April 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Flemish fairy-tale

The canal at night. All photos by Ingrid Williams.
By Ingrid Williams
Published: 2009-01-24

n the still waters of a willow-lined canal, quaint gabled row houses seemed to gaze peacefully at their own charming reflections. One gorgeous photo in the back of a crumpled airline magazine was all it took to convince my husband that we had to go to Bruges. Admittedly, I hadn't heard of the place and had never had a particular desire to visit Belgium. But I was eager to escape the constant rain that slides over the Apennine Mountains and transforms our small slice of Italian paradise into a miserable, gray puddle every winter.

After an hour on the train from Brussels, we quickly realized that although we had never heard of Bruges, all of England certainly had. On the main street, graying pensioners loitered in clothing stores that brimmed with woolen hats and mittens, ruddy-cheeked children longingly pressed their noses against chocolate shop windows, and large families paused mid-sidewalk to share platefuls of fries topped, Flemish-style, with mayonnaise. The inevitable stag parties huddled in the town square, clutching cans of whatever was cheapest and goading each other into taking a spin on the outdoor ice skating rink. Whether young, old, drunk, or sober, the lilting English inflection was omnipresent. Thankfully, Bruges' quiet back streets offered welcome refuge.

OTHER THAN its general loveliness, Bruges offers little in the way of traditional tourist attractions. But the loveliness does go a long way. In the Markt, the main town square, thousands of twinkling white lights outlined the gabled façades of the restaurants and cafés, each with a welcoming fireplace ablaze inside. In the center of the square, a temporary food market consisting of a couple dozen rugged wooden stalls encircled a makeshift skating rink. There, passers-by were tempted with the mouth-watering aromas of warm, irresistible treats like apple beignets, fresh sugarcoated donuts, crepes with warm chocolate, and waffles straight off the iron. It was a picture-perfect scene, like something pinched from an antique snow globe.

On the south end of the Markt, the landmark 13th century belfry loomed large beneath the darkening sky. Up 366 claustrophobically narrow steps, the square below took on doll-like proportions. In the distance, a handful of old windmills dotted a faraway canal and the pancake-flat land stretched all the way to the horizon. As the sunset cast a warm glow through the clouds, I could just barely make out a familiar sound. A faint chorus of "All I want for Christmas is yooooouuu, baby" recorded by the unmistakable Mariah Carey wafted up from below — before being completely drowned out by the enormous bell that began to clang at a deafening decibel directly behind us.

Ah, the Liege waffle!

After the physical exertion and temporary hearing loss, we rewarded ourselves with waffles, which required a brief culinary lesson. What I had always called a Belgian waffle is actually known as a Brussels waffle in Belgium (though they are originally from Ghent, confusingly enough). These Brussels waffles are square, light, and traditionally served with powdered sugar. Tourists, however, give themselves away by piling their waffles high with ice cream, chocolate sauce, fruit, whipped cream, and all variety of calorie-rich toppings.

In Bruges, we discovered a species of waffle that was unquestionably superior to any waffle we had ever tasted before. They call it the Liège waffle, and it’s much denser and sweeter than the Brussels version. The trick is that the sugar is baked into the waffle, which gives it crispy, caramelized edges and a satisfyingly sweet and chewy inside. These waffles can also be topped with chocolate, caramel, strawberry, or any number of sauces, but this combination might send you into diabetic shock. And besides, left plain, they are unbelievably delicious. With two cups of steaming mulled wine and a couple of Liège waffles, we watched as a handful of children and their brave parents learned how to ice skate with varying levels of success.

WANDERING ALONG the canals beyond the main square, my husband and I first spoke the words that would become the mantra for our trip: "It's so quaint … like a fairytale." In the end, it became a running joke between us, but mostly because it was so ridiculously true. Moss-covered docks jutted into the still water of a canal bordered by centuries-old, stepped-gable houses and an occasional stone church thrown in for good measure. On small cobblestone squares, pint-sized brasseries set out blackboards announcing the daily special: mussels with fries. Every building was endearingly charming and every street was impeccably clean.

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