We arrived at Bruges, Belgium around sunset, as we’d spent the afternoon in Aachen.
Upon arrival, we hadn’t seen much of the city, but our hotel offered a great first impression. It is fairly modern-looking, with exposed brick walls and those fancy little studio lights. The real kicker, however, was that we are on the basement floor, with two giant picture windows that open out right onto Bruge’s serene canals. That’s right, we’re not on the shoreline, there is water directly below, lapping gently on the hotel wall. I could jump out of the window and go swimming right now if I wanted to!
I have never stayed anywhere right on the water like this before, and it’s actually magical.
I opened up the windows to get a better look at the canals, and got to wave to a boat of tourists and they zipped by. Not even a minute later, a swan came swimming up to our window and just floated there with us for a little while. My roommate took to serenading the swan with opera, which appears to have been appreciated by all swans and ducks in attendance.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t hang around looking out the window for too long, because it was late and we needed to find some dinner before every place closed up.
We found it only appropriate start off our travels in Belgium with some Belgian waffles! Thankfully, there is a stand that was open very close to our hotel, and I got mine with chocolate and strawberries. I feel like this goes without saying, but the waffles were fantastic.
While sitting at a table chatting, some church bells started to chime, and instead of the normal “ding-dong-ding” kind of sound, the clock tower started to chime to the tune of what you might hear in a music box. That was my first clue that Bruges might just be a real-life story book.
The next day started off in the hotel’s breakfast room with its ivy-covered windows. I think that one thing I’ll particularly miss about Europe when this is over is the breakfasts!
The Groening Museum
While it’s one of Bruges’s smaller museums, the Groening museum, features Belgium’s art throughout the ages, as well as some of the Flemish works that preceded it.
It also contains one of my favorite works that we studied while at Oxford: the The Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele. It is an oil painting, and the colors on this painting are gorgeous reds, blues, and greens. The way that Mary and the saints’ cloaks are folded shows off the incredible craftsmanship that went into painting it. The old man kneeling in the white robe is also a self-insert by the patron who commissioned the portrait, and I always find those funny.
We also got to see the Moreel Triptyc by Hans Memling, and if you recognize that name, good job! He painted a lot of tryptics over the course of his life. This one is significantly less apocalyptic than some of the others, which is nice. In this triptyc, Saint Christopher is holding up baby Jesus, and the side panels feature many devoted saints, and many, MANY more self inserts.
One final piece worth mentioning is the portrait of Margareta van Eyck. Completed by her husband, the famed Jan van Eyck, I’ve been looking forward to seeing this portrait because let’s face it, she is rocking that hairstyle.
There is much more to see at the Groening museum, of course, and the expressive and colorful figures in Belgian art will keep you entertained. Because it is a smaller museum, there were hardly any other visitors when my class was there, so this is a great place to find some quiet and see some great art.
After our time at the Groening museum, we were whisked away to another of Bruge’s museums, Sint-Janhospitaal, or the Memling museum. Besides standing as one of Europe’s oldest hospitals, it also holds six of Hans Memling’s masterpieces.
Besides holding lots of Belgian art and artifacts, its got a ton of history and walking around in the beautiful building is enough to make this museum worth a visit.
On of my favorite Memlings we got to see is the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, if only because one side features Mary handing a scary looking baby an apple (what kind of baby can eat an entire uncut apple?!), and the right side features the patron, who looks like he may be breathing with his mouth open.
I also really liked the abundance of nun-art, I feel like nuns don’t always get the credit they deserve. I suppose it makes sense because nuns were the ones running these hospitals.
Overall, I love art museums placed in historic buildings, and so Sint-Janhospitaal was a great stop for Bruges.
For lunch, we settled on a little cafeteria-like place. I wanting to try some more Belgian staples: beef stew and fries. A picture of health, I know.
As to be expected, they were both very tasty and made for a filling meal. That wasn’t going to stop us from participating in another Belgian tradition, though, we still had to try their world famous chocolate!
Making Belgian Hot Cocoa at the Old Chocolate House
Our professor, a pinnacle of knowledge, told us we had to have the hot chocolate here in Bruges, as they do hot cocoa differently than anywhere else. After having some fantastic cocoa at the Louvre in Paris and at the Caffe Florian in Venice, I worried my taste buds would be too spoiled to really appreciate the delicacy, but I worried for not!
Choosing just one can be difficult, there are chocolate shops as far as the eye can see along the streets of Bruges. Often times you can smell them before you see them! However, our search was made a little easier by employing a quick google search, which directed us towards the highly rated Old Chocolate House.
The Old Chocolate House is in one of the many little multi-story shops lining the streets. The interior is dark and wooden and feels appropriately cozy for the drinks they serve.
The menu is actually staggering with the number of options you get to choose from. The two standard options are Belcolade and Callebaut, two of the primary cocoa bean producers localized to Belgium. That’s how you know it’s the real deal! I struggled between which to choose, since I didn’t need anything fancy, I just wanted the Belgian chocolate experience.
You can also choose how much cocoa you want in your melting chips. This is where I learned that milk and white chocolate are just a lower percentage of cocoa that dark chocolate! I knew I wanted dark chocolate, and the waitress recommended the Callebaut cocoa, so it was dark chocolate Callebaut hot cocoa for me!
When they brought out our trays, I was delighted! I never realized how interactive the hot-chocolate making process was, but to make your cocoa, you receive a wide ceramic mug full of hot cream, a bowl of the house’s special melting chocolate chips, all contained in a bowl that is ALSO MADE OF CHOCOLATE, and a tiny whisk to stir in the chocolate. If that isn’t enough sweetness for you, a small tray of sugar cookies is also provided for the table.
Picking up the chocolate bowl of melting chips, we all dropped our bowls in the mugs at the same time, and began to whisk away. The chocolate began melting immediately as we got to watch our cream swirl together with the rich chocolate. The smell is indescribable- toasty and heavenly chocolate!
Next, of course, it’s tasting time!
I have never cried upon tasting a delicious food, and I won’t say I did fully that day. However, I can’t deny that upon taking my first sip of Belgian hot cocoa, my friends and I all looked at each other with tears in our eyes. Yes. That is not an exaggeration. It is just that good.
After tasting delicious hot cocoa all over Europe, I can tell you with confidence that Belgian hot cocoa is the best of the best. Luckily, the mugs provided were big, and although I was determined to enjoy every last drop, the richness filled you up fast.
Making our cocoa at the Belgian Chocolate house was by far the highlight of the day. Like many things I’ve tried to describe, words on a screen can’t do the experience of drinking Belgian chocolate its due diligence. It was so good, in fact, that I filled up my limited carry-on backpack with chocolate melting chips for my friends and family back in the states. If you’re reading this, sorry if it melts on the way home!
Bruges is just awesome! I truly have never been anywhere like it, and I don’t have a single bad thing to say! It reminds me of the Hans Christian Anderson books we used to read as kids. I cannot wait to spend a few more days exploring this part of Belgium, and I can’t wait to recap it on this blog!