Bruges Provides More than a Fantasy Escape

If your only association with Bruges is the dark, British comedy flick, starring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, think again.

The small, medieval city is perfect for a weekend break from London. Eurostar is the getaway car, with an efficient transfer in Brussels, or a longer layover if you choose.

The good stuff begins even before you hit the platform. King’s Cross, London’s once gritty neighborhood known only for its cheap, fleabag hotels and the train station, has undergone a total transformation, inside and out.

King’s Cross/St. Pancras (KC for domestic travel, SP for the Eurostar) is finally punching at its weight compared to other European railway stations, with restaurants, shopping and bars. Outside the station, most cities suffer the same problem: surrounded by seedy areas which send tourists directly onto the metro or into taxi cabs to flee. But with a super trendy food and drink scene, King’s Cross is now where Londoners, let alone tourists, come for a good time any night of the week.

Stay in any one of the boutique hotels near the station the night before an early train to take advantage this now very hip destination.

The train station in Bruges is a short taxi or bus ride from the city center where Farrell and Fiennes fans can retrace locations from the movie with a guided map.

Martin’s Relais Hotel is part of a small chain of Dutch properties. Stepping inside is like travelling back in time, into an old, private home of the gentry. A chandelier sparkles in the sitting room, with views of the canal, a fireplace, and good, Dutch coffee and biscuits as a welcome. Rooms of faded elegance with comfortable, large beds create a setting for wonderful memories. Bathrooms are modern, with some boasting twin rainforest showers. A grand, old armoire provides plenty of storage, and rooms either overlook the canal, or a quiet, pretty courtyard.

It’s a short walk to the market square, and beyond, where chocolate shop after chocolate shop seduces the weak, into “just one more taste,” of this city’s pride and joy. Sampling as you go is part of the fun, but saving plenty for later, for a proper taste test back in the room, is essential, especially if you compare similar flavors.

We fancied ourselves connoisseurs, as we rated some of the mass produced truffles against the smaller, artisan chocolatiers. There were some surprises, but, generally, the finer the chocolate, the more subtle the taste. Breakfast at Martin’s Relais is in a lovely, rustic room beautifully decorated with provincial wood tables and sideboards, with drawers open and filled with jams, honeys and Belgium’s answer to peanut butter – Speculoos, a paste made of ground cinnamon biscuits.

Fluffy scrambled eggs, croissants (of course), raisin brioche, smoked salmon, charcuterie, and the rest of the usual breakfast goodies are enough to last til supper time, or a late afternoon chocolate stop.

Museums about Belgium’s famous frites, and, of course, chocolate, are amusing, but serious art lovers will adore the Picasso exhibit. The private gallery is supported by a Spanish foundation, which explains its name, but don’t be fooled. Amid the great one’s works, there are plenty of pictures by Matisse, Signac, and others which make this a must.

We stop in Brussels on our way back to London to hit the local Sunday market, just a 20-minute walk from the station, and hop on the tram in search of the Horta museum. Set in a residential neighborhood, with a hefty line outside due to its short opening hours, its well worth the wait for a wander around the home of Victor Horta, art nouveau’s most famous architect.

At Brussels’ train station; it’s our last chance for macarons and chocolate. The large shop just before the food court looks like a tourist trap, and it may be, but it holds its own in the taste test.


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