Bruges is one of those classically European towns that just oozes with charm and beauty. It’s almost as if Disney had masterminded the entire visitor experience, from horse drawn carriages to the intricately gabled roofs. Add to this the magic of the Christmas holiday season and a walk through Bruges is one of the best things you will ever do in your life.
It was December 23rd and our last day in Belgium. We started early and arrived on the first train into Bruges, just a short one-hour ride from Brussels. It’s a common route, Bruges is well known for its storybook charm and most visitors to Brussels try to visit if only for an afternoon to see what all the fuss is about for themselves. And that’s exactly why I was there, to witness this hypothetical charm and to enjoy some general holiday merriment.
We’d been in Europe for a week and frankly had become a little immune to the awe-inducing features of your average Christmas market. The first one I saw was a great experience. The streets were filled with happy shoppers, snacking on waffles drenched with chocolate and sipping hard cider and mulled wine. I stopped by little huts with arts and crafts, watched kids ice skate and just loved being out with everyone else enjoying the season. By the fifth market some of that original surprise and merriment had left and so it was with only mock interest that I browsed through the two markets I found in Bruges.
Instead of the prescribed sources of holiday amusement, I was on a mission, a mission to find chocolate. Granted, this isn’t exactly a hard task in Belgium, the unofficial world capital of the chocolate industry, but I had a specific one in mind. A friend had recommended a small shop, Dumon’s, run by an eccentric family and known for amazing sweet treats.
The bell above the door jingled as I entered the small shop and the smells of a hundred different forms of chocolate assaulted my senses and at once brought me back to the Christmas spirit. The holiday is so childlike that when we smell or see those triggers from our first Christmases, memories and sensations come rushing back. And that’s what happened to me standing there in the middle of the Dumon chocolate shop in Bruges.
Twenty minutes later my partner and I were standing at a nearby street corner downing chocolates like Augustus Gloop before he fell into Mr. Wonka’s river. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing, and so that’s what we did in Bruges. Sure we went to a museum or two, but that’s not what was important. What was important was walking across the small canals and stopping to look at the narrow homes practically underwater thanks to their precarious position on the waterways. By accident we wandered onto the grounds of a small beguinage or nunnery with signs everywhere demanding our silence.
After several hours of walking, two cones of fries and a second replenishing stop at Dumon’s, we jumped back on the train and left for our apartment in Brussels.
After years of hype and buildup, I had finally experienced the famously cute village of Bruges. Some love it for its Euro-charm, others hate it for not being as authentic as places like Ghent and Antwerp. I loved it though, all of it. I think it had to do with the holiday: the chill in the air, the smell of chocolate and spiced wine and the jingling of the sleigh bells. That IS Christmas, it’s the promise, it’s the storybook we almost never get at home in the U.S. and at that moment a new tradition was born. I was so in love with the atmosphere and the traditions of a European style Christmas, something I had always wanted to experience, that at that moment I pledged to enjoy as many Christmas holidays as possible in Europe. And so, I owe Bruges a tremendous amount of thanks and I hope that one day you too will get to experience the promise of a traditional Christmas in one of the best towns in the world.