Well, what is there to say about Bruges, Belgium (Brugge) that hasn’t already been said in one of my favorite films in recent memory, In Bruges?
While visiting a friend and vacationing in Amsterdam, the siren songs of Bruges were impossible to resist. Depending on how many transfers you have, Bruges is just a three to four hour train ride from Amsterdam, and what better way to see more of Northern Europe than by train? It was interesting to see the flat farmlands of The Netherlands, reclaimed from the water through their ingenious designs of dikes, dams and canals. Off in the distance windmills both ancient and modern could be seen and quaint small towns were passed by until we reached Belgium. On the way back to Amsterdam we even got to see a little bit of Antwerp during an hour layover at possibly the world’s most beautiful train station. Who knew, however, that Belgium is apparently considered the armpit of Northern Europe, as my friend (who has lived in both Belgium and New Jersey – another famous armpit we share in heritage) confirmed the theory I was developing while the train rattled through more small towns and rundown graffiti-strewn cities. But…who cares when Belgium is also home to the world’s best waffles, chocolate and beer? And…well…Bruges.
Martin McDonagh’s endearing black comedy captured Bruges perfectly. When Ken (Brendan Gleeson) fumbles over the phone with Harry (Ralph Fiennes) when trying to describe how Ray (Colin Farrell) felt about Bruges…he was spot on. Getting off at the train station, your first thought might be what the hell…maybe Bruges is a shit hole? But as soon as your feet hit those cobblestone streets and your eyes take in all the architecture, churches and canals, Belgium’s best preserved medieval city really is like a fuckin’ fairytale, innit? I mean, honest to god, Bruges is probably the most unabashedly beautiful city I have ever seen. Bruges knows exactly what it is, why people come, and it luxuriates you in its very essence.
Of course, the film buff in me couldn’t help get all kid-wild and giddy doing the In Bruges reality tour. There wasn’t a spot we didn’t hit between great beer (try one of the local cellar pubs for a fun laid-back night spot) and good grub, from the Belfry to Bruges Square to all the nooks and crannies of Konigin Astrid Park. We saw the hotel where Ray & Ken stayed, the swans, the famous dog by the canal, the fancy French restaurant where Ray hit the Canadians, and the tower Harry walked briskly by upon his entry into the city. The film played a bit with geography and points of view (Harry’s walk was really long while Ken’s view into Konigin Astrid Park is an impossibility due to a tree line) but is otherwise breathlessly faithful to reality. But of course, the full beauty of Bruges can only be seen to be believed.
McDonagh was also spot on in his feelings that you probably don’t want to spend too much time there. We did all of Bruges in 24 hours with one overnight stay (at the lovely Hotel Die Swaene), and you really don’t need any more time than that. It’s the type of place you might want to return to years later to bring the kids or a spouse, but not the type of place you would need to visit over and over to fully experience it, as part of the beauty of Bruges is that is never changes.
A visit to the Groeninge Museum (also featured in the film) is essential for its amazing Flemish primitive collection. A canal ride is an absolute must (ours was perfectly timed at twilight) as is a traipse up the 366 increasingly winding, narrow and precipitous steps of the famous Belfry where you can take in a view, that as Ken in the film proved, is to die for.
In the end, Bruges n’est pas merdique…Bruges est tres magnifique!
And now for some photos:
Written and Photographed by David H. Schleicher