Death by chocolate

31st July 1998 at 01:00
Travel snobs would rather stay at home than visit Bruges. But they don't include David Budge who makes his sixth visit to the medieval Belgian city.

The old man was dead by the time the Bruges ambulancemen carried him out of the restaurant and into the cobblestoned square. His face was grey but it showed no signs of distress. Dying at an advanced age after a good lunch in Belgium's most picturesque city is hardly the worst of exits - particularly if the Grim Reaper calls between coffee and the presentation of the bill, perhaps with a Belgian chocolate.

Of course there are travel snobs who claim they would rather die than go to Bruges. "Medieval theme park," they mutter. But that's unfair, even if few buildings are quite as ancient as they seem.

I have visited Bruges six times since 1974, and have seen it in every season and with the widest range of companions (my wife, my parents, an 88-year-old friend in a wheelchair, and an Irish football team, most of whom returned home without seeing the canals, having made the mistake of popping into a bar for "just one" beer as they emerged from the railway station). Every visit has been enjoyable - largely because Bruges has a rare ability to absorb the tourist hordes while retaining its own character.

This trick is becoming harder to pull off now that the city is only an hour's drive from the Eurotunnel. But during the February and October half-terms British teachers can still glimpse the desert-like peace that Wordsworth found in Bruges.

However, if you visit the city in summer it is worth remembering that when you walk can be as important as where you walk. When I last visited Bruges on a sultry weekend in May I woke early and left my centrally-located hotel while the fat (and, I am sorry to say, English) woman at the next table was tucking into the first of her six breakfast rolls (four on her plate and two slipped slyly into her handbag).

Two minutes later I reached the Belfry, the city's symbol, just as the horse-drawn tourist carriages came clattering into the market-square in search of their first customers. I then ambled past the lace shops of Breidelstraat, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood (where dried blood said to have been washed from Jesus's body is kept in a silver phial).

I was heading East for a lazy walk along the grassy mound that marks the perimeter of the city wall and during the next hour-and-a-half I met only five other tourists, one of whom was sketching one of the many canalside houses that have geranium-covered shrines to the Virgin Mary over their doors.

Bruges officials claim that canal water is so clean that the mayor drinks it. As one canal is known as the "stinker" that's hard to believe. But on this particular weekend, the air was heavy with blossom scents.

In Predikherenrei I gazed at the flowering chestnut trees above a statue honouring the singer Jacques Brel and was almost flattened by an elderly woman speeding past on her bicycle.

There were other geriatric cyclists on the path that runs between Kazernevest and the arterial canal encircling the city. But luckily they had dismounted and were swapping gossip in deep, gutteral Flemish.

Having passed the Kruispoort, a restored medieval gateway, I stopped to photograph the first of four windmills overlooking the canal and idly watched a plump wood pigeon enjoying the equivalent of a six-roll breakfast in a nearby allotment.

The sails of one windmill were gently turning. But no one stirred on the three huge industrial barges moored by the path. Having run a stick along their hulls I turned into Potterierei, a typical Bruges street lined by crow-stepped-gable brick houses and some imposing church buildings.

I interrupted the walk to visit the sumptuous baroque chapel next to the Museum onze-Lieve-Vrouw ter Potterie. And as I re-emerged into the street and headed back to the city centre I noticed a blind man tapping his way along the canal wall.

"What a shame he can't enjoy the view," I thought. But my pity was immediately dispelled by the smell of hot waffles drifting from a cafe. Bruges is a city that can stimulate all the senses.

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