As previously mentioned, Pete, Mere, and I returned from Europe on Monday afternoon. After attending the ITB travel conference in Berlin, we drove to Brussels (ha! more about that later) and started the “hotel hunt” part of the trip. Pete and Meredith took on Brussels and I took the train to Bruges, where I spent five days checking out the hotel scene.
First impressions of Bruges
As I had never been to Bruges, my expectations were limited. I anticipated a picturesque, small town, heavily touristed, high hotel prices, and hotel owners who might not have time for me. (In some cities, after all, hotel proprietors give you the impression that they have better things to do than, say, show you all of their rooms.) I was only partially correct.
Bruges is a gorgeous place, crisscrossed but also hard to figure out what to take photos of, as it’s all just so darn pretty. Stone bridge over canal. Pretty ivy-covered houses along canal. Antique market along canal. Fish market. Main market. Canal. Bell tower. As I was also in charge of taking photos for EuroCheapo, I gravitated toward taking pictures of tourists: reading their guidebooks in the market square, lining up for French fries, posing in front of the canal…
The tourist scene
There were flocks of tourists, but not as many as I had feared. (“Feared” from a hotel inspection perspective. After all, it’s much more difficult to inspect hotels when all of their rooms are occupied.) Bruges, it turns out, is a place to go during the week. Tourists hit the city over the weekends—including throngs from neighboring Holland and France. During the week, however, there are fewer tourists, especially during the low season (autumn through Easter). Also, so many people visit Bruges as a day trip that the city seems to clear out at night, which is both refreshing and kind of spooky. However, during the high season, especially in the summer months, the city is packed and most of the hotels fill up.
Hotel and meal prices
I was surprised to find so many affordable hotels in the city center. Many hotels that I visited were in the €55-85 price range, making Bruges among the more affordable cities for lodging on the site. (As opposed to, say, Rome or Venice, with their €125 “cheapies”!) Best of all, most of the hotels were small, family-run affairs, most with fewer than 20 rooms.
Meal prices, however, were not so welcoming. I spent about an hour each night strolling the streets in search of a restaurant value. Of course, the main market square is lined with touristy restaurants offering semi-cheap set-price menus (some under €20). However, many of these serve sub-par food and charge you like mad for all incidentals (€8 water, €35 wine, etc.).
A welcoming city
Finally, the hotel owners turned out to be an especially friendly lot. Being a small town, most of them know each other (or are related to each other). Bruges has over 125 family-run bed and breakfasts, most of which rent out just two or three rooms in their homes. I spent many pleasant hours in these, chatting with the owners, looking at their art collections, their unusual doll installations (you’ll be reading about that later!), and getting a better feeling for the city.
On Sunday afternoon, the proprietor of the hotel I was staying in sent me off for my last meal in town. “You haven’t yet had Belgian ‘pannenkoek‘? You need to try Rosemary’s pancakes before you leave!” She sent me to Cafe La Plaza, just north of the market. There, in a stylish Belgian restaurant (turn-tapas-bar at night), Rosemary, a friendly grandmother (and the mother-in-law of the hotel proprietor) cooks up a storm of local dishes.
It was probably one of my favorite meals of the year: Waterzooi, a chicken stew, served over puff pastry with mashed potatoes (think “Chicken a la King”‘s Belgian cousin), two Jupiler beers, and Rosemary’s pancakes for dessert. Indeed, the pancakes were amazing, fluffy, buttery, folded, and stacked atop each other. I inhaled it all.
I told the waitress that I had been sent from the hotel to sample Rosemary’s wares. This was relayed to the pancake chef, who emerged from the kitchen, arms open, and embraced me. She then poured us both glasses of champagne.
It was probably the most memorable city exit I’ve ever made. Thank you, Bruges. And thank you, Rosemary!