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The spicy scent of gingerbread wafts from open bakery doors. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop along cobblestone streets below illuminated medieval buildings. A medley of carillon bells merges with Viennese waltzes, as skaters swirl around an ice rink.

Bruges and Christmas market viewed from Belfry.
Bruges and Christmas market viewed from Belfry.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Christmas is special in Bruges (pronounced like rouge, with a B in front; also called Brugge). Located 97 km northwest of Brussels, this city of 116,000 is an easy drive or train ride from the capital. Late-November through December is a wonderful time to enjoy its picturesque UNESCO World Heritage historic city centre.

Christmas market

Strains of Silent Night draw visitors and locals to Markt and Simon Stevin squares. Tiny lights outline step gabled buildings. Festive greenery decorates a Nativity scene and an ice rink.

Golden lights bathe the 13th-century Belfry tower. If you climb the 366 steps to the top, you'll enjoy a panoramic view of the Christmas market, ice rink and surrounding red-roofed buildings.

Snacking beside Christmas stands
Snacking beside Christmas stands
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

As the clock strikes the hour, a 47-bell symphony startles white doves nestled in niches in the medieval walls. They flutter like dancing snowflakes around the 88-metre-high tower.

Stroll over the cobblestones to gabled stands selling glûhwein (hot, spiced wine), Champagne and hot chocolate. Snack on shrimp, bratwurst and Belgium waffles. Shop for Christmas candles, crèches (small Nativity scenes) and chocolate.

Horse-drawn carriages depart from Markt square for city tours and cosy restaurants. Passengers cuddle under warm blankets, as the horses trot along canals and over bridges.

Swans glide on the canals. The air is cold enough to see your breath, but only frigid enough to freeze the water (or snow) once every five years.

Yuletide treats

Stores tempt shoppers with snow-white handmade lace. Crowds gather around mouth-watering window displays of chocolates, flavoured with rum, orange, coffee and hazelnuts.

Speculoos are the most traditional Christmas treats. These cinnamon, nutmeg and clove-scented gingerbread cookies are shaped like St. Nicholas. Ranging from palm-size to as large as four-year-old children, they're wrapped in cellophane and red ribbons for gift-giving.

Try one of the dozens of rich, dark ales, brewed especially for Christmas. Amber-red Bush de Noël hints of raisins and fruit. Dark red Glühkriek, which tastes like cherries and cloves, is served hot. You'll find them both at De Biertempel at 7 Philipstockstraat.

Another delectable Christmas treat is Bûche de Noël, a log-shaped chocolate jelly roll, filled with rum-scented whipped cream.

St. Nicholas-shaped gingerbread (speculoos)
St. Nicholas-shaped gingerbread (speculoos)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Special events

Throughout December, choirs perform in Concert Hall Bruges and in local churches. A Gift Village and an exhibit of trendy Christmas decorations and floral creations brighten Old Saint John's Hospital. One of Europe's oldest surviving medieval hospitals (12th — 17th century), it's now a museum and congress centre.

On Christmas Eve, actors, floats, choirs and sheep re-enact the Christmas story in a procession. A carillon concert resonates through Markt square as people gather for midnight mass at the Begijnhof.

Part of the Beguinage, this well-preserved enclave once housed a community of single women. Today, the small whitewashed buildings offer a glimpse of what Bruges looked like in 1245.

Nutcracker ballet performances, planetarium and dolphin shows entertain families after Christmas Day. On New Year's Eve, you can enjoy an historic re-enactment of the 1468 wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in Bruges. Minstrels, jesters, knights, falconers and fire-eaters entertain guests during the four-course banquet and dance.

It's a festive ending to Christmas in medieval Bruges.


Visit Flanders: www.visitflanders.com