Never ones to shy away from the finer things, myself and a friend hopped on the next train to Hull to catch the 14-hour ferry to Zebrugge – our gateway to Europe’s best-preserved medieval city.
The thought of spending 14 hours on a ferry would usually seem like a fate worse than death to me. Never the seafaring type, I always assumed such a woozy journey would be punctuated with plenty of meetings with the inside of a paper bag. I was clutching nervously at the Gaviscon on my way there, but I was soon to find the journey is as smooth as a jet plane.
This was my first time in a ferry terminal and, despite not having a clue what we were meant to do, the terminal, and later the ferry’s, staff were friendly, patient and personable. Our cabin was basic, but clean and functional, with double bunks, a toilet and shower.
Coupled with preparation and docking times, the journey amounts to more like 15/16 hours each way, so time is in generous supply. Luckily there are plenty of ways to use it up.
Sipping a Kahlua in the Moonlight Lounge, one can take in the dulcet tones of the resident pianist (an expert in Monkees covers and showtunes) while gazing at a refreshingly clear night sky.
If your tastes are more Benidorm than Broadway, there’s the disco one floor down – a lively favourite with stag parties and birthdays. A charming resident hostess takes requests until late into the night (even our irritating demands of Hall & Oates and Genesis).
All that partying will probably make you hungry, and this is where the cruise really comes into its own.
Buffets have unimaginable powers when it comes to holidays – a good one can catapult your trip into your golden memories, yet a bad one will consign it to the “it was okay, but...” pile.
On this ship, however, they were nothing short of decadent.
Breaking new ground in my travel food experiences, the chefs went to war with the diners’ appetites, serving turret-upon-turret of exquisite eats. If I wasn’t chowing down on carvery pork, I was sampling the fine array of cold meats and the vast dessert tray. The buffet was a masterpiece of culinary wonder – the magnum opus of the Hull-Zebrugge ferry.
After a trouble-free sleep and a quick transfer from Zebrugge port, we were plonked in the idyllic Minnewaterpark and our eight-hour tour had begun.
What strikes you about Bruges is that there are pretty much two cities in one. Surrounded by a moat and ring road, the old town makes up the heart of the city, whereas residential and infrastructural areas lie in the city’s outskirts.
After finding your way through the park, the first landmark, the winding cobbled streets, will land you in is St Savour’s Cathedral – a medieval structure with a vast church organ, still in use today.
The city’s centrepiece however is undoubtedly De Markt. This beautifully preserved market square laid the foundations for Bruges’s economic boom in the 1400s. Standing firm against the elements for hundreds of years, the square still acts as a major shopping attraction.
It also provides a stunning backdrop to the Provinciaal Hof – a palace whose gothic architecture remains a captivating and imposing reminder of times past.
Overlooking it all is the huge Belfry tower. Its 366 steps (it felt more like 3,660) lead to a panoramic and captivating view of the city.
The tower’s numerous bells wash the old town with beautiful music at regular intervals, acting almost as a metronome to the city’s rhythm.
Coming down from the ferry’s buffet breakfast (also incredible), the walking was making us hungry. It was time for chips.
You don’t have to walk far here if you want them either – there seems to be a chip vendor on every street corner, serving them up in cones and drowning the little blighters in heart-damaging volumes of mayonnaise. It was wonderful.
Chocolateries are the city’s other passion – the delights on show are almost as ubiquitous as the chips, begging the question – how is everyone in this city not obese?!
And so we move onto beer. Normally, I’m the kind of chap who tends not to savour my bevvies, but the way of drinking here prompts a different way of enjoying things. Table service in bars matched with little cups of miniature salty biscuits tends not to prompt over-indulgence. And it’s cheap. Oh boy, it’s cheap.
Belgium was never really a place that appealed to me before, and I know I’m not the only one who felt like this.
But after just a day here, I am at a loss as to why Belgium has had such an image problem. There’s everything you could want and more from a city break. Great food, great sights and the most wonderfully hospitable of people. Bruges feels like the world capital of pleasant surprises.
* lP&O Ferries currently have two for one offers on ferries from Hull to Zebrugge starting at £75. The deals are available up until December 24. For more details, visit www.poferries.com.
Sites to see
De Markt, Belfry, Church of Our Lady, St Saviors Cathedral
Price of a pint
Price of chips
Price of Truffles