Ismat Abidi revels in gourmet chocolate and medieval architecture in northern Belgium.
An hour's train journey north-west of Brussels airport will find you in Bruges. From its humble beginnings as a port around the fifth century, Bruges became one of the first tourist destinations for the wealthy from neighbouring European countries by the 19th century. More recently, in 2000, Bruges as a city in its entirety was declared a Unesco Word Heritage Site, and named "European Capital of Culture" by the EU in 2002. So what draws visitors to this relatively tiny, oval-shaped city tucked away in the corner of Belgium's Flemish region? Hidden behind sturdy, medieval bronze doors, brick walls and stained-glass windows, Bruges has all the elements required for a great city break: breathtaking scenery, medieval architecture, scrumptious food, pedestrian-friendly streets, welcoming locals and, most importantly, plenty of gourmet chocolate.
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A comfortable bed
The areas of Bruges worth exploring are all within the city centre - the city can easily be covered in three days - so accommodation here is a good idea. Bed-and-breakfasts are a popular choice, and the smallest lodgings occasionally come with an underlying obligation to dine with the owners. Côté Canal (www.bruges-bedandbreakfast.be/) is sought after for its bespoke approach: it has three rooms and a Bruges-native owner who serves a fresh Belgian breakfast by the canal. Rooms cost from €140 (Dh732) per night.
Bonifacius Hotel (www.bonifacius.be/), one of the most expensive five-star hotels in the city, has a Michelin-starred chef and is housed in a striking, beautifully lit mansion. Canal waters lap against the outer walls and the balconies have grand views. Rooms cost from €360 (Dh1,882) per night.
Martin Relais (www.luxehotels.com/hotels/martinsrelais/specials) strikes a good balance between comfort (three-star amenities), price (€139 [Dh726] per night for a suite with a small living room) and style - a good choice for a quick break. It's worth requesting a canal-view room, usually offered at no extra cost.
Find your feet
In winter, the cafes and cold weather provide an excuse to cosy up with a hot chocolate and take advantage of low-season prices. Spring is also a good time to visit, allowing you to beat the summer rush and enjoy the seasonal tulips and daffodils scattered around the quaint buildings. A canal boat ride is highly recommended at any time of the year. The earlier you take this trip during your visit the better - you might find yourself passing by a particular building or restaurant you want to visit during your stay. If you plan to head out further afield during the warmer months, bikes can be rented at the reasonable price of €5 (Dh26) per day on average.
Meet the locals
The best way to mingle with the locals is to hop from one cafe to another, enjoying plates of frites fresh off the hob or a bucket of hot mussels on the inviting sofas. The culture of eating and drinking is so relaxed it would be almost impolite if you quickly chugged down your hot chocolate. A good place to enjoy this activity is Cambrinus (www.cambrinus.eu). It offers hearty great-value Italian and Belgian cuisine (around €10 [Dh52] per head) in comfortable surroundings, allowing visitors to spend long hours enjoying the food and conversation.
Book a table
Foodies will find it hard to be disappointed with what's on offer in Bruges. Of the many flavours that I enjoyed over the long weekend, one gastronomic experience proved the most memorable. T'Gulden Vlies (Mallebergplaats 17; 00 32 50 33 47 09; open from 7pm to 3am, closed on Monday and Tuesdays) may not be particularly striking from the outside but walk in through the wooden door with the candlelit window and you'll find a cosy nine-table restaurant offering impeccably cooked three-course Belgian meals with plenty of fresh seafood. Reservations are highly recommended. Expect to pay about €30 (Dh157) per head.
If you want to shop for clothes and shoes, hop over to Paris and Milan. While Bruges has its fair share of shops on the main street, turn off on to the Simon Stevin Plein area, where a row of chocolate shops and cafes will draw you in. Gourmet chocolate can be bought in a variety of flavours (chilli to fruit beer) and shapes (Michelangelo sculptures or abstract-art gift hampers) from Dumon or the Chocolate Line. Prices vary depending on the presentation and quality but a kilogram costs about €3 (Dh16). Before you start buying truffles for family and friends, I would recommend a tasting session. The Old Chocolate House offers traditional Belgian waffles and creamy but light hot chocolate in generously sized cups (about €8 [Dh42] per head). Head downstairs and you can also buy fresh truffles as gifts, more reasonably priced than their counterparts next door.
What to avoid
The commercial museums and chain stores. While the chocolate museum, frites museum and diamond museums may be popular, I enjoyed exploring the chocolatier areas to self-sample, stopping by a pub-cafe for a plate of frites.
Aimless wandering. The most enjoyable aspect of Bruges is the fact that there is no long list of "must-see" attractions, allowing you to set your own pace depending on your mood. It makes you want to leave your watch and phone at home the first day back at work.