Bruges: an historic gem that's perfect for lovers of Belgian beer
PUBLISHED: 16:06 10 January 2017 | UPDATED: 11:51 04 April 2017
Ever contemplated packing your bags for a new livelihood in your favourite European city? Well, it's a dream that's become a reality for one Surbiton couple who have launched a new dog-friendly B&B in the heart of Bruges
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2017
Once upon a time, Bruges was the city that the world forgot – for the small matter of 400 years, in fact. We should all be thankful that is so, for it is this that makes the city what it is today.
It was back in the 15th century, when the waterway linking city to sea silted up, that this previously bustling merchant hub was largely deserted, leaving cobbled streets, silent canals and abandoned houses. By happy coincidence, this helped hold off the tide of modernisation and created something of a time capsule of a city. It’s one of the main reasons why it’s classed as a UNESCO World Heritage City.
While you’ll find all the modern-day conveniences and fashion brands on the main shopping street, Steenstraat, and the two central historic squares, Burg and Grote Markt, are beacons to selfie-obsessed tourists, Bruges’ real magic is in its nooks, crannies and alleys.
The time out of the spotlight may also explain the lack of pretence to the place. As cities go, Bruges feels like a welcoming front room and you can walk across its breadth in minutes rather than hours.
It’s a place that my wife and I fell in love with a few years ago, and so when an invite from an enterprising couple who have moved to the mainland from Surbiton landed at Surrey Life towers, we had to pay another visit.
“We found ourselves visiting so often and living more and more like locals, so eventually we thought ‘well, why don’t we just move here?’” laughs Susie, who upped sticks with partner Nick and dogs Roxy and Dexter, to restore and then open the newly-named The Doghouse as a dog-friendly bed and breakfast.
With backgrounds in the fashion industry and car restoration, the world of hospitality was something of a leap of faith but the pair clearly have an eye for detail and the laid-back culture of the city made the decision easy.
Opened in July 2016, The Doghouse is an elegant canal-side “Gentleman’s House” with a protected facade dating back to 1750. It’s only a short walk to the centre of city life, while they have bikes available if you wish to explore the canal paths further afield.
Life in The Doghouse is at a relaxed pace and based around a large open-plan dining area and lounge downstairs (complete with an honesty bar full of Belgian beer for the evenings and rather excellent breakfasts each morning), and the property sprawls up two further floors packed with eye-catching interior design.
Our beautifully appointed canal-side room allows us to welcome in the morning with a view of swans floating down the river, while enjoying fresh coffee in bed with the windows thrown open. This. Is. The. Life.
In recent years, Bruges has perhaps become best-known in the UK for the 2008 film that bears its name (Colin Farrell and co were filmed across the city and stayed at the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce); the beer (which is playing an inspirational role in Britain’s own craft boom); and the chocolate (well, there’s always room for chocolate, right?).
But that doesn’t even touch the surface. There’s Michelangelo’s world-famous Madonna and Child at the Church of Our Lady; the Basilica of the Holy Blood; a permanent exhibition celebrating Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí; a two-mile beer pipe under the city (yup, that wasn’t an April Fool); chocolate and chip museums (not to be confused with a chocolate chip museum, of course); eating oysters at the old fish market; horse-drawn carriage rides; street after street of intensely interesting architecture… and, well, you can see why this Surrey Life writer fell in love with the place.
Before all that though, I’d highly recommend one of the boat trips to get your bearings. The canals have shaped the story of Bruges and provide a perfect introduction – you half suspect that the tour skippers, who manage to switch between coolly chatting in multiple languages while steering unerringly beneath bridges so low they almost touch the water, have second careers as secret agents. Suffice to say, that’s only briefly touching the surface of things, but the real wonder of Bruges is that there really is no rush.
As an avid foodie, the bars – ranging from cellar dwellings and alleyway hideouts to secret courtyards and cosy pubs that wouldn’t be too out of place in an English village – are something to write home about (you’ll find just a few of my favourites below…). For a behind-the-scenes peek at the brewing process, make sure to pop into De Halve Maan Brewery – if you don’t fancy the tour, you can always enjoy their beer straight from source in the courtyard. If you stay for a few, just be aware of the clip-clopping of those horse-drawn carriages as you leave!
One night during our visit, Susie and Nick take us to their local (Café ‘t Stokershuis). It’s a one-man micro-pub of sorts, where the landlord cooks, pours, entertains etc. It feels like his front room – I suppose it is, as it’s only got five tables and he lives upstairs! But the point is that it sums up Bruges rather well. Switch off your phone, sit back, relax, take a moment to contemplate and enjoy. The rest of the world’s problems will still be there tomorrow...
• Rooms for two at The Doghouse start at €145 a night (with a minimum two-night stay) and include breakfast and the use of hand-built Belgian bikes. Dogs more than welcome. For more information, visit thedoghousebruges.co.uk
Matt’s top 5 Bruges beer haunts
Okay, so this one isn’t always the most popular among the connoisseurs but as an introduction to Belgian beer it is hard to beat. One look at their famous beer wall is an eye-opener to the sheer variety of brews on offer. It is a tourist trap but time your visit right and you’ll be able to enjoy a little drink by the canal (we recommend the Kwak if you want to turn a few heads!).
Location: Wollestraat 53
2 ‘T Brugs Beertje
This one feels like an English village pub that’s replaced its farming memorabilia with beer posters, mats and other paraphernalia. It’s a cosy, intimate little place with an extremely long list of beers. A quick look around the room and you’ll be wondering how on earth the Belgians manage to stock all of their many intricately bespoke beer glasses.
Location: Kemelstraat 5
3 Café Rose Red
An absolute gem of a place, you enter Café Rose Red and find a dark wood, olde world bar... but if you head to the courtyard, you come to a hidden oasis. Either spots are idyllic places to explore the too-many-to-count beers on offer – including some varieties that have been aged in their burgeoning cellar.
Location: 16 Cordoeaniersstraat
4 Café Vlissinghe
Said to be the oldest tavern in Bruges, the tumbledown Café Vlissinghe is found a short walk out of the city centre and has been established since 1515. Legend has it that artist Peter Paul Rubens paid for his beer with paintings here. These days, you can watch people playing Krulbollen (a leisurely boule-like game) in the beautiful garden.
Location: 2 Blekersstraat
5 De Garre
Perhaps the most surprising of Bruges’ bars, as it’s the one that most tourists miss (apart from the bars found down unmarked cellars!). It’s in the heart of the city footfall and yet you’d never know, as it’s down a not particularly inviting alleyway. It’s well worth discovering, especially for their delicious 11% house beer, which is served with a bit of gouda cheese on the side.
Location: De Garre 1
P.S. There are plenty more if you want to tweet @MattWilliamsSL!