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Beguiled by Brugge

Enhanced by golden autumn days, a remarkably preserved medieval city of canals enchants the visitor with a feast of history, food, beer and art

September 24, 2000|SERGIO ORTIZ | Sergio Ortiz is a freelance writer and photographer in Malibu

BRUGGE, Belgium — It had been raining for days in Paris. Chilly gusts ripped the leaves from the chestnut trees, and the City of Light was covered with a leaden pallor, making me regret my choice for a fall vacation.

In between a couple of dashes to museums, I spent several days cooped up in a small Left Bank hotel, napping in my room, reading newspapers in the lobby, staring out the window at the rain pelting the cobblestones.

The hotel receptionist heard my griping and said that if she had the opportunity to get away, she'd go someplace where autumn is beautiful and dry. One such place was only three hours away by train. "Ah, Brugge," she said in that theatrical tone the French adopt when speaking about art or food. "Belgium--Flanders, to be exact--is perfect in the fall, and you can be there in no time."

I'd never thought much about Flanders, the coastal part of Belgium, but if I had, I suppose I'd picture it as gray, all watery lowlands and damp stone. But when the storm in Paris continued with no letup in sight, I was ready to take my chances.

Trains leave hourly from Paris' Gare du Nord, destination Amsterdam with a stop in Brussels, where there's a connection to Brugge. ("Bruges" is the French spelling in bilingual Belgium; the Flemish spelling is "Brugge.")

My escape from the rain did not have a promising start. On the way to the train, the Metro line I was riding broke down and passengers were ordered off. I was swept up in a stampede of commuters lunging for the street above, where the rain made funnels of light from the street lamps. I beat a pair of office workers to a taxi. The 15-minute ride took almost three-quarters of an hour because of rain and traffic snarls. I caught the train seconds before it began to roll.

At the Belgian border, the rain stopped. Fields of sunflowers and weathered barns looked fresh in the gilt-edged morning. Beyond Brussels, the land flattened into marsh, and the clear gray sky grew wider. After we'd gone 50 miles, the spires of Brugge came into view.

On the short shuttle ride from the train station to Market Square (Grote Markt), the heart of the city, I had to agree with the Parisian hotel receptionist: Brugge in autumn is a dream. Or a movie set. My first impression was that I had stepped into a nearly perfect model of a medieval town. Three- and four-story gabled brick buildings line the narrow streets and canals that wind through the old city center. The Market Square is sort of an architectural museum, with the city hall, begun in 1248, and its belfry presiding over buildings as recent as 1921. A city of more than 100,000, Brugge wears an engaging air of tranquillity combined with elegance.

I had the good fortune to arrive on a Saturday morning, market day in Grote Markt. Colors gushed from flower stands, and the smells of bread, cheese, wine and meat reminded me I hadn't eaten since the night before.

In a cafe fragrant with hot chocolate and coffee, I feasted on a huge waffle with whipped cream and sour cherries.

A friendly waiter told me that the best way to see Brugge is on foot, and that all the best landmarks are nearby. Nodding to the scene outside, he said the market had been a weekly event in one form or another since 985.

I thought I misunderstood, but a guidebook confirmed that the town sprouted from a Viking post in the 9th century. Since Brugge once was connected to the North Sea by a narrow inlet, its name is probably derived from the Old Norse "Bryggia," which means "harbor"; and, yes, the market has been going on for more than 10 centuries.

What I intended to be an overnight trip as a break from bad weather turned into a four-day stay. While I learned every night from CNN that Paris was still being pummeled by rain, Brugge was bathed in the golden glow of early autumn in the northern latitudes.

The air of relaxation in Brugge borders on somnolence. What else would you expect in a town whose best-known products are lace and chocolates?

The ancient quarter is bursting with chocolatiers and lace makers, and it doesn't take long to learn more about Belgian lace than you care to know. I stopped at a lace shop to take pictures, and the proprietor gave me a Cliff's Notes version of the history of her wares. She was especially proud of something called Duchesse lace, which, as far as I could understand, is used for doilies.

Chocolate is a more enjoyable passion, and Belgian chocolate is often mentioned as the world's best. In Brugge, chocolate shops seem as common as bakeries. You feel a sugar high coming on just by walking in.

Even without chocolate and lace, the city would be captivating, with its clean, efficient and orderly northern European manner. The medieval heart of Brugge is dominated by the Halle, a 13th century building that served as a warehouse when the city was a main player in the powerful Hanseatic League, the medieval trade cartel.

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