“If people want to make a film here, they just dress people in costumes. You don’t have to change anything else,” says our city guide, the evocatively named Christian de Schoolmeester.
That this film-set town remains intact despite the kind of tourism that has swans vying for space with back-to-back boat cruises and chocolate shops giving into the baser demands of edible genitalia, is perhaps Bruges’ greatest achievement.
But what else to do in this corner of Belgium after you’ve explored the town, loaded up on slabs of chocolate and eaten more mussels and chips than you thought was physically possible?
Haul yourself up 366 steps to the top of the Belfort and you might get a few ideas. On a clear day, you can see past the town’s medieval layout to the sea. Belgium’s biggest tourist attraction is just a stone’s throw from the lesser-known charms of its coastline.
Barge your way
Trains and buses run between Bruges and the coast, but for sheer novelty factor why not take a barge? A paddle steamer runs along the Damse Vaart, passing grazing sheep, pottering ducks and the odd windmill to arrive 35 minutes later at Damme.
You’re still inland at this point, but this book town is worth the detour particularly if you like a touch of the bizarre. Here you’ll find bookshops that specialise in Smurf comics, hairdressers that will process your photos and a scary-looking chastity belt on display in the town hall. After books, Damme’s main passion is food and you won’t have to look hard for some tasty Flemish fare.
Cycling by numbers
This part of West Flanders is nothing if not cyclist-friendly, and if you need proof head to a tourist office and ask for a map to the Bruges woodland and wetland cycling network. It will show numbers that correspond to junctions – there are 230 of them in the area and a total network of 900km – and access points where you can hire bikes.
Once you’ve worked out your route (the kilometres marked on the map give you an idea of the distance you’re planning), jot the numbers on a tag that attaches to your bike and off you go.
Our path took us from the smart boutiques of coastal town Knokke (nothing like unfurling your map outside Louis Vuitton to make you feel glam) along the windswept seafront to Heist. Here we turned inland, pedalling past cornfields, through tiny villages and finally along the tree-lined avenue beside the Leopald canal.
And the best part of cycling in Flanders? It’s almost entirely flat.
Get on track
De Kusttram (the coast tram) skirts almost the whole 66km of the Belgian coastline, trundling from Knokke in the north east down to De Panne near the French border. It would take two hours to ride the entire journey, but with 70 stops along the way you can easily hop on and off. If you only do one stretch, make it south from Ostend.
Leaving behind the resort once favoured by royalty, the seaside buzz peters out until you feel like the tram is running along the vast, empty beach, the crashing sea one side and the rolling dunes the other.
As you pass the open-air Atlantic Wall Museum, dedicated to coastal fortifications built during both world wars, you can see searchlights and heavy artillery pointing ominously out to sea. One journey costs €2 and a day ticket is €5.
Use wind power
After taking it easy on the tram get some wind in your sails in De Panne, where sand-yachting was invented. The widest beach on the Belgian coast coupled with a generous helping of wind provide the perfect terrain for the sport that’s best described as go-karting with a sail.
“Today it’s very important to have a green sport,” says local Peter Cappelle, as we watch pro-sand yachters swarm across the beach using only the wind for power. “And sand-yachting is popular because it’s easy to learn.”
It was so popular I didn’t get a chance to test the theory — book ahead if you want a one-hour lesson at Lazef (+32 58 41 57 47; www.lazef.be).
If you’re out of luck there are plenty of other ways to harness the gales at De Panne, 30 minutes from Calais. Choose between kite-buggying, wind-surfing,
kite-surfing and common-or-garden kite flying.
» Amy Adams travelled to Belgium with SeaFrance (0871-2222 500; www.seafrance.com). Dover-Calais crossings start from £22 each way online for any duration and from £25 return for a day trip.