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The graceful small city of Brugge, or Bruges, (pronounced brooj) has drifted down the stream of time with all the self-possession of the swans that cruise its canals. To step into the old town is to be transported instantly back to the Middle Ages, when Bruges was among the wealthiest cities of Europe. Unlike so many European cities that have had their hearts torn out by war, Bruges has remained unravaged, its glorious monumental buildings intact. UNESCO has recognized the cultural importance of the historic center by awarding it World Heritage status. The city (pop. 115,000, of whom 25,000 live in the old center) is the capital town of West-Vlaanderen (West Flanders) province, and the pride and joy of all of Flanders.

A leading contender for the title of Europe's most romantic town, Bruges is really one big attraction -- a fairy-tale mixture of gabled houses, meandering canals, magnificent squares, and narrow cobblestone streets. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about Bruges is the consistently warm welcome its residents provide to the swarms of visitors. The basis for this is more than mere economics -- those who live in Bruges love their city and can well appreciate that others want to experience it.

Medieval Gothic architecture is the big deal here. Sure, there's a layer of Romanesque; a touch of Renaissance, baroque, and rococo; a dab of neoclassical and neo-Gothic; and a smidgen of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. But Gothic is what Bruges provides, in quantities that come near to numbing the senses -- and likely would do so if it weren't for the distraction of the city's contemporary animation.

In the 15th century Bruges became a center for the Hanseatic League and has a rich heritage of civic buildings from the period -- guildhalls, exchanges, warehouses, and wealthy merchants' residences.

Coming Ashore

Cruise ships dock in the port of Zeebrugge, a port town that's about a 30-minute drive from Bruges. You can take a shore excursion to Bruges, or do it on your own via a 15-minute train ride from the nearby town of Blankenberge (there is a train station in Zeebrugge, but it has fewer facilities and fewer trains stop there). Your ship may provide a bus transfer to Blankenberge, either on a complimentary basis or for a small fee; if not you can take a taxi from the pier.

The train station in Bruges is on Stationsplein, about 1.6km (1 mile) south of town, a 20-minute walk to the town center or a short bus or taxi ride. The one-way fare from Blankenberge or Zeebrugge is 2.30€ ($2.79). For train information, call tel. 050/38-23-82.

Language

Culturally, Belgium is split into two regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Bruges is in Flanders, so you'll see and hear a lot of Dutch, but you'll also probably hear French and some German. Most people also speak English.

Currency

Belgium's official currency is the euro (exchange rate at press time: 1€ = US$1.21; $1 = .82€).

Information

The tourist office, Toerisme Brugge, at Burg 11, 8000 Bruges (tel. 050/44-86-86; www.brugge.be), is a friendly, efficient office and offers brochures that outline walking, coach, canal, and horse-drawn carriage tours, as well as detailed information on many sightseeing attractions. Ask for the complimentary monthly events@brugge newsletter and Exit brochure -- both of them excellent directories of current goings-on. In addition, there's a booth for tourist information outside the rail station.

Calling From The U.S.

When calling Belgium from the United States, dial the international access code (011) then the country code (32) and then 50, plus the six-digit number. When dialing inside Belgium add a 0 before the 50.

Getting Around

Renting a car -- or driving, for that matter -- is unnecessary in Bruges. Most day-trippers find the best mode of transportation is walking or biking, though you can take a cab if you need to. There are taxi stands at the Markt and outside the rail station on Stationsplein.

You can rent a bike from the rail station (tel. 050/30-23-29) for 9.50€ ($11.51) per day. There are also at least a dozen bike rental shops around town. Biking is a terrific way to get around Bruges. Recent traffic control measures have made bikers privileged road users -- in more than 50 of the narrow, one-way streets in the city center, bikers can travel in both directions. But some streets are one-way only and you can be fined if you're caught riding against the traffic flow.

From March to October, you can get some exercise and at the same time visit little-known parts of Bruges on a bike tour, with commentary in English, led by the QuasiMundo Bike Tours Brugge (tel. 050/33-07-75; www.quasimundo.com). You can choose a city bike or mountain bike. Tours are 18€ ($21.81). To join the two-hour ride you just have to show up at the tourist office in the Burg at 9:50 a.m.

If you'd like a trained, knowledgeable guide to accompany you in Brugge, the tourist office can provide one for 50€ ($60.60) for the first 2 hours, and 25€ ($30.30) for each additional hour. For self-guided tours, audio guides with taped details in English are available from the tourist office for 8€ ($9.70) for one or two people.

A must for every visitor is a boat trip on the city canals. There are several departure points, all marked with an anchor icon on maps available at the tourist office. A half-hour cruise is 5.20€ ($6.54). Wear something warm if the weather is cold or windy.

Another lovely way to tour Bruges is by horse-drawn carriage. Carriages are stationed in the Burg (on Wed in the Markt). Tours are 30€ ($36.35).

Fifty-minute minibus tours with Sightseeing Lines (tel. 050/35-50-24; www.citytour.be) depart hourly every day from the Markt. The tour is 11.50€ ($13.94) for adults.

Best Cruise Line Shore Excursions

Historic Bruges and Canals ($69, 4 1/2 hr.): This excursion covers the highlights of Brugge: Walk along cobblestone streets and see the Markt, the Belfry, Town Hall, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. A 30-minute ride along Brugge' canals is included, as is free time for shopping. Bus transfers to and from the port are included.

Brugge and Beer Tasting ($79, 4 1/2 hr.): Whether you're a beer connoisseur or you simply enjoy drinking it, this is the place to taste-test one of Belgium's most well-known exports. This excursion includes a walking tour of the city's highlights, plus a sit-down at a cafe where a "beer expert" will explain the history of Belgian brewing. You'll taste four different beers.

Brugge on your own: ($49, 4 1/2hr.):This "tour" is for folks who don't trust themselves to get back to Zeebrugge on their own in time for the ship to cast off, or don't want to deal with getting to and from the train station. It's basically a transfer: A motorcoach picks you up at the pier, takes you to Bruges and leaves you to your own devices until it's time to meet up again with the tour coordinator and get back on the bus.

On Your Own: Within Walking Distance

We'll start in the side-by-side monumental squares called the Markt and the Burg, to which you can access via a walk or quick taxi from the train station. Narrow streets fan out from these two squares, while a network of canals threads its way to every section of the small city. The center is almost encircled by a canal that opens at its southern end to become the Minnewater (Lake of Love), which is filled with swans and other birds and bordered by the Begijnhof and a fine park. On the outer side of the Minnewater is the rail station.

In the Markt (Market Square), heraldic banners float from venerable facades. This square, along with the Burg , is the heart of Bruges and the focal point of your sightseeing. Most major points of interest in the city are no more than 5 or 10 minutes' walk away.

The sculpture group in the center of the Markt depicts a pair of Flemish heroes, butcher Jan Breydel and weaver Pieter de Coninck. The two led an uprising in 1302 against the wealthy merchants and nobles who dominated the guilds, then went on to win an against-all-odds victory over French knights later that same year in the Battle of the Golden Spurs. The small, castlelike building called the Craenenburg (it's now a restaurant), on the corner of Sint Amandstraat at Grote Markt, was used to imprison Crown Prince Maximilian of Austria in 1482. In exchange for that humiliation, Maximilian later on exacted a penalty from the citizens of Bruges that added a note of pure beauty to the city: He obliged them to keep swans in the canals forever. The large neo-Gothic Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Palace House) dates from the 1800s and houses the government of the province of West Flanders.

Look, and listen, for the Belfort en Hallen (Belfry and Market Halls) (tel. 050/44-87-11). The Belfry was, and still is, the symbol of Brugge's civic pride. Its magnificent 47-bell carillon peals out over the city every quarter-hour, and several times a day in longer concerts during the summer. The tower itself stands 84m (272 ft.) high. If you have the stamina, climb the 366 steps to the Belfry's summit for a panoramic view of Bruges and the surrounding countryside all the way to the sea -- you can pause for breath at the second-floor Treasury, where the town seal and charters were kept behind multiple wrought-iron grilles. From the 13th to the 16th century, much of the city's commerce was conducted in the Hallen. They have recently been brought back into use, as an exhibition center operated by a consortium of local art dealers. Just outside the Hallen is a bronze replica of the Belfry and the Hallen, with descriptions in English, French, German, and Dutch, and in Braille. Admission is 5€ ($6.06).

Just steps away from the Markt is the Burg, a public square that holds an array of beautiful buildings, which together add up to a trip through the history of architecture. On this site, Baldwin Iron Arm, count of Flanders, once built a fortified castle (or "burg"), around which a village developed into Bruges. The Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) is a 12th-century Romanesque basilica with a Gothic upper floor, houses a venerated relic of Christ and is well worth a visit for the richness of its design and its other treasures. Since 1149, it has been the repository of a fragment of cloth stained with what is said to be the coagulated blood of Christ, wiped from his body after the crucifixion by Joseph of Arimathea. The relic is embedded in a rock-crystal vial, which itself is inside a small glass cylinder adorned with a golden crown at each end. Burg 13. For more information, call tel. 050/33-67-92. Basilica admission is free; museum admission is 1.50€ ($1.82). The church is closed on Wednesday afternoons.

Dating mostly from 1722 to 1727, when it replaced a 16th-century building as the seat of the Liberty of Bruges -- the Liberty being the district around Bruges in the Middle Ages -- the Landhuis van het Brugse Vrije (Palace of the Liberty of Brugge), Burg 11A (tel. 050/44-87-11), later became a courthouse, and now houses the city council's administration. Inside is the Renaissancezaal Brugse Vrije (Renaissance Hall of the Liberty of Brugge), the Liberty's council chamber, which has been restored to its original 16th-century condition. Courtyard admission free; entrance to the Renaissance Hall is 2.50€ ($3.03).

The Gothic Stadhuis (Town Hall), Burg 12(tel. 050/44-87-11), was built in the late 1300s, making it the oldest Town Hall in Belgium. Don't miss the upstairs Gotische Zaal (Gothic Room) with its ornate decor and wall murals depicting highlights of Brugge's history. Most spectacular of all is the vaulted oak ceiling, dating from 1385 to 1402, which features scenes from the New Testament. The statues in the niches on the Town Hall facade are 1980s replacements for the originals, which had been painted by Jan van Eyck and were destroyed by the French in the 1790s. The Oude Civiele Griffie (Old Civic Registry), built beside the Town Hall as the offices of the Town Clerk, has the oldest Renaissance facade in the city, dating from 1534 to 1537, and now houses the city archives. Admission to the Renaissance Hall gets you in to the Town Hall, too. Admission is 2.50€ ($3.03). Closed Mondays.

A few blocks south of the Burg at Dijver 12 is the Groeninge Museum (tel. 050/44-8711), which ranks among Belgium's leading traditional museums of fine arts. It has a collection that covers painting in the Low Countries from the 15th to the 20th century. The Gallery of Flemish Primitives holds some 30 works -- many of which are far from primitive -- by painters such as Jan van Eyck (there's a portrait of his wife, Margerita van Eyck), Rogier van der Weyden, Hieronymus Bosch (The Last Judgment), and Hans Memling. Works by Magritte and Delvaux are also on display. Admission is 8€ ($9.70).

In the courtyard next to the Groeninge Museum is the Gruuthuse Museum (tel. 050/44 8711. The Flemish nobleman and herb merchant Lodewijk Van Gruuthuse, who was a counselor to the Dukes of Burgundy in the 1400s, lived in this ornate Gothic mansion. Among the 2,500 numbered antiquities in the house are paintings, sculptures, tapestries, lace, weapons, glassware, and richly carved furniture. Admission 6€ ($7.27).

It took 2 centuries (13th-15th) to build Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerkhof Zuid (tel. 050/34-53-14), whose soaring 119m (396-ft.) spire can be seen for miles around Bruges. Among the many art treasures here is a beautiful Carrara marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. This statue, made in 1504, was the only one of Michelangelo's works to leave Italy in his lifetime and is today one of the few that can be seen outside Italy. It was bought by a Bruges merchant, Jan van Mouskroen, and donated to the church in 1506. The church also holds a painting of the Crucifixion by Anthony van Dyck, and the impressive side-by-side bronze tomb sculptures of the duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, who died in 1477, and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy, who died in 1482 at age 25, after falling from her horse. A windowpane under the tombs allows you to view the 13th- and 14th-century graves of priests. Church and Madonna and Child altar admission is free; entrance to the Chapel of Charles and Mary and the museum is 2.50€ ($3.03).

Across the street from the Church of Our Lady is the Memling Museum, housed in the former Sint-Janshospitaal (Hospital of St. John), Mariastraat 38. (tel. 050/44-87-11), where the earliest wards date from the 13th century. To get a sense of the vastness of the wards when this was a functioning hospital, take a look at the old painting near the entrance that shows small, efficient bed units set into cubicles along the walls. The 17th-century apothecary in the cloisters near the entrance is furnished exactly as it was when this building's main function was to care for the sick. Nowadays visitors come to see the typical medieval hospital buildings filled with furniture and other objects that illustrate their history, as well as the magnificent collection of paintings by the German-born artist Hans Memling (ca. 1440-94), who moved to Bruges from Brussels in 1465 and became one of the city's most prominent residents. At this museum you find such Memling masterpieces as the three-paneled altarpiece of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, which consists of the paintings The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, the Shrine of St Ursula, and Virgin with Child and Apple. Admission is 8€ ($9.70). Closed Mondays.

Head down Katelijnestraat to the Diamantmuseum (Diamond Museum) Katelijnestraat 43 (at Oude Gentweg; tel. 050/34-20-56; www.diamondhouse.net). Diamond polishing has been an important local industry for centuries, ever since Antwerp dealers, looking for cheaper skilled labor, brought the craft to Bruges. The technique of polishing diamonds using diamond powder on a rotating disk may have been invented by the Bruges goldsmith Lodewijk van Berquem around 1450. This museum focuses on the history of diamond polishing in Brugge, with demonstrations and displays of the equipment employed by the craftspeople. Museum admission is 6€ ($7.27). A diamond-polishing demonstration (daily at 12:15pm) and entrance to the museum costs 9€ ($10.91).

Through the centuries, since it was founded in 1245 by the Countess Margaret of Constantinople, the Prinselijk Begijnhof ten Wijngaarde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard), Wijngaardstraat (tel. 050/33-00-11), at the Lake of Love, has been one of the most tranquil spots in Brugge, and so it remains today. Begijns were religious women, similar to nuns, who accepted vows of chastity and obedience, but drew the line at poverty, preferring to earn a living by looking after the sick and making lace. They provided an option for women to live without a husband and children, but without becoming a nun -- there was little in the way of alternatives at the time. The begijns are no more, but the Begijnhof is occupied by Benedictine nuns who try to keep the begijns' traditions alive. This beautiful little cluster of 17th-century whitewashed houses surrounding a lawn with poplar trees and flowers makes a marvelous escape from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. One of the houses, the Begijnhuisje (Beguine's House), has been made over into a museum and can be visited, as can the convent church during a service. The Begijnhof courtyard is always open and admission is free. The Beguine's House is open from March to November. Admission is 2€ ($2.42).

Beginning in the 13th century, the rich in Bruges built godshuizen (houses of God, or almshouses), as refuges for widows and the poor, A fine example of the is the Godshuis de Vos (De Vos Almshouse), from 1713, at the corner of Noordstraat and Wijngaardstraat, near the Begijnhof. The moneybags weren't being entirely altruistic, since the residents had to pray for their benefactors' souls twice a day in the chapel that was an integral part of an almshouse's facilities. The pretty courtyard garden here is surrounded by a chapel and eight original houses, now converted to six, which are owned by the city and occupied by seniors. Admission is not permitted, but you can view the complex from over a low wall out front.

The Stedelijk Museum voor Volkskunde (Municipal Folklore Museum), Balstraat 43 (at Rolweg; tel. 050/44-87-11), is housed in the low whitewashed houses of the former Shoemakers Guild Almshouse north of the Markt and aims to re-create life in Bruges in times gone by. Exhibits depict a primary school class, a cooper's and a milliner's workshops, a spice store and a candy store, and everyday household scenes. A new emphasis is on the history of the important regional textile industry. Most refreshing of all is an old inn, De Zwarte Kat (The Black Cat), which has real beer on tap. In summer, children and adults can play traditional games in the garden. Admission is 3€ ($3.64).

Kantcentrum (Lace Center) Peperstraat 3A (at Jeruzalemstraat; tel. 050/33-00-72; www.kantcentrum.com), is a combination workshop, museum, and salesroom where the ancient art of lacemaking is passed on to the next generation. You'll get a firsthand look at the artisans making many of the items for future sale in all those lace shops. The most famous laces to look for are bloemenwerk, rozenkant, and toversesteek. Admission is 2.50€ ($3.03). Your ticket is valid also in the neighboring Jeruzalemkerk (Jerusalem Church).

The French have their vin and Portugese their port. What Belgians have is their beer. The De Halve Maan Brewery, Walplein 26 (tel. 050/33-26-97; www.halvemaan.be), was mentioned in dispatches as early as 1546, and has been in use in "modern" times since 1856. Today it produces the famous (in Belgium) Straffe Hendrik beer, a strapping blond brew that can be sampled in the brewery's own brasserie -- it has a clean, heavenly taste. Admission is 4€ ($4.85).

The now-vanished city wall once boasted nine powerfully fortified gates dating from the 14th century. The four that survive are (clockwise from the rail station) the imposing Smedenpoort; Ezelpoort, which is famed for the many swans that grace the moat beside it; Kruispoort, which looks more like a castle with a drawbridge; and Gentpoort, now reduced in status to a traffic obstacle. Only one defensive tower remains, the Poertoren, which was used as a gunpowder store and overlooks the Lake of Love.

The park that marks the line of the city walls between Kruispoort and Dampoort in the northeast is occupied by a row of very photogenic windmills. They are (from south to north) the Bonne Chière Mill, built in 1888 at Olsene in East Flanders and moved here in 1911; Sint-Janshuismolen, built in 1770; Nieuwe Papegaai Mill, an oil mill rebuilt here in 1970; and Coeleweymolen, dating from 1765, rebuilt here in 1996.

Shopping

Forget stylish shopping, what Bruges is famous for is lace. Most of it is machine-made, but there's still plenty of genuine, high-quality (if expensive) handmade lace to be found. The most famous lace styles are bloemenwerk, rozenkant, and toversesteek.

Souvenirs of a more perishable nature include Oud-Brugge cheese, and local beers such as Straffe Hendrick, Brugse Tarwebier, and Brugse Tripel. The contents of a stone bottle of jenever (gin) and a box of handmade chocolate pralines should also go down well.

Upmarket shops and boutiques can be found in the streets around the Markt and 't Zand, including Geldmuntstraat, Noordzandstraat, Steenstraat, Zuidzandstraat, and Vlamingstraat. There are souvenir, lace, and small specialty shops everywhere.

Great Restaurants & Local Bars

The attractive De Visscherie, Vismarkt 8. (tel. 050/33-02-12; www.visscherie.be), faces the old Fish Market in the town center and, as you might expect, "fruits of the sea" take top billing on the menu. Freshness is guaranteed. Main courses: 32€-53€ ($38.80-$64.27).

Small but popular, the Brasserie Erasmus, Wollestraat 35 (tel. 050/33-57-81; www.hotelerasmus.com), is a great stop after viewing the cathedral and nearby museums. It serves a large variety of Flemish dishes, all prepared with beer. About 150 different brands of beer are available (for drinking), 10 of them on tap. Main courses: 13€-18€ ($15.77-$21.83); fixed-price menu 33€ ($40.02).

The bright, modern interior of 't Koffieboontje, Hallestraat 4 (tel. 050/33-80-27), strikes a noticeably stylish contrast to the often-dark ambience of many Bruges restaurants. An extensive menu is equally cheery, featuring good, but not fancy, seafood specialties such as lobster and salmon, and Belgian staples such as mussels, steak, and sole. Main courses: 9.75€-17€ ($11.82-$20.61).

In the bar department, 't Brugs Beertje, Kemelstraat 5 (tel. 050/33-96-16), is a traditional cafe that serves more than 300 different kinds of beer. 't Dreupelhuisje, Kemelstraat 9 (tel. 050/34-24-21), does something similar with jenever, stocking dozens of artisanal examples of this spirit. Gran Kaffee De Passage, Dweersstraat 26 (tel. 050/34-02-32), is a quiet and elegant cafe that serves inexpensive meals.

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