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A beer tour of Bruges

Between the beautiful architecture, tasty chocolate, charming cobbled streets and army of swans, there is another key ingredient to a holiday in Bruges lurking away in atmospheric pubs and inviting shops. No trip to Belgium, and its most visited tourist destination, is complete without sampling Belgian beer. Ali from Great Escapes recently returned from a beer-heavy trip to Bruges. This is his conclusion of his time in the medieval city and exposure to Belgium’s true gift to mankind.

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Chocolate, waffles and beer were at the forefront of my mind when I visited Bruges recently. I have long been a big beer fan, having previously worked for a beer magazine, and not many places do it much better than Belgium. Much to my girlfriend’s delight, I dragged us into giant bottle shops in the middle of walking tours, grabbed a refreshing pint before midday and even took us on a tour of the city’s oldest surviving brewery.

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I’m pleased, and slightly amazed to say, we both had a great time delving into the beery heritage of the city, and it is certainly an activity I would encourage holidaymakers to explore during any break to Bruges; particularly those travelling by Eurostar, as avoiding those pesky flight weight restrictions will ensure you can bring back as many bottles as you can carry home with you!

One of the first big beer stops that visitors to Bruges should make is at De Halve Maan, Bruges’ most historical brewery. Beer has been brewed here by the Maes family for centuries and today, the brewery and its adjoining museum are open for guided tours, culminating in a free glass of De Halve Maan’s most famous product, Brugse Zot. Tours take place every hour between 11 am and 4 pm and tickets can be booked on their website or purchased upon arrival.

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The next stage of your trip, which comprised about 65% of my visit, should be spent dipping in and out of Bruges’ fine beer pubs and bars. Two reign supreme in the city, Cambrinus Beer Brasserie and ‘t Brugs Beertje. The former can be found to the north east of the Grote Markt on Philipstockstraat and has one of the thickest beer menus I’ve ever had the pleasure to peruse, while the latter is located on Kemelstraat to the south east of the GroteMarkt. It was in Cambrinus Beer Brasserie where I sampled a bottle of Westvleteren 12 – often referred to as the world’s greatest beer.

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When your beer pub and bar pilgrimage has come to an end, you’ll want to find a suitable shop where you can purchase your new favourite beers for their journey back to the UK. Look no further than The Bottle Shop, discovered on Wollestraat just a stone’s throw from the Grote Markt. This remains the largest beer shop I’ve ever set foot in, and I managed to purchase 12 beers here to transport home with me.

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It is safe to say that beer nuts will find a haven in the city of Bruges, but even those who don’t consider themselves a fan of the world’s finest beverage will be intrigued by the history of the city’s beer culture, or better yet, find themselves converted.

If you’re more of a wine and champagne kind of person, make sure you take a look at some of our Great Escapes to France.


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The best views in Belgium

A beautiful country, Belgium is filled with many a fantastic photo opportunity. But in case it’s your first visit, or you’re looking for a little inspiration for some truly magnificent views both from the ground and the sky, we’ve selected a few of our personal favourites which may help you see a little bit more during your short break in Belgium.

Belfry Tower, Bruges

One of the most prominent buildings in the city, the belfry of Bruges is a magnificent medieval bell tower right in the heart of the town. Standing 83m tall, to look up at this architectural splendour from the ground is a grand sight, however if you’re feeling energetic and choose to climb the very respectable 366 steps up to the bell tower at the top, one of our favourite panoramic views awaits, over the market square below and the surrounding area of Bruges.

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Image credit: Wolfgang Staudt, Flickr

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Image credit: John Cooke, Flickr

Meuse Valley

Located in southern Belgium, this luscious countryside balanced on the edge of the glorious River Meuse is certainly a sight to behold. Limestone cliffs are a backdrop to charming little towns and dense forest, as well as some breath-taking architecture. Capture the best pictures from the river, or on the numerous hiking and cycling trails available to explore.

Meuse Valley

Image credit: Peter.Lorre, Flickr

Grand Place, Antwerp

With cobble-stoned streets leading to ornate 17th century architecture and a bustling Grote Markt (Main Square) filled with flower stalls and bird markets, there’s not just one great view here but far too many to count. From the Brabo Fountain to the Guild Houses and magnificent city hall, many a photo opportunity awaits for visitors to the Grand Place in Antwerp.

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St. Peter’s Church, Leuven

In the centre of Leuven, shining a glorious gold hue is St Peter’s Church (or Sint-Pieterskerk). A very well preserved example of 14th century Brabantine Gothic architecture, this church is just as impressive inside as out. With a museum dedicated to religious art, with metalwork, paintings and sculptures as well as a stunning baroque carved pulpit, you’ll be truly absorbed into a past world.

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Image credit: Renata Sedmakova, Shutterstock

Panoramic views from the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), Brussels

Located in central Brussels along Rue Montagne de la Cour, an intriguing museum and stunning terrace awaits. The building itself is rather spectacular, being art nouveau in style and boasting a fabulous glass elevator. However, the sunlit rooftop café is what we really love, as this is where you can sit and enjoy a Sunday brunch whilst ogling over the 360° panoramic views of Brussels. If you’re inside, you’ll find that the decorative building design will frame your photographs, and when outside on the terrace, you’re met with a breath-taking cityscape. This is certainly a perfect afternoon spent during your short break in Brussels.

Image credit: Daniel Lobo, Flickr

Image credit: Copright of WBT – Ricardo de la Riva

Automium, Brussels

With an interesting and rather unique infrastructure, the Automium comprises nine spheres which are linked by escalators. Constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, its purpose was to symbolise peace among all the nations, as well as being a vision for a more modern, technological world. A vision in itself, a 360° panoramic view of the 19 municipalities of Brussels also awaits at the top sphere, 102m up.

Image credit: http://www.atomium.be – SABAM 2011 – Axel Addington

Image credit: http://www.atomium.be – SABAM 2010 – Axel Addington

Ardennes

For those in search of views not of architecture but nature and wildlife, simply head south for the rugged hills of the Ardennes. With cave systems, river valleys, wooden canyons and limestone hills, as well as lynx, deer and wild boar to be discovered, we couldn’t possibly name even ten great views here, as there are just so many. A town called Dinant, in the province of Namur is a good place to start your adventure in Ardennes, located around 100km south east of Brussels.

Image credit: Daviddje, Flickr

If we’ve inspired you to take a short break in Belgium and see some of these wonderful sights for yourself, you can visit Great Escapes to book.

 


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Romantic breaks in Europe this Valentine’s Day

The most romantic day of the year has crept upon us again this year – Valentine’s Day. Shrouded in mystery as to the precise founder of this romantic celebration, Valentine’s Day is as popular as ever, and has even been recognised as the second largest card sending day after Christmas. We appreciate it can be hard to find something unique to surprise your loved one with (if you’re looking to do something a little different to the usual flowers, chocolates, dinner etc), so our Great Escapes experts have personally selected some romantic Valentine’s getaways across the water, which are sure to get you into your better half’s good books.

Hotel Prinsenhof, Bruges

Nestled comfortably in the heart of Bruges, is the charming 4* Hotel Prinsenhof. Set within a beautifully converted manor house and located in a quiet cobbled street, this hotel is only 350m from the city centre and the stunning sights of Bruges.

With 24 stylish guest rooms, the hotel has a very unique and personal feel, which is sure to make you and your loved one feel very special and well looked after during your stay. Take a romantic walk into the centre of Bruges, where you can explore the meandering canals and array of eateries. Or, take a horse and carriage tour around the city, where you’ll see everything from historical sites and museums, to canals and striking architecture. Carriage tours take place day and night, and the best place to find them is at the Carriage Station, or on a Wednesday morning before midday at The Burg.

Great Escapes are currently offering 3 nights for the price of 2 at Hotel Prinsenhof, from £229pp (including ferry crossing from Dover to Calais). You’ll stay in a beautiful superior room, with bed and breakfast, and will receive a complimentary box of chocolates for your custom.  For more information, visit the Great Escapes website.

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Château Hôtel Cléry, near Boulogne

If you’re looking for a romantic stay that’s quiet and away from the hustle and bustle, then Château Hôtel Cléry could be the ideal Valentine’s break. This beautiful manor house, located in the charming village of Hesdin l’Abbé, is surrounded by 5 acres of parkland and exudes traditional French elegance.

There are 25 comfortable guest rooms, some located in the main building, and some in quaint little cottages within the grounds of the Château. Only 10km away, Boulogne offers lots to see and do, including exploring the historic Ville Haute with its cobblestone streets and beautiful old buildings, visiting the impressive Nausicaa aquarium, or you could take a stroll in and around the famous Basilique Notre Dame.

Great Escapes are currently offering your second night’s stay at Château Hôtel Cléry for half price, from £119pp (including ferry crossing from Dover to Calais). A ‘charm’ room with bed and breakfast and two bottles of selected wines is included within the price. For more information, visit the Great Escapes website.

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Hôtel St Paul Rive Gauche, Paris

If you’re feeling a little more traditional, you could always surprise your partner with a trip to the city of love… 4* Hôtel St Paul Rive Gauche is located close to the stunning Jardin du Luxembourg, and with its wonderful lawns, fountains, statues and palace, it’s the perfect place for a romantic walk. The hotel itself is full of character, with exposed stone walls and beams just some of its superbly attractive features.

Being only 4.5km away from the Eiffel Tower, you don’t have to travel far to experience a true air of romance in quite possibly the most romantic monument in the world. Another close by attraction is which is worth a visit is Pantheon Paris, just 950m away. A stunning church building turned mausoleum completed in 1790, is home to the crypts of Marie Curie, Rousseau and Voltaire, among others.

Great Escapes is currently offering your third night free when you stay at Hôtel St Paul Rive Gauche, from just £199pp (including ferry crossing from Dover to Calais). Stay in a standard room with bed and breakfast, along with a complimentary map of Paris and visit to Montparnasse Tower, where you can see some of the most stunning panoramic views of the city. For more information, visit the Great Escapes website.

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Hopefully we’ve sparked a little inspiration for your plans this year, and you’re now feeling the romance.

Please share the love by commenting below if you’ve been somewhere that you thought was a great location for a Valentine’s break.


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Cycling in Belgium

One of the best ways to explore Belgium is on two wheels. The flat landscapes, superb canal pathways and close proximity of major attractions ensure that cycling during your holidays in Belgium is an ideal way of discovering the country. This is exactly what I did during my latest trip to Belgium where I biked between the beautiful cities of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges.

Cycling in Ypres

The first city of my five-day cycling tour of Belgium was Ypres, a beautiful old city built around a grand central marketplace adorned with splendid buildings. Ypres is perhaps best known as the location for intense fighting during WWI, with countless tourists visiting the city every year to embark on battlefield tours.

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Cycling along the canal into the city saw me pass a number of war cemeteries and memorials, including the Essex Farm Cemetery where I encountered a memorial to John McCrae, the writer of the iconic In Flanders Field poem. The most poignant landmark for reflection is the beautiful Menin Gate. Every day at 8pm a service is held beneath the gate in memory of the fallen WWI soldiers whose graves remain unknown. The Last Post Ceremony, as it is called, was played out for the 30,000th time in July 2015.

Beyond the scars of war, the city was a thrilling place to cycle. As I bobbed around on the cobbles I absorbed the beauty of the magnificent Cloth Hall, stopping for refreshment in the form of a Belgian beer in the marketplace. The following day I began my cycle to Ghent.

Ieper: De lakenhallen Foto Tijl Capoen

Image credit: Tiji Capoen

Cycling in Ghent

To the northeast of Ypres is the marvellous medieval city of Ghent. Admittedly the ride from Ypres to Ghent takes a long time, with the distance between the two cities around 90 km, but I encountered some great stops along the way. Kortrijk and Waregem presented pleasant locations for me to take a break every couple of hours, and these could easily be incorporated into a three-day ride to Ghent. The ride didn’t feel long, hugging a great network of canal cycle paths, ensuring that avoiding traffic was never a factor of the ride.

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The city of Ghent itself was equally appealing. I stayed just outside of the city’s Begijnhof, and it was wonderful cycling around these practically-deserted streets and admiring the medieval architecture. I followed the network of canals next, discovering some fantastic views throughout the city, one of the best coming in the form of the Gravensteen castle.

It is the city centre that forms the jewel in Ghent’s crown however. Home to an unrivalled range of landmarks and attractions, including the striking Saint Nicholas’ Church and the towering Belfry from where you can enjoy unprecedented views of the city.

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Image credit: Emi Cristea

Cycling in Bruges

The ride from Ghent to Bruges is one of the simplest in the country, following a straight river pathway west along flat countryside for around 45km. The only hitch is the wind, with notorious headwinds slowing the progress of those cycling from east to west. The prize at the end of the ride makes it worth it though, with incredible Bruges awaiting you with its wonderfully-preserved old town.

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Image credit: Jan Darthet

The core of Bruges’ old town has little traffic, making cycling one of the best ways to explore the highlights of the city. I started in the Grote Markt, grabbing a beer in a bar set on the outside ring which allowed me to sit and admire the stunning Belfry as it chimed away in the sunshine. The neighbouring square is called Burg Square, home to the grand City Hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and was another highlight of my visit. The Church of Our Lady and its grounds were one of the final places I cycled to (with a tourist agenda), before spending the rest of the day sampling some more of the city’s highlights.

These mainly consisted of chocolate, beer and waffles, serving as my fuel for the next day’s cycle into the Netherlands. There are a range of great chocolate shops and beer cafes, but I opted for Dumon Chocolatier and ‘t Brugs Beertje respectively. I also took a tour of the city’s brewery, De Halve Maan, and sipped a few of their beers in the brewery bar. It’s safe to say I was wheeling my bicycle back to my accommodation that evening.

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Image credit: Jiang_liu

Even if you’re not keen on cycling, you can visit all of these wonderful destinations with Great Escapes, as well as several other alluring destinations across Europe.

If you’d like to read more about my European cycling adventure, you can find further details and stories on my blog.

Bruges at Christmas


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Great Escapes Autumn Sale

The later part of the year is a wonderful time to visit Belgium or France. One of our favourite annual events is held in Bruges, the  ‘Magical Winter Moments Christmas Happening‘ which runs from 21st until the 30th of November in 2014. Previously known as “The Grand Christmas Happening Bruges”, this is a stylish and festive event in the heart of the city, featuring all the newest trends in home and floral decoration.

 

Bruges at Christmas

Bruges at Christmas

Mid-November sees the first of the fabulous Christmas Markets open. These are held in many towns and villages throughout Belgium and northern France. The atmosphere is festive with the smell of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine in the air. Find our more about the Christmas Markets in Belgium and France in our post, Dates for this year’s Christmas Markets.

Lille at Christmas

Lille at Christmas

Autumn SALE, book by 31st October 2014

Great Escapes is currently holding an autumn sale on short breaks to France and Belgium, offering £40 discount on any package booked between now and 31st October 2014 for travel in 2014 or 2015. Bookings must include ferry, Eurostar or Eurotunnel travel and include at least 3 nights’ accommodation. Discount is valid with ‘free night’ offers for even greater savings.

Here’s just a couple of our favourite examples to tempt you but you can find more on our website, Great Escapes.

Bruges, 3rd night FREE at the 3* Hotel Bryghia

This  family run hotel dates back to the 15th century and overlooks a quiet square within very easy reach of Bruges’ main attractions making it an ideal base for exploring this beautiful town.
A box of chocolates, to be collected locally, is included in all packages booked to Bruges.

Hotel in Bruges

Other information:  3rd night FREE offer valid from 03/11 to 13/12 for Sun to Tues arrivals. For the free night, breakfast is included.  Package also includes return travel Dover to Calais with P&O Ferries (car + 4 passengers). Package price from £109pp before Autumn Sale discount.

To book call 0845 330 2089 and quote 14Save40

Lille, 3rd night FREE at the 4* Alliance Couvent des Minimes

This elegant and comfortable hotel is a stunning  is the perfect blend of ancient architecture and modern design. A former 17th century convent, the Alliance Couvent des Minimes is less than a 10 minute walk from the Old Town with a fabulous range of restaurants, museums and shops close at hand.

Alliance Couvent des Minimes, Lilles

Alliance Couvent des Minimes, Lilles

The rooms are comfortable with all the amenities you would expect from a 4* hotel including free Wi-Fi and tea and coffee facilities. The glass atrium in the centre of the building adds to its character giving the hotel a great feeling of space.  The piano bar and the new champagne bar are the perfect place for relaxation in refined surroundings. The restaurant serving appetising dishes at very reasonable prices befits the excellent standard of the hotel.

Other information: 3rd night FREE offer valid from 12/09 to 31/12 for Fri-Sat arrivals. For the free night, breakfast is included. Includes return travel by Eurostar (Standard Economy). Package price from £209pp before Autumn Sale discount.

To book call 0845 330 2089 and quote 14Save40


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Picture postcard from… Bruges, Belgium

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St. Bonifaciusbrug in Bruges*

One of the most photographed bridges in Bruges, St Bonifaciusbrug bridge is actually one of the youngest in the city, dating back to the early 20th century. You’ll find it in a particularly charming area with cobbled streets, historic buildings and the sound of horses hoofs clip-clopping passed pulling carriages full of tourists, as are the little boats that pass under the bridge. It’s a very romantic spot and the perfect place to it sit down on one of the hidden benches and watch the world go by.

The Church of Our Lady, seen here in the background, took two centuries (13th-15th) to build. It has many lovely art treasures, most notably a beautiful Carrara marble Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo. One of only a few of Michelangelo’s works that can be seen outside Italy.  While currently being renovated, this lovely church is still well worth a visit and the 1 Euro fee to see the famous sculpture.

*Image courtesy of Flanders Tourist Board


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Bruges Top Ten, Part 2: Food and Drink

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Bruges is the perfect weekend getaway for any foodie and it should come as no surprise that two of Belgium’s favourite food passions are showcased here, namely chocolate and frites, which each have their own museums. Of course, there are a lot more edible and drinkable delights to be found throughout the city and here are some of our favourites.

You’ll find the locations of everywhere mentioned (and more) marked on the map at the end.

1. Chocolate
How many museums can you think of that hand out chocolate as you enter and when you leave? At Choco Story, you’ll also learn about the history of chocolate from the Mayas and the Aztecs through to modern times, as well as seeing (and smelling) chocolate being made. You can read more about the museum in our previous post Choco Story, the Chocolate Museum in Bruges.

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For superb home-made chocolates using the finest organic ingredients visit The Chocolate Line. Their salted caramels come highly recommended!

2. Fries
Learn about the history of frying potatoes and why “Vlaamse Friets” are like no others at the Frietmuseum, and of course, taste them too, in the museum’s own café, in a 14th century setting, not far from Bruges’ famous Grote Markt.

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3. Waffles
You can’t visit Belgium without trying a Belgian waffle and you’ll find them just as good but better value if you buy them from a street vendor rather than in a restaurant. We’d recommend a ‘wafel met slagroom,’ a waffle with whipped cream but there’s a huge variety of toppings you can choose from!

If you do prefer to sit down and relax in a café then try Humpty Dumpty’s, who make excellent waffles, which you can enjoy with a very good DIY hot chocolate (hot milk served with a stick of chocolate for you to melt down as required!)

4. Meatballs
Visit Balls of Glory to enjoy some seriously tasty, handcrafted meatballs to eat in, take-away or cook at home.

5. Beer
Open daily for visits, De Halve Maan is Bruges’only remaining independent brewery. You’ll find all the details of their tours and tastings on their website.

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6. Bar
2be, a bar and beer shop, together with their beer wall (with hundreds of beers bottles framed behind glass) is well worth a visit and if you fancy a lively atmosphere in a pub with over 300 beers try Brugs Beertjes.

7. Café
It is nigh-on impossible to walk past the bakers Het Dagelijks Brood, without the smell of fresh baking drawing you in where you’ll find locals and visitors sitting at long wooden communal tables. Great for vegetarians and meat eaters, the menus are in various languages offering a great choice of breakfasts, brunches and lunches, pastries and cakes!

8. Brasserie
With over 400 beers to choose from, Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, is a great choice for beer with a good meal with each dish, through appetisers, mains and desserts, all cooked in beer. Sitting on long tables and benches you’ll find everyone from boisterous stag parties to couples with young children all enjoying the hearty beer-flavoured fare.

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9. Restaurant
If you are looking for a more refined dinning experience try Park Restaurant. They serve great food in a stylish, atmospheric setting and the service is superb. Menus (in English) and prices are available on their website.

10. Food Markets
For great Flemish food for a picnic or some foodie souvenirs be sure to check-out one of the two local markets. On Saturday mornings go to ’t Zand and on Wednesdays Markt Square. The former is the largest with the best offers but both are worth a visit with plenty of fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, roasted nuts, wine and more cheese than you could possible imagine. Many stalls will be happy to offer a free taster so do tuck-in!

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You’ll find all the locations (marked by the green dots) of these great foodie finds, together with links to their websites on the map below.  Why not make your own great escape to Bruges.