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Film star city

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Bruges gleams out of the flat lands of north Belgium, like a gold nugget among pebbles. What tantalising glimpses it must offer the unsuspecting motorist arriving from drab motorways and speculatively orbiting the ring road - of medieval buildings with stepped gables fronting canals smarter than Venice's, and not tinged with the sadness of decay. The writer explored down picturesque cobbled streets and along canals as enchanting as Venice, and found many marvels. Picture - Gareth Huw Davies.

Walk the film set

Bruges, the beautiful, compact mediaeval masterpiece just over the Channel, is the nearest of the fine European city destinations to southern Britain, just 60 mins from the Channel Tunnel. (Even the slightly roundabout Eurostar trip via Brussels - under four hours, including the local train to Bruges - still puts it closer to London than Edinburgh).
The 2008 movie In Bruges stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hit men exiled to the city by their mobster boss (Ralph Fiennes), who later joins them for a final reckoning. Here is an entire city cast, in a full supporting role, in a major movie. It's worth viewing it as a preliminary to your visit (although it is dark).
The film crew gained unprecedented access to the city’s locations. Fiennes said Bruges was an additional character in the story. A leaflet on the filming locations is available from the tourist board (www.brugge.be). Director Martin McDonagh: ‘They let us film in just about every stunning location I wanted.’ His favourite locations include Market Square, dominated by the mighty 270 feet Belfry and the nearby Burg Square. The actors also visit less frequented spots such as Astridpark and Jan van Eycklplein Square, under the statue of the famous Flemish painter van Eyck. Indoor scenes were shot in the city too - not in the studio - in such locations as Cathedraal Restaurant, Diligente Bar, and the terrace of Restaurant de Beurze.

Rooms with a view

There are some smart canalside hotels in central Bruges, but the De Tuilerieen currently holds the bragging rights. This is where the stars of In Bruges stayed, and they display the signed photographs to prove it. They put me into Ralph Fiennes’ rooftop room, which caused quite a flutter among my lady friends. I can confirm that the actor had an inspirational view of the city skyline. The nearby Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce (also in the film) is just as splendid. Staying in any of these city centre hotels, you only have to step across the road before breakfast for the very best views of Rozenhoedkaai. (Or the last glimpse at night, when swans cruise on still, floodlit waters). This is a glorious, if busy. viewpoint. The canal view from the Molenbrug, the bridge on Hoogstraat is quieter. Farrell was filmed here, with his love interest.

Glorious galleries

Actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson managed to get close up and philosophical with Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment, one of the most remarkable masterpieces in the Groeninge Museum. It’s rare for film crews to be allowed so close to such valuable paintings. Next door is the Memling Museum, with works by the Flemish master Hans Memling, Less well known is Arentshuis, which celebrates the work of Frank Brangwyn. He was born in Bruges in Bruges, to a Welsh father and English mother. His British Empire Panels, commissioned by the House of Lords, hang in the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. There is an example here of those sultry tapestries, the artist in Gauguin mode, depicting hot Imperial lands. Also here are his engavings and drawings, dark, sinewy works, extolling honest toil. look for the hefty shipyard workers, dwarfed by the massive vessels they built.

Secret Bruges

Even in high season, few tourists venture beyond the central squares into the city’s north and east. This is authentic, lived-in Bruges, quiet, cobbled, side streets of step-fronted houses that inspired Flemish art, in brick or a delicate wash of cream or pink, with front doors in burgundy, and dark green, proudly maintained by their private owners. I saw windows of hand-made glass, furrowed like ice on a pond, tinted green or cerise. Sills are crammed with flowers. Walk on and you come to the 15th century Church of Jerusalem, which the Brendan Gleeson character visits in serious tourist mode. Carry on to a very unexpected sight, four windmills next to the canal at Kruisvest. On the way back I spent a fascinating hour in the Folklore Museum, in 17th-century almshouses on Rolweg.

Michaelangelo masterpiece

The shining artistic treasure of Bruges is Michaelangelo’s marble Madonna with Child, in the Church of Our Lady. This small but exquisite sculpture was the only work to leave Italy during the master’s lifetime. Apparently Michaelangelo ignored his patron’s bafflingly prudish request that the infant Jesus wear clothes.
Wait for a gap between tour parties: you may find yourself alone in front of this sublime object. It seems oddly out of place in Belgium, like a delicate Mediterranean bird that has ventured too far north.
One oddity, high up in the church’s wall, is the personal observation room of the Gruuthuse family, who lived in the adjoining alace, now the Gruuthusemuseum (another location in the film). Appropriately it overlooks the nave like the director’s suite in a film studio.

Chocolate champions

Two of Belgium’s national passions, beer and chocolate, are showcased in Bruges. Sukerbuyc in Katelijnestraat (www.sukerbuyc.be) is a small family business producing hand-made chocolate. Their cafe has an endearing tradition: even when you opt for a cup of tea, they serve on a side dish the cream you would have had if you had ordered coffee. And you get chocolate with every hot drink. Close by is chocolate museum Choco-Story, telling how the cocoa bean seduced us, from the Mayas and the Aztecs through to today’s global addiction.
(There’s a museum of lamps in the same building, and a museum of that other Belgian obsession, chips, opened in 2008). De Halve Maan, the only brewery left in the city is open for daily visits. The latest brew, Brugse Zot (Bruges Lunatic),is everywhere. You’d be mad not to try it. Or maybe not.




Bruges is 60 minutes by road from Calais, and 50 minutes by train from Brussels. Eurostar: www.eurostar.com)

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