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Europe: Belgium - Brugge | Sidewalk Cafes, Bakeries & Boutiques

While there are many places in Europe to honeymoon, what better place to follow a picture-perfect wedding than the storybook town of Brugge? (It's pronounced "Broo-zh.") Like something out of a fairy tale, this well-preserved medieval Belgian town seems stuck in a time warp, with a romantic ambience that has inspired artists and writers for centuries.

Tree-lined cobblestone streets lead to arched bridges over winding canals. A belfry towers over the main square. Centuries-old buildings encircle it, housing treasures that illustrate the culture and history of this beautiful Flemish city.

Bakeries and boutiques, shops selling famous Belgian lace and chocolate, and outdoor cafes are interspersed with beautiful old hotels, many right on the canals. It would be difficult to visit here and not succumb to the city's charms. Brugge is a city for falling -- and being -- in love.

What To Do

From the 13th through the 15th century, Brugge flourished as one of the main trading centers in northern Europe -- until the River Zwin silted up, cutting off access to the North Sea. As commerce and population decreased and moved to another Belgian city, Antwerp, Brugge settled into a decline. It wasn't until the start of the 20th century that the city began a return to its former glory. Today, tourists from around the world come to see the preserved architecture and monuments of the city known as the "Venice of the North."

The "Grote Markt," or Market Square, is the center of Brugge and an excellent place to begin exploring the city. On one end stands the Belfry of Brugge, with its world-famous carillon bells that toll on the quarter hour. Built in the 1200s, this tower provides an incredible view of the city and the surrounding area, but you must climb 366 circular stone steps to reach the top. If you can't hack that trip, you can still enjoy the sight of this impressive structure from all over Brugge, letting it guide you back to the center of town if you lose your sense of direction.

At the base of the Belfry is a building called the Halles, which houses the Brugge Tourist Information Office. Wander around the square to the Provincial Palace, where the government offices of West Flanders are located, and to the Cranenburg, a small building where Maximilian of Austria was imprisoned during the 1400s.

Next to Market Square is the Burg, another large square containing the Town Hall of Brugge, the oldest town hall in Belgium. Step into the Palace of Justice to view Belgian court proceedings. Visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood, containing a holy relic -- a cloth said to be soaked with the blood of Christ. While it can only be viewed on Friday mornings, the building has impressive Romanesque architecture and is worth a stop anytime.

After visiting these two squares, you'll want to spend a day exploring the Dijver, a street with museums full of Belgian treasures. The Groninge Museum houses the Flemish Primitive works of artists such as Rogier Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling, and Hugo Van der Goes. The Arents Museum contains oil paintings, china, silver, pewter, and ink sketchings illustrating the history of Brugge. The Gruuthuse is a palace where nobles serving the Dukes of Burgundy lived. The final of the four Dijver museums on is housed within the Hospital of St. John, a charitable hospital preserved from the 12th century. Inside, the Memling Museum displays six of Hans Memling's magnificent paintings. The most efficient (and cheapest!) way to see these museums is to buy a combination pass at your first stop.

Across from the Memling Museum is the Church of Our Lady, a Gothic structure housing the only Michelangelo statue to permanently leave Italian soil. Nearby, St. Saviour's Cathedral, the headquarters of the Bishop of Brugge, has a seven-room museum and an incredible tower.

Strolling the city streets will lead you past quaint old homes, guild headquarters, convents, churches, and other architectural treasures. A short walk from the center of town will take you to the Minnewater Park, full of graceful trees and walking paths, park benches and all things green. Stop and sit by the Lake of Love, serene and ethereal -- complete with swans.

Legend has it that during the period when Maximilian of Austria was imprisoned in Brugge, his advisor, Pieter Lanchals, was decapitated. Lanchals is similar to the Dutch word for long neck. When Maximilian was freed, he ordered the city to keep swans in the canals forever. The legend may be a bit too graphic, but the Lake of Love is one of the most romantic spots in the city -- a perfect place for honeymooners to dream about their happy future!

Eating and Drinking

Although there are many cultural offerings in Brugge, the city does not have a booming nightlife. That makes it perfect for couples who want a quiet honeymoon. A leisurely dinner may be the highlight of your evening, followed by a stroll along the canals. Due to the city's proximity to the North Sea, restaurants in Brugge specialize in seafood. And the ever-popular frites (potatoes) are eaten in every restaurant and home.

Getting Around

Access to the city by car is limited, and between the cobblestone streets and tourists wandering around, you're better off without one. Brugge is a city that was meant for walking. Tourist-friendly maps are posted everywhere, listing the top attractions and pointing out their locations.

Another great way to get from place to place is by bicycle. Bikes can be rented at the train station and at several spots in the city. There are also minivan tours that pick you up at Market Square and give a good overview of the city's layout and attractions.

Perhaps the best way to see Brugge, though -- and definitely the most romantic way -- is to travel on the scenic canals by boat. Boats depart from the Dijver and the Katelijnestraat every few minutes, as soon as they fill up.

Between its culture, history, architecture, and art treasures, Brugge is a city with plenty to offer. Delectable restaurants and cozy hotels keep every visitor satisfied. Friendly Flemish residents, most of whom speak some English, welcome visitors with a ready smile. For a honeymoon right out of your dreams, there's no better place to be.

WHEN TO GO

For more information, contact the Belgian Tourist Office, (212) 758-8130.

-- Suzanne Carmel

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