Earlier in the year I surprised Becs with a trip to Bruges, a city we'd both wanted to visit for a long while. We left Bedford early in the morning and by lunch had arrived in Bruges via the uneventful Eurostar. The city itself turned out to be pretty cool; it was a massive trade centre in the 13th century but when the canals silted up and boats could no longer get in, trade diminshed and the city was left as a medieval island.
The entire city centre, with its network of canals, is now just an incredible collection of medieval architecture. Everywhere you look there's jumbled buildings made from hundreds of distinctive bricks, with barely a straight line or right angle to be seen anywhere. There are hundreds of alleyways and tottering buildings crammed around the narrow streets and winding canals, giving the place an air of irregularity and freestyle which just isn't seen in modern cities.
The city itself is very compact, and easy to cover by foot in a couple of days. The outer ring canal forms a nice natural break within which most of the major attractions sit. As with Venice and Prague, I found the best time to be out and about was early morning; fewer tourists but also nowhere near as hot!
We basically spent the two full days wandering around and taking it all in. There isn't a dull bit of the city, architecturally speaking, although all the attractions do seem to be churches. Despite this, you do find yourself walking and walking, just to discover what's around the next corner. The centre of the city is focussed on the Burg and the Markt, two squares which formed the old adminstrative and market areas in years past. The Belfry Tower (aka the Belfort) which featured in the film In Bruges also faces onto the Markt. Unfortunately we didn't get to go up it, as every time we went past there was a massive queue!
It's a very friendly city, and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status (add another to the tally) obviously means that it's clean and tidy. Despite this obligation, you get the impression it's naturally this way. There's just no litter, and the canals are clean and teeming with fish, unlike those in Venice.
Further out from the city centre are the old city gates; probably a very formidable sight many moons ago, they are now a nice interlude to a stroll along the canals. Another area of peace and quiet is the Beguinage, where all the nuns live. It's all rather picturesque from the outside, and once inside the "no noise" rule provides some respite from the tourist hubbub in the rest of the city centre.
When I mentioned that we were visiting Bruges, a friend expressed surprise on the basis that In Bruges revolved around the city being a fundamentally boring place. While it's certainly not the life and soul of the party, it is a lovely city and definitely worth two or three days of your time.