Visit Bruges for chocolate-dominated desserts and lively boat trips
A hundred years on from the first World War, the city is an excellent spot for contemporary war tourists
Break in Bruges: the best way to navigate Bruges is by taking a boat trip on the canals, which costs just €7.60 for half an hour with live – and lively – commentary. Photograph: Getty Images
War tourists have been coming to present-day Belgium since the Waterloo battlefield was sought out by curious British travellers in the aftermath of Dublin-born Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon.
A hundred years on from the first World War, Bruges is an excellent spot for contemporary war tourists to base themselves before venturing out to see the sites of the tragic conflict.
Bracing itself for increased numbers of visitors, Bruges’s tourism offering has been revamped (bruges1418.be). There is much to see and do in this intimate city, which has a much warmer atmosphere than the Belgian capital Brussels.
But if your stay is a short one, like mine, just enjoy getting lost in the cobbled streets. With its canals, swans and shops selling lace, the medieval centre of Bruges is a romantic picture postcard of a location.
Unlike nearby Ypres, razed to the ground during the war but rebuilt defiantly in its previous image, Bruges’s architecture is original and has earned its Unesco World Heritage site status.
The tops of many buildings overlooking the canals taper into distinctive stepped gables and proudly boast the year in which they were built, 1620 for example, in large black wrought-iron letters.
A common colour choice for these pretty buildings is a deep red, a modern-day echo of the tradition of using animals’ blood to dye paint.
The Church of Our Lady contains a Michelangelo masterpiece, the Madonna of Bruges. The church’s twin towers house the historic belfry that dominates the bustling market square and the city beyond.
The energetic can climb the 365 steps of the belfry tower to enjoy panoramic views of the cityscape on a clear day.
Two-wheeled vehicles are taken seriously in Flanders, and Bruges is easy to negotiate by hired bicycle or scooter (so long as you remember to stick to the right-hand side of the road).
But the best way to navigate Bruges is by taking a boat trip on the canals, which costs just €7.60 for half an hour with live – and lively – commentary.
Taller travellers will have to duck their heads when gliding under the lower bridges after boarding from any of the five landing stages dotted around the city.
Our guide pointed out the city’s most salubrious hotels as part of his playful if well-rehearsed patter.
“Religious hotels,” he assured us. “When you check in you say: ‘Oh my God, it’s beautiful.’ When you get the bill you say: ‘Jesus Christ! ’”
From this water-level angle, interesting little details reveal themselves, such as a dragon’s head at the foot of a drainpipe.
The people of Bruges love good food and drink, and their city is also a chocolate capital.
One slightly jaded resident suggested it was only a matter of time before local restaurateurs began boasting they were using potatoes grown on the battlefields.
The subsequent the sight of chocolate boxes branded with a first World War logo was a jolt. But the food is certainly second to none.
We ate an evening meal at Burg 9, starting with a tasty but slightly difficult to eat soup containing egg and pork. A hearty main of cod, shrimp and potato was followed by a chocolate-dominated dessert.
The next day we enjoyed pheasant for lunch at Rock Fort. Dinner at the Kok au Vin bistro consisted of oysters followed by venison and a deconstructed dessert featuring tangerine and carrot.
Popcorn was variously served as a pre- dinner savoury nibble and, fashioned into a lollipop, as a sweet accompaniment to coffee.
My only complaint was the delay between courses. This happened everywhere we ate but the relaxed Belgian diners seemed unperturbed by the slow service, so perhaps the problem lies with this greedy Irishwoman!
Foodies might enjoy the quirky Frietmuseum and the nearby Choco-Story chocolate museum.
We also took in a fascinating photographic exhibition, The War in Pictures, showing in Bruges’s belfrey until February 22nd next. A hundred dramatic original glass- plate images from Belgian, British, German, French and Australian archives have been restored and enlarged.
Poignant images of Parisian children playing at war in 1915 are displayed in colour, while the sight of the gas-poisoned, naked body of a private taken in 1918 is a shock.
A 1919 snap of two women and three men posing in front of Ypres’s destroyed buildings reminds us again that war tourism is nothing new.
Among the most harrowing pictures are those of dead Belgian soldiers, killed after neutral Belgium was shocked to be invaded by Germany in August 1914.
They are held up roughly, often by the hair, and photographed for identification purposes.
Bruges became the headquarters for German operations on the Atlantic coast during the way and German soldiers came to Bruges to rest and recover after months on the front.
It may have been a haven for recuperating Germans, but impoverishment ensued for the locals, with starving adults collapsing in the street and children too weak to go to school.
This knowledge makes the German soldiers’ austere snapshots of Bruges’s buildings and street scenes, devoid of people, seem all the more bizarre.
A parallel exhibition, Lamento, deals with the current youth suicide rate in West Flanders, which is among the highest in Europe.
There is no clumsy attempt to make a connection between the war and the contemporary tragedies but this dark collection of suicide notes, diary entries and family testimonies is not easy to forget.
Warfare brought to life
Farmers in Flanders continue to discover grenades, shells and shrapnel in the flat fields where they gather their crops of sugar beet, carrots and sprouts.
They believe they will be unearthing war paraphernalia for at least another 100 years, according to our guide.
Phillipe, a Flanders native, runs Quasimodo Tours with his Australian wife, Sharon. He stops his minibus at the side of a field and returns with clay-encrusted shell casings and grenades, cold and weighty, for passengers to examine.
The horror of trench warfare is brought to life by a visit to a recreated dug-out, now incongruously situated in the middle of a busy industrial estate. Mechanics are fixing cars across the road and a biomass plant next door provides an authentic stench.
Phillipe points out an energy-generating windmill just a stone’s throw away, marking the spot where the German front line would have been.
Soldiers’ personal artefacts in the small museum at Hooge Crater humanises the skinny, jerky figures immortalised in black-and-white newsreel footage. A Christmas card sent in 1917 contains the poignant message: “Ted has a temperature of 103.”
(The home-made páté sandwich in the cafe attached to the museum was delicious.)
The tour takes in a German burial ground known as the “student cemetery” because of the youth of those interred. Laid out by the Volksbund in the 1930s, the site was visited by Adolf Hitler before the second World War.
Tyne Cot cemetery is the largest UK commonwealth graveyard and the monotonous sight of row upon row of Portland stone headstones is truly shocking. The remains of so many are unidentified. “Known unto God” is inscribed on the headstones of many an Irish soldier.
Some families paid to have personal messages inscribed. “Sacrifice to the fallacy that war can end war”, is the inscription on the grave of Arthur Conway Young, Second Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Our tour took in Menin Gate in Ypres, where the last post is sounded at 8pm every evening. The inside of the gate is inscribed with familiar names including many Murphys, Kellys and Walshes who died serving in the Irish Guards.
The 10m-high Canadian monument, known as “the brooding soldier”, is one of the most poignant, commemorating the horror of chlorine gas attacks.
The Hill 60 preserved battlefield features a bunker stuffed with poppies. A plaque to Australian soldiers who died there between 1915 and 1918 is pock-marked with bullet holes from the second World War.
How to . . . Bruges
Eat Rock Fort (Langestraat 15, 8000 rock-fort.be +32 50 33 41 13) Kok au Vin (Ezelstraat 21 kok-au-vin.be +32 50 33 95 21) Burg 9 (Burg 9 burg9.be +32 50 33 35 99)
Stay Hotel Martins (Oude Burg 5, martinshotels.com +32 50 44 51 11) is an unfussy and contemporary three-star with a good breakfast buffet and a fantastic central location.
See Take a trip on Bruges’s canals. Half-hour trips run from 10am until 6pm from March and November. Tour the first World War battlefields. Various companies provide day trips from Bruges. We took the Quasimodo WWI Flanders Fields Tour (quasimodo.be +32 50 37 04 70). Another good option is gti-ireland.com, an Irish Times travel partner. It runs package trips from Ireland, including a visit to Bruges.
Mary Minihan was a guest of VisitBruges