by Rich Rubin
Imagine a world where gay marriage is
legal and GLBT couples are fully accepted. Add towns that
ooze charm, a culinary scene where Michelin stars are
as common as knives and forks, a train system that actually
works, and a population thats multilingual and unbelievably
sweet. Wait. Thats not imaginary. Its Belgium.
This tiny country is too often overlooked as travelers
jet to its more well-known neighbors. Take some time,
though, to explore this winning land of equal rights.
Go beyond capital Brussels, past glorious second city
Antwerp. What youll find is a series of distinctively
fascinating towns in both the Flanders (Dutch-speaking)
and Wallonia (French-speaking) areas. Lets visit
a few, all within an easy train ride of Brussels. Day-tripping
is possible if you just want to get a taste, but Id
suggest staying and really soaking up the very different
atmospheres of these unique destinations.
Probably the most famous of Belgiums
smaller cities, Bruges offers more than meets the eye.
Sure, its a showpiece of centuries-old architecture,
with a town center thats a UNESCO world heritage
site. Sure, it gets unbearably crowded, especially on
weekends. As you explore, though, youll begin to
uncover Bruges many pleasures.
Start at Burg, the lovely square where
you can see a procession of architectural styles side
by side. The medieval St. Basil with its evocative Chapel
of the Holy Blood is on one end, the flamboyantly gilded
Sixteenth-Century Recorders House on the other.
Between the two lies the Gothic town hall, a Fourteenth-Century
white sandstone building covered with statues, crests,
and twisty, double-pillared chimneys. Last year, locals
tell me, seventy gay or lesbian couples married in this
In nearby Markt, a vast open square
with swirling cobblestones, gabled buildings, horses
and carriages, and tons of cafés, I admire the
imposing belfry and high, decorative roofs that were
symbols; this was a very wealthy town. In fact, the
first stock exchange in the world was formed in Bruges
by a family named Vanderbeurse who gave their name to
the word bourse, used in many languages
to mean stock exchange.
In the nearby Our Lady Church, Im
surprised to find a Michelangelo Madonna. In the Bruggemuseum,
I delight in the collection of everyday objects, from
furniture and silverware to ceramics and lace (a Bruges
specialty). In the achingly picturesque courtyard between
the two, theres a startlingly modern depiction
of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Look at
this one, smiles Olivier van Gierdeghom of Jong
& Hib, the local gay group, as we walk by. When
I approach the statue I see what hes referring
to: this horseman has a gigantic erection. Its
a secret gay thing, laughs Olivier.
On charming Simon Stevinplein, I discover
another delight: The Chocolate Line, where young chocolatier
is making some of Belgiums most
interesting chocolates. Raspberry bursts with flavor,
lemongrass is light and refreshing, wasabi lends spiciness,
and cola chocolates have bits of popping
candy inside, creating the illusion of soda bubbles.
One spectacular little number has three layers: marzipan
and black olives, white chocolate ganache with basil,
and sun-dried tomato chutney. Sound odd? Its amazing.
Theyre perfect little treats
in a city full of culinary treats. Leader of the pack
is de Karmeliet, Bruges three Michelin star restaurant.
Enter its elegantly simple interior, and you know youre
in for pleasure. Splurge on a tasting menufour
appetizers, a main, and several dessertsfor a
definition of heaven. I also like Kardinaalshof, where
the atmosphere is elegant but homey, and the food is
creatively wonderful, with choices like ginger/coriander
monkfish and pheasant stuffed with celery mousse. A
relative newcomer, de Verleiding, is a winner. This
friendly, hip, and creative spot has a sleek, modern
interior and equally unfussy food, from warm goat cheese
salad to tagliatelle with tiger prawns and curry. Dont
miss it. Also try lesbian-owned t Botaniekske,
located in a 1612 home, where the house specialty is
actually spare ribs!
Looking for a pick-me-up between fabulous
meals? Stop in de Proverie for sinful pastries. Also
visit Bistro Hollywood, practically across the street
from the modern concert hall (built for Bruges
2002 stint as European Cultural Capital). The pictures
of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe on the way up to
the restrooms should clue you in that its gay-owned.
While there arent exactly a thousand
gay bars, the community here is open, active, and dedicated.
Jong & Hib (the first word means young,
the second means hip and also stands for
Homosexual in Bruges), founded in 2002,
is making the gay community much more visible with stands
at the towns cultural festival, a monthly film
and social night, and summer camping trips. Theyre
working on getting a rainbow flag officially approved
by the city council, and theyve placed a selection
of gay DVDs and gay literature in the local library.
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There are four GLBT groups in town:
Jong & Hib, the Christian group Effeta, lesbian
group Goudou, and transgender group TGV. There is, however,
only one official gay bar, Bolero, and thats
undergoing a change in ownership as we go to press,
so it might or might not remain a haven for gossipy
forty-somethings and young sluts, to use one locals
description. After ringing the bell and gaining entrance,
youll find a diminutive space, with a slightly
curving bar, a smattering of tables, and a small dance
area, most crowded later at night.
Most of the community tends to go to
mixed places, such as B-In, a hip little bar that draws
a young crowd for pre-dancing drinks on its gray and
orange foam couches. Try also De Versteende Nacht, a
mixed club that often attracts a lot of forty-plus gay
men for live jazz. Have a drink at de Kleine Nachtmuziek
(the numerous bottles in the window, and more on the
piano inside, show you theres a large selection),
then check out nearby de Republiek, a huge place with
a big terrace, wood floors and tables, and cream walls.
Next door to a cinema, its a popular meeting place
(and very gay-friendly).
Its good to have friendly spots
to duck into, as the town can be overwhelmingly crowded
at times. Olivier smiles that hes had tourists,
thinking theyre in an architectural/medieval theme
park, ask him (seriously apparently) when it closes
for the night. When the crowds thronging the narrow
streets begin to get to you, and you cant face
one more lace shop, walk through the green belt
around the town center, a surprising amount of parkland
right in the city. Youll see a different, peaceful
Better yet, spend the night. Check
into a place such as Oud Huis Amsterdam, in a Seventeenth-Century
mansion overlooking a canal in the heart of town, or
de Brugsche Suites, a luxury guesthouse adorned with
antiques, a short walk from the city center, and run
by a friendly, helpful gay couple. At night the city
is yours. When the day-trippers leave, youll be
able to stroll the now-quiet medieval streets, so perfectly
preserved, and get a new appreciation for the utter
charm of Bruges. For all its touristic qualities (and
touristic mobs), it really is a wonderful town, and
once the visitors have left for the day and the sun
sets across the canals, youll see what drew them
here in the first place.