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Frites, a.k.a. french fries, are a Belgian creation found on most all menus in Bruges. The best, though, are at Crowne Plaza, which is also a good place for people-watching in adjacent Burg Square. (Photo by Anne Braly)

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Medieval mainstay: Canals, cobbled streets, historic buildings give Bruges, Belgium, its charm

If there ever were a picture-postcard city in Europe, Bruges, the capital of Flanders in Belgium's northwest corner, would be near, if not at, the top of the chart. It's a city on the bucket list of many travelers, myself included.

We took the early morning train from Gare du Nord in Paris, crossing the border between France and Belgium in just under an hour. A few minutes later, we were at the station in Bruges, disembarking and loading our luggage in a waiting taxi. By 9 a.m., we were headed toward the city's historic downtown and our hotel.

Our much-anticipated trip was just beginning, and we soaked it all in: the clippety-clop of horse hooves striking ancient brick streets; boats motoring through canals lined with moss-covered stone walls; wonderful old bridges; the spires of cathedrals piercing the skies overhead; and medieval stone buildings lining the streets. The city draws millions of tourists every year to see all of this wonderment. It's also — no surprise — one of UNESCO's World Heritage cities.

Unless you speak Dutch, you'll find that the language looks like a jumble of letters thrown together with consonants in the strangest places. Fortunately, most everyone you'll encounter in Bruges speaks English, so communication is no problem in tourist destinations as well as restaurants, all of which abound within easy walking distance of most hotels in the historic district.

Put on a good pair of walking shoes — the washboard-like surface of the old cobblestone streets can cause a twisted ankle if you're not careful.

With a population of just over 100,000, Bruges is not a large city (Chattanooga, by comparison, is about 177,500). With a walkable downtown, there is a lot to discover in a city that marries history with culture, confections — a chocolate lover's dream come true — and some really good beer.

'Venice of the North'

A canal city, Bruges is known as "Venice of the North." Bridges abound, carrying walkers, cars and horse-drawn carriages to and fro. The oldest bridge in Bruges, Augustijnenbrug, dates to the late 14th century and features benches carved into the stone, once used by merchants to display their wares. Today, it's the path you take to get to the Church of Our Lady, which includes an original Michelangelo statue of "Madonna and Child." The tomb of the Duke of Burgundy is located in a hall nearby.

The cathedral is connected to the Gruuthuse, once home to a wealthy brewmaster, who, in a special room with theater-style seating, could sit with his family and watch religious services without leaving home. Gruuthuse is now a museum for collections of tapestries, lace, sculpture, furniture and silver.

Along the road to Church of Our Lady are shops heavily geared toward the tourist trade. You'll find chocolates and plenty of stores carrying Belgian lace, but try to resist. Prices in these heavily trafficked areas are a little higher than you'll find just a block or two off the main thoroughfares.

Belgian cuisine

Hungry? Belgium is known for its croquettes, among other foods, and Gruuthuse Hoff has the best cheese croquettes in the city, hands-down. It's a charming cafe you'll pass on your way to Church of Our Lady.

Other than croquettes, which you can find on most every menu, Belgium lays claim to french fries, a.k.a frites. There's even a museum dedicated to frites in Bruges. For a taste, go to any restaurant. What I found, however, is that frites I ordered at a few locally owned cafes came to the table lukewarm without a crispy edge to them. It was at Crowne Plaza, owned by the InterContinental Hotels chain, that I had the best frites in Bruges — warm, crisp and served in European fashion with mayo. Knowing we were American, our server added a side of ketchup. There's a large outdoor bar area perfect for people-watching in a neighboring park, across from which is a charming cafe, Au Petit Grand, serving excellent Chateaubriand.

For a change of taste, The Olive Tree, near Markt Square, is a small restaurant with an extensive Greek-Mediterranean menu. The lamb chops and made-from-scratch moussaka were outstanding. Like most of the city's smaller restaurants, reservations are advised.

Sightseeing

Our hotel, Bourgoensch Hof, was centrally located, making it a good choice for seeing one side of the city before heading back to deposit our purchases of chocolates and lace, resting up a bit and readying for a tour of the other side of town — the historic Markt Square and its belfry tower, erected in 1248. It's a 366-step climb to the top, but well worth it for the views it affords, and on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, you'll hear a carillon of 47 bells housed in the belfry that ring through the city. Markt Square is a huge space with a carnival-like atmosphere and overpriced restaurants and shops. Just a block off the square you'll find better bargains.

Burg Square, a stone's throw from Markt Square, features Bruges' civic center as well as the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Construction on Stadhuis (city hall) began in the late 1300s and features a painted, carved wooden ceiling with buttressed arches. The nearby basilica is famous for its relic of the blood of Christ, brought to Bruges in 1150 after the Second Crusade. Christians line up daily around 2 p.m. to enter an upstairs chapel built in the 1500s. There, they will witness a very short service followed by a viewing of the vial supposedly containing Christ's blood. If you don't get there at the appointed hour, it's still worth touring the chapel as well as another chapel from the 12th century on the first floor of the basilica.

A short walk from Burg Square found us at the entrance to Choco-Story, Bruge's museum of everything chocolate. Self-guided tours give visitors a thorough history of chocolate from its beginnings in the Aztec culture and its jump across the Atlantic Ocean, turning Europeans into chocoholics. The tour ends with a chocolatier's demonstration of chocolate truffles, as well as a delicious sampling of his creation.

Our 36 hours in Bruges came to a macabre ending with a quick tour of the Torture Museum Oude Steen (Old Castle). This is not a place for the faint of heart, as dozens of devices used for the unpleasant task of torture are on display. It's grim and eerie, but a fascinating way to spend a half hour or so and ranks as one of the top must-see museums in the city. Interestingly, it's located in one of the oldest prisons in Europe.

Accommodations

A tourist destination, Bruges has a wide range of overnight options, from hostels charging under $50 per night, to more expensive hotels with remarkable histories. Look for any hotel on the canal, such as the magical Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, a half-timbered structure from the Middle Ages now offering guests amazing views and comfortable beds. Hotel Ter Brughe is another canal-side option that dates to the year 1470. Our hotel had jaw-dropping views, but the lift was broken, so the climb to the third-floor room with our luggage was a struggle. Nonetheless, once settled, we were very much at home with a modern bath and expansive windows open to the goings-on along the canal.

A trip to Bruges is like walking into a fairy tale with a happy ending, leaving you with a lifetime of memories of one of the most-enchanting towns in Europe. Another check off your bucket list.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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