushion covers, wedding veils, handkerchiefs, using filigree-style ribbons and chains…from affordable machine-made copies and to genuine and expensive vintage articles. Take home an exquisite reminder.

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Bruges is nirvana for chocolate lovers, with over 50 expert chocolatiers within 50 square miles. This chocolate capital of Belgium even has its own official chocolate – the Bruges Swan. Think superior ingredients and obsessive adherence to old world manufacturing techniques. At Wollestraat, the city’s chocolate hotspot, shops are packed shoulder to shoulder on both sides. Each enticing display of pralines, figurines and slabs is quicksand of sweet temptation. Delicious variety lines the glass shelves…classic milk to almond praline to pure liqueur filled gourmet delights…countless types from the simple to the intricate… each with their own sophisticated flavours and heavenly textures. Traditional flavours to wildly experimental ones including black olive, tomato, wasabi, fried onion, bacon, curry, basil. Prices for chocolates are generally between 50 cents and 1 euro each and chocolate is sold by weight, starting with 100-grams. Apparently, locals buy fresh chocolate like others pastry or bread. Stock up! 

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The broad street opens onto the Markt. Enjoy a float, watch jugglers, listen to street musicians and stare at the medieval architecture. The large, ornate, neo-Gothic Provincial Courthouse, (a 19th-century construction), harmonizes perfectly with the older medieval structures. On one side, quintessentially Dutch, gabled red brick buildings cordon off the space. Old stone slabs, which traders would have used to cut and sell meat or cloth, are still preserved. Tiny figures soak in amazing views from the Belfort (Belfry), a 13th century bell tower looming above everything else at 83 meters. You’re inside a postcard…web of canals, little roof terraces and a flat landscape towards distant wind farms.

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On another side of the square, restaurants with outdoor tables are filled with hungry patrons enjoying the afternoon sun, sipping Belgian beers, digging into luscious steaks and indulging in that evergreen European pastime…people watching. The hypnotic clops of horses’ hooves and the regular quarterly chimes of the manually operated 47-bell carillon of the square’s belfry is like music to the ears. Detour to explore the tallest structure and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world, the 122 meter high Church of Our Lady, graced with Michelangelo’s famous Madonna and Child…in black.

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Picturesque canals shimmer as they flow under arched stone footbridges, white swans skim gracefully over the waterways, flower-draped, quaint cobblestone streets curve past turreted manor houses with gabled roofs and and shops overflow with antique treasures. Romance exudes from every nook and cranny. Eager-eyed tourists take leisurely canal cruises along the Reien, hooked to local anecdotes while gazing at delightful views of Bruges’ weathered facades. Could anyone tire of these historic buildings, bridges and vines draped down to touch the water? While away lazy moments and drink in the tranquil beauty. Bruges has taken centuries in the making…savour every vista with languor.

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Canal houses face the water, their stepped gables on steeply pitched roofs capped with slate or stone for easy access. The stunning Flemish brickwork facades blaze in the sunlight. Houses flaunt wooden medieval doors, stone gargoyles, circular and teardrop-shaped windows with diamond-cut traditional crown glass, intricate lace curtains and reliefs on walls showing apprentices at work. Indulge in the medieval fantasy.

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As the curtain goes down on a brilliant day in the prettiest town of Belgium, chew on this. Thanks to transportation on these waterways, brewing and textiles had reached their zenith in the 14th-century, laying the foundations for a magnificent city, where agriculture could not be the mainstay. And look now, the canals still run the town…not with textiles and beer, but tourism.

 

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Bruges is the loveliest canal town #bruges #belgium #canals #flemish

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Brilliant blues will tempt you in the island of Capri

Idyllic island in Italy’s Gulf of Naples…

Keep your eyes glued to the window as the shuttle from Naples airport weaves slowly through the narrow streets of the city’s Greco-Roman historic centre. Past alley labyrinths and literary cafès. Past church steeples, Baroque facades, Renaissance statues and frescoed fountains. Past leftovers of the ancient Agora and Forum. To the buzzing port guarded by the turreted Castle Nuovo. Where the shadow of Vesuvius looming in the distance triggers a thought…maybe Pompeii just a bad dream. Long ticket queues to multiple islands, but the wait is short, because Capri ferries depart every 45 minutes. So sit back on the plush seats and enjoy the smooth sail over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Because here on, its stinging electric blue all the way.

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This is what your day trip to Sintra Cascais should look like

Discovering the best of Sintra Cascais…

145 square kilometres of a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with natural wonders and historic treasures. Hidden sandy bays, rugged coastline, towering cliffs, thick forests and shimmering lakes. Fairy palaces, exotic architecture and paradise gardens. All within 30 km of Portugal’s capital city. Lisbon itinerary minus Sintra-Cascais Natural Park? No-can-do!

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One day in five fantastic beaches of stunning Sri Lanka?

Beach-hopping in Southern Sri Lanka…

An idyllic, mystical pearl-drop island in the Indian Ocean with 1340 kilometres of coastline. Bait enough. Active adventurer, laid-back lazy or photo-enthusiast…whatever your travel style, beaches will inevitably creep into your Sri Lanka itinerary. Problem: Too many beaches, too little time. Multiply challenging choices by dubious dilemmas, divide by greed, and get smart. If you’re stationed in Galle, like we were, beach-hop an entire 50-kilometre stretch southwards, in search of unadulterated Sri Lanka. Resurrected post-tsunami. Down an endless road with dazzling, tan-gold tropical sands, wave-drenched rocks and emerald palm clusters. Sleepy villages, red-roofed houses with white columns and cool verandas, modest home-stays, elite eco-retreats, sarong-clad fishing folk, cheerful red tuk-tuks and suntanned backpackers in chappals. Serenity. Untouched by mindless tourism. Game?

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Why Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam is the ultimate retreat?

This royal haven is Germany’s largest world heritage site

If you’re racking your brains for a day-trip idea from Berlin, look no further than Potsdam, an oasis of lakes, lush fields, thick forests and unique cultural landmarks along the Havel River. Boasting of the largest World Heritage Site in Germany, Sanssouci, as its centrepiece, Potsdam is to Germany what Versailles is to France and Windsor to England. And its just a 45-minute drive from the buzzing German capital. So, die-hard lovers of sumptuous palaces and extravagant gardens, zip away on that Autobahn now!

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You can be a pigment in the colorful canvas of Cinque Terre

Inside Italy’s five most famous seaside villages…

Italy is an enigmatic lady. She flaunts varied sides of her split personality with equal elan…chic (Milan), arty (Florence), sophisticated (Bellagio), luxe (Capri) to innocent (Varenna), rustic (San Gimignano) or religious (Vatican), romantic (Venice). And if you’re looking for unspoilt and laid-back, there’s Cinque Terre (CHINK-weh TAY-reh). The cluster of five seaside villages stayed hidden from public eye for years, but are now  on every Italy-lover’s wishlist, and for several good reasons. No statues, monuments, museums and street performers here…just the sun, sea, rocky beaches, food, and unadulterated Italy. As its been since centuries.

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An idyllic day in the heavenly town of Hallstatt

So what if Austria’s prettiest town is no secret…

We’ve all either squirmed, shivered or scowled when faced with appalling discrepancies between what we expected and what we found at a dream destination. But sometimes, the story is not gory. Sometimes, the reality outshines the dream. This is that story. Of Hallstatt, a 7000-year old alpine village-town hidden between a serene lake and forested mountain peaks. Where less than 1000 residents live the classic Austrian life in their charming wooden abodes with flower-draped balconies. Blemish-free breathtaking beauty. Exaggeration? Even thinking of that word should be a sin here!

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