The Burg Square
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Brugge (in Flemish -- it's Bruges in French) is one of the most visited cities in Europe and is the number one destination for passengers on cruise ships calling at Zeebrugge. Visitors flock here, not for a specific museum or historical location, but to wander amidst the city's stunning examples of Flemish and Renaissance architecture and immerse themselves in the vitality of the two main squares -- Markt and Berg. There is always so much going on in Brugges -- from flower and produce markets to rides for children, bustling cafes and restaurants and old-fashioned people watching.
Never mind that Brugge's medieval appearance is largely a recent recreation. The city was rediscovered by 19th century tourists, mostly from England, heading to the site of the battle of Waterloo. Its growing popularity generated an interest to fix up the city following its downfall from one of the Hanseatic League's most important trading cities. Cloth had been the main commodity; the English wool came by ship directly to Brugge until the waterways silted up in the 15th century. The city fell into disrepair as much of the population drifted away, but in the 19th and early 20th century, Brugge was rebuilt in the traditional styles.
From the two squares, lanes fan out to wonderful commercial and residential streetscapes, and many of the canals have fringing walkways. Perhaps one of the best views of the city is from a canal boat looking up at the historic buildings and stone bridges. The further you go from the center -- and you don't have to venture more than a few blocks -- the more serene the city becomes. All you need is a walking tour map and alert senses to come away enchanted with Brugge as millions have before you.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Belfast • Berlin • Bilbao • Brugge • Brussels • Dublin • Edinburgh • Ghent • Hamburg • Holyhead • Lisbon • Liverpool • London • London (Dover) • London (Harwich) • London (Southampton) • Newcastle • Paris • Paris (Le Havre) • Paris (Rouen) • Prague • Rotterdam • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vigo
Flemish and French are the principal languages; however, many people speak basic to good English as well.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro is the official currency of Belgium. You'll find plenty of ATM's and exchange bureaus in Brugge. Even if you plan to mostly pay with credit cards, it's wise to have some local currency as small purchases will need to be made in cash.
Belgian chocolate and handmade Belgian lace are the best souvenirs.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the commercial port of Zeebrugge, about a 20-minute ride from Brugge, or at Antwerp, a one hour 45 minutes' drive. From Zeebrugge, most lines provide a transfer to Brugge for independent touring or a drop-off at Blankenberg station where trains run hourly to Brugge (travel times is 10 minutes). The roundtrip fare is 5 euros. Trains then continue on to Ghent and Brussels. Trains run hourly from Antwerp Central Station to Brugge taking one hour 20 minutes.
There are absolutely no services within walking distance of the Zeebrugge cruise terminal. At Antwerp, it's a few minutes' walk into the city center.
Once you have arrived at Brugge's yellow brick station, it is an easy walk into the center of town and the main squares, Markt and Berg. Central Brugge is largely pedestrian-only, so walking is the way to go. Besides hoofing it, you can hop a canal boat for sightseeing tours. Both taxis and buses are available at the train station.
Historic Attractions: The entire city feels like a museum, but a few sites really stand out for history, culture and art. Markt (Market Square) is a grand plaza surrounded with gabled houses and the 14th century Belfort (Belfry); it's a great central meeting place, and you can climb the 350-step Belfry for a great city view. Lots of restaurants and cafes line the perimeter, so when the feet say stop, have a seat and watch the crowds. The neogothic Provinciaal Hof houses the post office and an ATM.
The Berg, just steps away, has a beautiful stadhuis (city hall) -- one of the best in Europe. It's a gorgeous lat-14th/early-15th century Gothic building with numerous turrets and a facade decorated with statues of Flemish counts and countesses. A most colorful flower market takes place there on a regular schedule.
The Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk "Church of Our Lady" (Mariastraat, open daily from 10 a.m. - noon and 2 - 5 p.m., closed Sunday mornings), circa 13th century, is a draw for Gothic aficionados. It's also one of the few places outside Italy to have a sculpture by Michelangelo: "Our Lady and the Child Jesus." Across the street is the Museum St. Janshospitaal (St. John's Hospital Museum), with a restored chapel housing works by Hans Memling depicted on painted panels (opening hours are Tuesday - Sunday 9:30 - 5 p.m.). A restored 17th century apotheek (pharmacy) that used to serve the hospital is next door and free to enter.
Five minutes' walk from the station is Begijnhof, a serene courtyard lined with whitewashed houses that are home to about 50 single women. The compound is a surviving example of housing for a Catholic order (Begijnen or Beguines) of religious women whose husbands had died in wars and the Crusades. They adhered to chastity and vows of obedience but not poverty, so in this respect they differed from nuns. Hundreds of these communities used to exist right up to the beginning of the 20th century. Now there are but a handful and several, such as this one, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In spring, the green is a carpet of daffodils. Visitors may freely enter the courtyard.
Museums: Brugge contains several interesting museums. Arentshuis Museum (Dijver 16, open daily from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.) showcases a collection of antique lace. Gruuthuse Museum (Dijver 17, Wednesday - Monday from 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.) is housed in a 15th century palace, and is known for its collections of tapestries, Baroque- and Renaissance-era art, and weaponry. Groeninge Museum (Dijver 12, Wednesday - Monday 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.) has a fabulous collection of paintings by the Flemish and Dutch masters.
Walking Tour: If you want to stretch your legs, we suggest the following walking tour, which should take about two hours or less, if you don't dally much. Begin by leaving the Markt at its southeast quarter and following Wollestraat to cross the canal, then turn left to parallel it. You pass through a square lined with attractive restaurants and then come upon the Vismarkt (fish market). Follow the canal as it arcs left and enjoy views back to the city's skyline. At St. Annakerkstraat, walk to the 15th century church of the same name. The off-the-beaten-track St. Anna quarter has some of the loveliest and most varied Flemish-style town houses in all of Belgium. Return to the canal and at the second bridge, turn left over the canal onto Genthof. You pass close to a statue of Flemish artist Hans Memling and come to Jan Van Eyckplein, a handsome square where the commercial canal boats used to gather for transferring goods to the Markt. The old toll house remains an imposing structure. From here follow the streets back to the Markt.
Sailing the Canals: Think Venice but with a Gothic feel (and, alas, no gondoliers or singing tenors). Numerous motorboat operators ply Brugge's waters; you can board these tour boats at a myriad of very obvious landings throughout the city (we boarded at Katelijnestraat 4, another option is the Rozenhoedkaai); cost is 5.20 euros for an approximately 30-minute ride.
The Cafe Scene: One of the nicest things about Brugge is, once you've worn yourself out exploring historical and cultural sites, you can hang out with a restorative Belgian beer at a cafe at one of the city's handful of really great plazas. Admittedly, the cafes are primarily oriented to tourists but the atmosphere is so much fun ... so what! Many of the city's best restaurants are open for lunch, but watch out for highly irregular summer operating hours. Le Grand Cafe Belfort (Markt 25 or Eiermarkt 16, from 11:30 a.m.) is a terrific place to indulge in huge individual stockpots of steamed mussels (you can choose how you want them cooked: in a cream sauce or with garlic, beer or wine) along with a plate of crisp fries (called "potato chips"). Menus are posted outside.
The Verdi tea room (Vlamingstraat 5), a quiet retreat from the pedestrian crowds, serves meals, light snacks and a proper afternoon tea attended by local ladies. It is a good place to try Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce or various jams. A croquet-monsieur (grilled ham and cheese on bread) is another good choice for a light lunch.
Shopping: Brugge has all manner of boutique-style shops selling jewelry, fashion and art but the best stops are in the numerous chocolateries. The main commercial street is Steenstraat, but the city is so compact and its numerous winding alleys and boulevards so compelling, you can find lots of neat discoveries beyond the main drag. Most shops (except really touristy ones) close for lunch between noon - 2 p.m.
Breweries: Belgium's justifiably famous for its rich, just-like-a-meal beers. Learn how they're made at De Gouden Boom's malthouse and brewery museum (Verbrand Nieuwland 10, open Wednesday - Sunday from 2 p.m. - 6 p.m.).
Been There, Done That
Brussels: If you've already toured Brugge, head to Brussels for the day (trains leave every hour on the half-hour from Blankenberg Station, and roundtrip tickets cost 23 euros). Brussels is divided into the Lower Town and the Upper Town. Start in the Lower Town, which dates from the Middle Ages to the 18th century and has lots of Gothic-, Baroque- and Renaissance-era buildings. Among the highlights: The Grand Place, a gorgeous cobbled square at the heart of the Lower town; the imposing 15th century cathedral Notre Dame de la Chappele (Rue des Ursulines 4, open from 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.); and the flea market in Place du Jeude (7 a.m. - 2 p.m., best days are Thursday and Sunday). The neo-Renaissance Galeries St. Hubert (Rue de Bouchers, open daily) was Europe's first shopping arcade. The Museum of the Comic Strip (20 rue des Sables, Tuesday - Sunday from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.) is a hoot, featuring everything from Tintin to the Smurfs. For lunch, rue des Bouchers is lined with sidewalk cafes featuring a wide variety of international menus and, yes, it's touristy but still fun.
The Upper Town is terrific for museum- and palace-hopping. Start with the Quartier Royal, the area's most distinctive and picturesque plaza, surrounded by 18th and 19th century palaces and the gorgeous Parc de Bruxelles. The Palais Royal (Place des Palais, open July - September only, from 10:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Tuesday - Sunday) is the official residence of Belgium's monarchy. Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts and Musee d'art Ancien (Rue de la Regence 3, Tuesday - Sunday from 10 a.m. - noon and 1 - 5 p.m.) are the city's preeminent art museums; the former houses masterpieces from contemporary eras while the latter focuses on classical pieces.
Beaching: Head for the beach in Zeebrugge. Visible from the terminal (but, alas, requiring a taxi ride) is a gorgeous white sand beach stretching along the North Sea. Zeebrugge itself has a charming boardwalk fronted by cafes.
Alternative Destinations: From Zeebrugge and Antwerp, cruise ships offer city tours to a variety of cities (Brugge, Ghent, Ypres, etc.) rather than multiple kinds of tours in the same area. If you've already been to Brugge, you might want to tour Ghent or Ypres instead. Ghent is larger and -- according to some -- more authentic than Brugge. A walking tour covers a series of connecting squares and churches, and may include a canal boat ride. Ghent is a 45-minute drive from either Zeebrugge or Antwerp.
Ypres is one of Europe's most famous battle sites. The city was caught between the advancing Allied and German armies in WWI and largely destroyed. A tour of the pleasant provincial city (rebuilt since the war) typically includes a visit to the Flanders Fields Museum, which depicts the life of the ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. Ypres is an hour's drive south from Zeebrugge.
For the First Timer: Most lines offer a standard trip that will include a 90-minute walking tour of the medieval city center, some free time to stroll and shop, and a stop at a chocolate factory to see raw chocolate made or at a place that makes Belgian waffles and offers samples. The drive from Zeebrugge takes 20 minutes and from Antwerp, one hour 45 minutes.
Staying in Touch
Options in the heart of Brugge include Snooker Palace (Noordandstraat 4, from 11 a.m., 2.60 euros for 30 minutes).
For More Information
On the Web: www.brugge.be
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--updated by Theodore W. Scull. Scull has spent almost five years on ships at sea and six years living and traveling in Europe. His latest book -- Ocean Liner Twilight -- was published in October 2007 from Overview Press, UK.