Friday, Aug. 07, 2009

Bruges, Belgium

Route: Market Square to Damme loop
Distance: 11 miles (almost 18 km)

The center of this small Belgian port town is a web of winding streets and canals — said to be the best-preserved medieval city in Europe. To see it by bike, rent one at the train station or at the Bauhaus Hotel near the city center for about $12 per day. Every tour of Bruges should start at the leaning bell tower that has loomed over Market Square since 1300. (There are 366 steps up to the top — leave your bike behind, obviously — but the views are worth it.) Head south on Blinde-Ezelstraat (Blind Donkey Street), which takes you under a vaulted passageway, across a canal and past the fish market. Turn down the Dijver and bike along the canal, past a weekend flea market and the Groeninge Museum, one of Belgium's major art museums, which houses a good collection of works by Flemish masters. Take a left on Mariastraat, and you will see the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), which dates back to the 13th century; the altarpiece is Michelangelo's famed sculpture Madonna and Child. Continue south on Katelijinestraat and take a right on Wijingaardstraat to the tranquil grounds of the Begijnhof convent, then onto Minnewater, the former inner harbor that is now a beautiful lake. From there, it's a 4-mile (just over 6 km) trek northeast along a canal path to the town of Damme (pop. 10,000). Hungry? Refuel at any of the more than two dozen restaurants here — our favorite is Restaurant De Lieve. Should you overindulge, there are boats for the return trip to Bruges.