Departing Brussels for the day, I took the train a short way north to the iconic Bruges, said to be especially beautiful and well known as a popular tourist destination. You can book a day trip with a tour company from the capital, but getting to Bruges on your own is actually very straightforward if you don’t want to be so restricted (providing they don’t suddenly the change the platform last minute, that is). I booked my tickets ahead of time with Omio but they can also be purchased direct at the station too, and the journey lasts approximately an hour.
There’s something rather enchanting about train travel. Without exploring a country in depth you wouldn’t usually get to see the small villages and farms that decorate the majority of the landscape, pale and shimmering from the morning frosts. You wouldn’t get to see the distant skylines of cities as you depart and arrive. Towers and lakes, houses contrasting old and new with weathered shuttered windows and rooftop solar panels, birds swooping down before disappearing back into the misty haze. It’s really wonderfully peaceful.
While I made sure to give myself plenty of time (not wanting a repeat of my dreaded Valencia to Barcelona journey back in March), only having a mere day to explore meant I was overwhelmed with possibilities of things to do, and that was without considering the addition of the staple Christmas markets that pop up in just about every city on the continent this time of year.
I started this crisp winter morning wandering idly down narrow, near deserted cobbled streets and I was hit with visions of many of the smaller towns back in England, with vibes of Louth and parts of York coming to mind. I could see almost immediately why this place charms so many of its visitors.
When I eventually reached the main market square, I understood completely. Little wooden Christmas huts gathered in clusters, while all the surrounding cafes and restaurants donned their trimmings. Great, I thought. Guess I’m going to end up spending even more money…
Next, I visited the Church of our Lady and its surrounding grounds by the canals, which host a mix of swans and sailboats. This led me towards a pretty little park on what’s known as Love Lake, a welcome bit of countryside indulgence as a break from being right in the centre of a city. (There is also an option to board a small tour boat to sail the canals, if that would take your fancy). But I couldn’t leave before stopping off for a staple cone of potato fries for lunch with a view. FYI, apparently the word “french fries” is frowned upon around these parts, as the belief is that the delicacy was actually discovered during the war when French-speaking Belgians offered them to soldiers, who mistook them for being from France. So there you go, one of many fun facts about chips right there!
From there, I looped back round to the main square to see another notable religious site of Bruges – the Basillica of the Holy Blood, proudly housing a phial said to contain a cloth with Christ’s blood. Whether or not you believe the claims to be true, it’s still a gorgeous basillica with a suitably calming presence.
I’d eaten some, but how can you enjoy a meal without some proper context? Yes, my next stop was less poignant and honestly, kind of tacky – a small museum dedicated entirely to the glorious potato and its history in Europe (Adult entry: €7).
Fun potato fact #1: Did you know potatoes originated in Peru?
It doesn’t seem like the obvious choice of activity when visiting this gorgeous part of the country, but how many places can you go and say you’ve been to a potato fries museum? Chances are, not very many!
As you traverse this bizarre homage to the humble chip, you are taken through the history of the potato and its journey to fry via information panels, comic strips and various props.
Fun potato fact #2: There are a number of theories about the origin of the potato fry before it went global. One possibility is that potatoes were used and cut into thin slices to resemble small fish when fishing stocks were low. Another is that this innovation had nothing to do with Belgium or France, and rather came from the Spanish, who fry everything in olive oil and who could have cut the potato thin to make it cook faster. I guess we’ll sadly never know for certain…
And to leave you with the best fun potato fact of all…
Potatoes, if cooked right, aren’t actually fattening, consisting of majority water. Hallelujah!
Back outside and back to sanity, there was still amazingly time to spare, but I decided I was far too exhausted to climb the belfry, another popular thing to do here. So instead, I found somewhere for a much-deserved sit down with yet more street grub to help me refuel, before getting in a last little bit of shopping.
While there are many more things to do here, I am thoroughly exhausted from so many adventures, and I didn’t quite fancy the beer museum or the torture museum (which is conveniently placed right beside a bright and jolly Christmas shop). No, a bit of a relax with a cheeky Jagermeister to end the day sounded much more appealing if I do say so myself.