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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2000

A surprise of size in Bruges


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

BRUGES, Belgium -- For a small city, many things are surprisingly big in Bruges.

The facades of the restaurants and shops facing onto the vast expanse of the market square are slowly taking on the dusty reds and oranges of the setting sun, while the shadow of the massive Belfort tower inches across the cobbles. The 800-year-old octagonal spire is visible far across the city's surrounding polders and its 47 bells weigh 27 tons.

Tourist boats ply the Bruges waterways in the shadow of Belfort Tower.

More impressive, however, are the portions served up in Bruges's restaurants. Sitting on the terrace of La Civiere d'Or I can barely lift the Grunbergen Blond, served in a thick, dimpled liter glass, to my lips. The steaming mussels are served in huge black saucepans.

Meals here are not simply a time to eat; the people of Flanders make dinner an occasion for all the family to get together for a few hours. Often an extended family will take over an entire terrace.

I'm feeling a bit full myself (of a plate of enormous waffles topped with strawberries and enough whipped cream to drown in), so I stretch my legs by exploring the narrow cobbled streets to the south of the square that wind past red-brick houses before emerging onto the Dijver, which runs alongside one of the most photographed stretches of canal in the city.

While other cities have ring-roads, Bruges has a series of waterways that circle its center. What were once the arteries of a fortified town, when its prestige and wealth was built on Flemish cloth, have become a tourist attraction.

I start out the next day by boat. The sun blazes down as we pass other waterways that lead all the way to the sea at Ostende and Zebrugge, and beneath low bridges. Passersby could lean over the railings and touch us as we go by.

Our guide identifies some of the buildings that crowd the canalside, including the Huisbrouwerij Staffe Hendrik brewery, and the Gruuthuse Museum, a 15th-century mansion that is a time capsule of life in Bruges 600 years ago.

Back on dry land, the pavement cafes are already doing a brisk trade and I follow the Steenhouwersdijk as it leads into the square dominated by the fish market. The market is nearly done for the day; the blocks of ice are melting on the cobbles and the traders are throwing the crates into the backs of their vans as the last housewives pick over the remaining specimens.

A small-bricked bridge reaches over the canal and opens onto the Burg -- another of the city's innumerable squares, but this one is the jewel in the city's crown.

The southern facade of the enlarged courtyard comprises the finest group of buildings in Bruges, including the Basilica of the Holy Blood, named after the holy relic that found its way here in 1150. The church's lower chapel is a crypt with low ceilings and deep shadows, while the upper chapel is richly decorated and houses the rock crystal phial said to contain blood and water washed from the body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea.

Beside the basilica stands the Stadhuis, its exterior a series of intricately carved sandstone statues and turrets. Tourists sitting at tables in front of the Tom Pouce Taverne lower their sunglasses to watch as evening shadows slide across the buildings' weathered faces.

Each June, Bruges stages the Klinkers music festival, attracting buskers and recognized bands from all over Europe. Stages are set up in many of the squares and as the sun goes down, the lights and microphones come on.

I find myself following a fair rendition of Van Morrison's "Gloria" down a narrow alleyway that opens abruptly into Wal Plein. Arc lights are strung up in the plane trees, shining down onto the rickety stage where a three-piece launches into "Living Next Door to Alice."

They are not quite booed off stage by the good-natured patrons of the bars around the edge of the square, but it's hard to tell whether the applause is for the music or their departure as they step down off the stage.

Two children no more than 5 years old immediately make the spotlight their own and mimic a drums-and-guitar set to the backing music. They get more applause.

The following morning I make my way to Steenstraat, just off the market square, where one entire shop is dedicated to arguably the most famous Belgian of all time.

Ask the average person to name a Belgian who has made their mark on the world and you are likely to get a blank stare. Belgians, it seems, are quite content with anonymity. The most well-known Belgians are fictitious: Tintin, the resourceful boy reporter and hero of Herge's cult-status comic books, along with Snowy, his faithful dog, have an entire store devoted to their adventures. In the window is a model of the rocket that took our intrepid two-dimensional heroes to the moon (along with Professor Calculus and Captain Haddock) and framed prints from the books.

But I have missed a uniquely Belgian treat. In truth, I have been putting it off to the last minute before my departure.

Shops with mouth-watering displays of chocolate, in every variant imaginable, are almost as ubiquitous in Bruges as its cobblestones. The store that I plump for offers a bewildering choice to the uninitiated.

An assistant sees my dilemma and helps me choose the perfect chocolates for family and friends back home. Let's face it, you can't really go too far wrong with chocolates as a souvenir.



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