Meet and greet
Belgium has the second highest suicide rate in the EU, so a few years back the Bruges council decided to cheer everyone up by making them say hello to each other. Langestraat, one of the main roads leading into Bruges town centre, officially became Hello Street, the street where people greet each other. So warm up your vocal cords and get ready to say hey to anyone you may pass. In French it’s ‘bonjour’, in Flemish it’s ‘goede middag’, but a cheery ‘howzit’ should work just fine.
Get the five-star treatment
The city’s founding walls went missing centuries ago, covered up and built over and eventually forgotten altogether. They resurfaced just over a decade ago, when the Crowne Plaza hotel chain moved into town and started to dig. Lo and behold, they found the 12th century Sint-Donaas Church down there, as well as a good portion of a 1000-year-old city wall, which rather threw a spanner in the works of the hotel’s construction. A compromise was reached: the hotel could continue to construct their five-star monstrosity in the middle of the city if they allowed the public access to the historic treasures at all times. Which means that you, in your grubby cargo pants and T-shirt, can waltz right in anytime you care.
These days, the curved stone corridor leads to a rather drab-looking seminar room, but 900 years ago the Duke of Flanders, Charles the Good, was beheaded down here while he was on his knees praying.
Drink with religious rebels
Once you’ve thoroughly explored the city centre, step down the narrow cobbled alley of Blekersstraat and into Bruges’ oldest bar, Café Vlissinghe. They’ve been serving up drinks here for almost 500 years – rumour has it that the artist Rubin was once a regular here. The company hasn’t always been so savoury, though. In the 1500s Belgium was in the middle of a religious war and the publican, himself the leader of a rebel conspiracy, devised a plot to get a bunch of his fellow Protestants inside the city walls. Things didn’t go to plan, the plot was discovered, and he was tortured and beheaded by a gang of locals.
The atmosphere is a tad more sedate these days. If you don’t feel like a pint of the local brew, join them for a croque monsieur and some rich Belgian hot chocolate.
Stopover in Jerusalem
Thanks to a rather eccentric 15th century Bruges merchant, you don’t need to go as far as the Middle East to sample a taste of Jerusalem. Bruges’ Jerusalem Church is an exact replica of Jerusalem’s Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, itself built on the spot where Jesus is said to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. The Bruges version even has a copy of his burial cave, where a shiny bronze Jesus lies atop his chilly stone tomb. Combine your visit with a trip to the Lace Museum behind the church to witness lace being made the traditional way by a small group of enthusiastic locals. These days most Belgium lace is made by machine in Taiwan, but in Bruges a few keen old ladies are still churning out the real deal. However, if you really need a souvenir doily to take home, you’d better stock up on the Taiwanese stuff – the handmade method produces just a few square inches of the world’s most expensive chantilly a day.
Soak up the culture
In 2002 Bruges was voted the culture capital of Europe, and you can get more bang for your buck with the city’s €15 museum pass. Check out what is said to be a coagulated vial of Jesus’ blood at the Basilica of the Holy Blood (get there at 10am to witness the blood supposedly liquify), displays of gory medieval medical instruments at the Hospital Museum, or scoff on free samples at the Choco-Story chocolate museum. There are museums dedicated to beer, diamonds, convents and crossbows, and those with less time to spare will still be able to spot works by Michelangelo, Magritte and Bruges native Jan Van Eyck in an afternoon.