I seem to have somehow ended up in an inescapable but excellent routine of a weekend away every time Nicola has a birthday. For her thirtieth, it was time to visit Bruges.
For a few months, Nicola’s friend Rosie and I had been secretly plotting to whisk the birthday girl off for a surprise weekend away. The plan was for Rosie and her husband Darren to surprise Nicola at the station, then we would all board the Eurostar for a few days in Belgium.
Nicola and I arrived early at St. Pancras, and after a brief argument where I tried to buy four croissants and was only allowed to buy two, we went through security and sat together in the departures lounge. Rosie and Darren arrived a few minutes later, sneaking up and shouting ‘surprise!’, completely baffling poor Nicola, who thought that it was all a coincidence, and that Rosie and Darren just happened to be off on a break to Bruges too. Nicola had absolutely no idea what was going on. Hilarious gif below.
After the initial shock had subsided, we climbed aboard the Eurostar, where we had a mini birthday party in the train, then changed trains at Brussels to head to Bruges.
Rather than a cultural weekend of museums and Belgian history, this weekend would mainly be focused on wandering, eating, drinking and generally celebrating the fact that Nicola had survived thirty years on the planet. ‘Survived’ may sound extreme, but at one point we were in a taxi, when Nicola thought a canal was simply a ‘very shiny road’. We were all relieved that we hadn’t hired a car.
We had booked a couple of rooms in a cosy little hotel alongside a canal, surrounded by cobbled streets and trees in rich autumnal shades of red and orange. Hotel Ter Brughe, with its antique carpets, creaky staircase and general cosiness was the perfect base for exploring the city. We checked in and looked in all the drawers in the room, before heading towards the central square, Markt, where the bells at the top of the Belfort clock tower were ringing. I had seen written somewhere beforehand that there’s a ‘performance’ of the bells once or twice a week. We were all standing there, amazed at our good fortune in arriving in the square at the exact moment that one of the rare performances had started. But fifteen minutes later, the bells did exactly the same routine. Then again on the half hour. And every fifteen minutes for the rest of the weekend. I tried to explain that the actual ‘performance’ was probably much longer and elaborate, and was a genuinely rare treat, but no one believed me. By the end, I wasn’t even sure I did.
For dinner that night we had reserved a table at ‘t Zwart Huis, a little restaurant-cum-jazz bar hidden away up a short staircase a couple of streets away from Markt. In one corner, a blues band played while we sat by a stained glass window and worked our way through carafes of wine, eating kangaroo steak and slurping on lobster bisque. Not a bad way to spend an evening.
No trip to Belgium would be complete without waffles and chocolate, which we often combined into one single visit, smothering waffles with as much chocolate as they could hold. Our waffle house of choice soon became the House of Waffles, and we quickly became experts on the merits of the Bruxelles vs. Liège waffles. In case you’re interested, the Liège seems to be slightly smaller, but much tastier.
A Belgian trip also requires at least some beer, so we went to visit the Beer Museum, a surprisingly comprehensive brewery tour, with a superb beer wall of thousands and thousands of beer bottles. We performed the necessary nodding and feigned interest at various brewing processes before getting stuck in to the main event: beer tasting. I seemed to have a real a knack of choosing the worst beers from the extensive menu. I think I prefer smoky, bitter and sour foods, so presumed the same would apply to beer. It didn’t. After a particularly rancid 8.5% dark beer, I moved on to a Trappist Ale and a local pilsner. They’re the most popular beers in Bruges for a reason.
After one too many beers, we headed to The Potato Bar, where we had chips smothered in layers of cheese and dunked in mayonnaise, which were superb.
Aside from the the fine gourmet offerings of The Potato Bar, we were spoilt for choice with restaurants in Bruges. After much consideration and emails back and forth between Rosie and I before the trio, we had booked a table at two restaurants in the city: Pomperlut, which served home-cooked Mediterranean food in a little candlelit cottage on the edge of Bruges, and De Stove, a little non-touristy restaurant serving freshly caught fish and crisp white wine. Both were excellent and I would highly-recommend them.
The thing that struck me about Bruges is just how lovely the city looks. Other cities have a nice central square, or perhaps a couple of picturesque streets. With Bruges, we struggled to find a single view that wasn’t full of crenellated brick gables and gothic rooftops reflected in canals. We were there in the quiet weeks sandwiched between summer crowds and Christmas markets, so the streets were unusually quiet. When it rained, the first Christmas lights of the year reflected off the cobbles and the streets shimmered and glistened.
We had planned to climb the 366 stairs of the Belfort clock tower, but when we arrived at the base, we found that we were gatecrashing an urban marathon, of which some of the route was up and down the tower. We toyed with the idea of saving 12€ each by pretending to be a competitor, but quickly realised this would mean us jogging up and down a whopping great spiral staircase when we were meant to be on a relaxing city break, so decided instead to give it a miss. Instead, we decided to go and have some more waffles.
On our last morning in Bruges, we had an hour or two before we had to catch the train, so we headed to ‘2be’ for a nice late-morning drink, as they claimed to have one of the largest selection of beers in the city. Darren and I both ended up ordering ridiculous goblets of ‘Kwak’, an 8% amber ale, which was certainly far too strong for 11am and we stumbled out of 2be an hour or so later, blinking and bewildered at the brightness of the midday sun.
We headed back to the station and towards the UK, after a great little mini adventure around Bruges. It makes for a surprisingly convenient weekend away from London, and the Eurostar made the journey as enjoyable a the destination.
I’d certainly recommend a weekend away in Bruges. But when you get there, just don’t drive on the shiny roads.
We stayed at: Hotel Ter Brughe (hotelterbrughe.com)
We ate at: Pomperlut (pomperlut.be)
We also ate at: ‘t Zwart Huis (visitbruges.be)
We also also ate at: De Stove (restaurantdestove.be)
We also also also ate at: The Potato Bar (thepotatobar.be)