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Bruges at Christmas

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Bruges, Belgium is medieval European charm personified, and its perfectly preserved character makes it a hit with tourists throughout the year. There’s no exception to the rule once holiday season rolls around, and the stunning setting of its Christmas market makes it a major draw for visitors in search of old-world ambiance. 

The market’s storybook setting is the Grote Markt, an expansive market square surrounded by gabled houses, the Cloth Hall and a former palace. The eye-catching ensemble is presided over by a towering belfry with a distinctive octagonal tower. Once the short gray days of November have closed in, the city dons its holiday attire and festive lights are strung, a giant spruce erected, and an old-fashioned carousel set up. An ice-rink completes the wintry scene.

A collection of stalls go up to sell the typical holiday fare of handicrafts, ornaments, candle holders, accessories and other items for gift-giving. Those in search of a present that’s true to origins might consider not just the goods in the market stalls but the city shops. Bruges’ specialties include chocolate (Dumon, Oliviers), beer (Brugse Zot) and hand-made lace (the genuine item won’t come cheap). Antique shops are another place to pick up unique pieces.

When hunger strikes, growling tummies can be satisfied by heading to one of the stalls serving Belgian staples. Waffles topped with chocolate, speculoos, whipped cream or berries, or frites served with a dollop of mayo or one of dozens of special sauces always satisfy. For full-fledged meals featuring fish or game, one of the many cafes or restaurants lining the square is a good bet.    

Another experience straight out of a fairy-tale is the chance to ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Snuggling under a thick blanket can help keep the winter chills at bay.

As evening closes in, the rush of tourists (many of them day-trippers), tends to lessen and the hour is right for a leisurely stroll along the cobblestone streets and past the stately buildings lining the canals.

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