I still consider the historic centre of Bruges (or to use its correct, local name; ‘Brugge’) to be a relatively ‘hidden gem’. Of the numerous locations around Europe deemed appropriate for a city break, Bruges somehow still features low down on the lists of many people. Yet – and I say rather selfishly, ‘unfortunately’ – I figure it won’t stay this way for long as more and more people discover and fall as hopelessly in love with this beautifully quaint city as I have.
Be it summer or winter, there is an effortlessly relaxed vibe about Bruges; it’s a city comfortable with and yet nonchalant about its appeal, as if it doesn’t quite know how remarkable it is – which adds to its lure even more. Befitting a city oozing class and character, its countless independent hotels hidden at the ends of the famous ‘alcoves’ offer the visitor a delightful blend of understated luxury, old-world charm and homely service. Chain hotels can be found dotted around, as modernity begins to encroach, but even they must try to fit in with the city’s medieval aesthetic or set up shop further afield from the historic centre.
Back in December I boarded the Eurostar headed for this ‘Venice of the North’ to revel in the joys of the city’s Christmas markets and had the pleasure of staying at the four-star, boutique Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce. My companion and I were in good company – it’s rumoured to be a favourite of the-now King and Queen of Belgium as well as the location for filming of the movie ‘In Bruges’ (cue all of those ‘ze alcoves’ jokes…) whose stars Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell called the hotel home during the shoot.
The building is made up of four medieval houses that were joined together in the 1720s. Its roots as a focal point of the city’s old business district are clear to see from the exterior, with its half-timbered façade and wooden, canal-side double doors guarding a store where stock used to be traded from. The timbered side of the hotel is also part of a ‘picture-perfect’ image of Bruges emblazoned all over the postcards available around the city, as it overlooks a famous scenic viewpoint on a bend in the main canal (see main image).
The building is set back from the tourist-heavy Woolestraat on a pedestrianised jetty which juts out over the canal. With this in mind, expect to see throngs of tourists using the jetty to take photographs overlooking the canal if you’re staying in one of the 11 ‘courtyard view’ rooms. These 11 make up the majority of the hotel’s 16 bedrooms; the other five offering ‘canal views’.
As soon as we enter the Bourgondisch Cruyce, we’re met with sumptuously elegant and indulgent interiors that hit us immediately. It doesn’t take me long to notice the rustic, wooden floorboards and lime wash wood furnishings set against rather garish light fixtures and Louis Vuitton chests. It’s an odd mix, but an oddly pleasing one. I’m also delighted to see the artwork (original, as I later find out…) scattered on the walls around the ground floor – the owner is clearly a serious collector – with works from the likes of Klimt, Matisse and amazingly Botero.
Our Superior Deluxe room is a ‘courtyard view’ offering and the bedroom is rustically but comfortably decorated. Antique items adorn the walls and surfaces and a beautiful, Persian-style rug dominates the majority of the floor. Despite the relatively small gap between the building housing the hotel and its neighbouring building (such were medieval architectural trends…), natural light still pours into the room through stylishly dressed double casement windows.
The lime wash look from the ground level makes its way into the rooms as the doors of the ample-sized wardrobes sport the look as well. It’s in the bathroom, however, where the biggest surprise and most interesting design choice can be found. Decadent, copper-hued marble dominating the walls, more wooden floorboards and ornate lampshades all add a touch of luxury to this well-laid out space – not to mention the superb Damana Earth and Sun toiletries set in a hamper-like basket. It’s at this point my companion sums up the feeling of the room perfectly – “homely, warm luxury,” she says. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
And that feeling is mirrored, if not accentuated, by the hotel’s public spaces. The lounge/bar area sits in an alcove (sorry, I couldn’t resist…) between the reception and lift area up to the rooms above. But it’s the dining room that wins the award for the hotel’s most sumptuous room. Built in an L-shape, its outer walls are all windowed, looking out over the canal, the inner bedecked with antique artworks, clocks and even a floor-to-ceiling tapestry on one of the sides and the floors smothered with more beautiful, detailed rugs. An open (albeit gas-powered) fire sits at one end within an ornate, wooden frame and under a rather sinister-looking Christ-on-Crucifix, a reminder of the very entrenched and deeply-rooted Christian identity of the city. The kitchen fills the rest of the L-shape and allows for easy access for the service team to the 24-cover dining area.
Allow me here an aside from the design elements for a brief moment; and tell you that it’s one of the best settings for breakfast I’ve experienced in my years of staying in hotels. And this, as evidenced by the public spaces and the bedrooms, is why this hotel works so well on so many levels. The owners have pitched the décor to fit in with the romanticism and history of Bruges perfectly, without it being too kitsch or trying too hard. Yet this has been done with an eye for luxury, detail and a guest’s every requirement in mind. It helps, too, that the owners have a well-oiled and professional team working for them throughout the hotel.
I’ve stayed in many ‘city hotels’ around Europe. I’ve also stayed elsewhere in Bruges. And yes, there are more salubrious properties to be found in the city – think Duke’s Palace, Hotel de Orangerie and Hotel Prinsenhof – but the family-owned Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce is as close to the perfect city hotel as I’ve found. The owners have a gem of a hotel, an example for others to follow and boutique owners across the continent could learn a thing or two from this superb property. As they’d say in Flemish – ‘prachtig’…
Based on stay in December 2015