Magazine article The Spectator

Christmas Shopping in Bruges

Magazine article The Spectator

Christmas Shopping in Bruges

Article excerpt

Most Belgians of my acquaintance tend to be rather disparaging about Bruges. It's a theme park, they say, a Flemish Disneyland. Antwerp is livelier, Ghent is more authentic. A lot of its historic buildings are actually clever fakes. All of this is true, but that doesn't stop it being one of Europe's most beautiful cities - and an ideal destination for Christmas shopping. Given the choice between Bruges and Westfield, I know which shopping centre I'd choose.

Like a lot of pretty cities, Bruges is a monument to boom and bust. Commerce paid for its ornate medieval architecture, but then the river silted up and Bruges became a backwater. Preserved by poverty, it was rediscovered by the Victorians as a romantic refuge from modern life. Today's tourists are merely the latest in a long line of escapist travellers, all looking for somewhere unsullied by modernity (with all mod cons, of course).

Naturally it's a fantasy, but Bruges has learnt to play the part: horse-drawn carriages clip-clop across the cobbles; real life is cunningly concealed behind tasteful mottled-brick facades. Sure, it's like a stage set - but who cares? The only headache is sidestepping the stampedes of like-minded punters, all traipsing round the same mustsee sights.

Inevitably it's impossible to escape the crowds completely, but the big tour groups rarely stray too far from the Belfort (Bruges's flamboyant bell tower). Keep a wide berth from the Grote Markt (the city's central square) and you'll shake off the brashest sightseers. A five-minute walk away, you could be in another city - not the Bruges of guidebook mythology, but an authentic, atmospheric place where local people live and work. …

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