14 November 2013

Christmas magic in Bruges

Bruges’s Christmas markets are a major draw to one of Belgium’s most enchanting cities during the festive season. Several dozen wooden huts cluster in the main Markt square, where a temporary ice rink glitters with thousands of lights. Horse-drawn carriages clop on the cobbles in front of the historic restaurants lining the square, their crenellated rooftops adorned with yet more Christmas lights. No business has missed the chance to cover itself with tasteful wreaths, lights and baubles.

In the shadow of the looming 15th-century Belfry, visitors warming their hands on glasses of mulled wine wander among the stalls looking for Christmas gifts. They have plenty to choose from: among them, Christmas decorations, toys, jewellery, leather handbags and ceramics. There’s also a substantial number of stalls selling warm woolly hats, scarves and gloves, which come in handy when the chilly wind rustles through the square.

When the shoppers run out of fuel, they head to the food stalls where they fill up on delicious braadwurst sausages, waffles, apple fritters and – a gratifying sight on a cold day – tartiflette smothered in gooey reblochon cheese. Those wanting their fix of Belgian friet (chips) queue up at the distinctive green fast-food stalls that stand guard outside the Belfry.

A brief walk down Steenstraat leads to Bruges’s smaller, more intimate Christmas market at Simon Stevinplein. Sparkling white lights drape the trees in the centre of the square, where the wooden huts form a ring. Here you’ll find artisan cheeses, jams, honeys and, this being a tobacco-loving nation, a stall selling everything you need to roll your own. There’s a mini funfair here too, as well as more stalls selling handicrafts. I carry on my annual tradition of adding a new decoration to my tree, this time a cute-looking ceramic Father Christmas who’s hanging upside down. Don’t ask me why.

The Christmas markets in Bruges aren’t the only place for gifts. Affluent, agreeable Bruges has a large number of upmarket and trendy shops selling women’s and men’s clothing, many of which line the parallel shopping streets of Noordzandstraat and Zudzandstraat. Kitchenware shops thrive too, tempting you with more gadgets than you ever thought you needed but realised you just had to have.

Then there’s the chocolate. Chocolatiers are everywhere, selling everything from kitsch souvenir chocolates to exquisite creations crafted by hand. Some of the chocolates look too good to eat, and the Christmas ones shaped like snowmen and Father Christmas look too adorable to take out of the box. The ones shaped into large breasts are another story.

Then there’s the beer. If your idea of beer heaven is a shop that includes a “Beer Wall” selling almost 800 varieties (with different glass to match), head to 2be, a shop housed in a 15th-century former mayor’s house on Wollestraat. The beer lover in your life will thank you for the beautifully presented boxed sets, and those who don’t care for the stuff will be happy with other Belgian treats including chocolates and biscuits. There’s an inviting café attached, where the terrace overlooks the canal.

To continue the self-indulgent festive mood I found myself in, I explored two of the more unusual attractions that recall so much of the city’s history. This being Bruges, that meant chocolate and chips. The chocolate museum, Choco-Story, tells the fascinating story of how first the drink and then the solid form became such desirable foodstuffs. You don’t have to have a sweet tooth to become engrossed in the displays looking back over centuries of chocolate’s history. The visit finishes with a demonstration that will have you heading straight to the nearest chocolatier. (Or the museum shop, if you can’t wait that long.)

A more savoury story is told at the Friet Museum. The scent of fried potatoes wafts over displays explaining how the humble tuber has become such a staple part of the world’s diet. By the time you’ve reached the vintage kitchens showing how chips (or friet, or frites, or French fries) were fried in decades past, you are more than ready to visit the café and scoff a cone of chips (with mayonnaise, of course).

Even the most dedicated chocoholic and chipoholic need more substantial feeding, though, and can choose from hundreds of restaurants in Bruges. Cafedraal in Zilverstraat is a classy restaurant in a 15th-century house, where mouthwatering seafood and meat dishes are served under cosy wooden beams. The Blauw Wit beef tournedos were cooked to a perfect rare state, served with chunky Belgian chips.

Afterwards it was only a few minutes’ walk back to my hotel, the comfortable and friendly three-star Maraboe. It’s central yet has its own car park – an essential thing if, like me, you travel by DFDS ferry and car. After all, it would be a bit difficult to lug all that food and drink home without one.

All photographs © Adam Batterbee


  1. Great stuff - reading this has not only made me desperate to return to one of my favourite cities, it has made me feel Christmassy in September. More blog posts, please!

  2. So kind of you to say. As soon as I get a minute to spare, I'll do some more posts. This year has been quite hectic; hence the lack of posts.