I had originally planned to stay in Bruges for 3 nights, so two full days, but then I saw that Brussels has the Musical Instrument Museum and I just had to see that, so I stayed in Brussels one night and in Bruges for two. (Whether or not this was a good decision is a subject for another post.) I landed in Brussels in the morning, dropped off my luggage at the hotel, and headed out to see what I could see.
The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is housed in an Art Nouveau building from the turn of the 20th century, and unfortunately, that really detracts from the place as a whole. It's a tall, narrow building designed with the floors on one half off a half-step from the floors on the other half (I suppose that's a pretty good metaphor for music...), with an old-style elevator in between. The elevator lists ten floors, but some of the floors are double height, so floor 1 is on the east, floor two is a double-height on the west, floor three is on the east, floor four is above floor three on the east, etc.
Complicating the matter is the elevator, which opens in both directions and has those old gate doors you have to open yourself. Thus, you're on the elevator without knowing which side the floor you're trying to go will be on, and you don't even have an automatically-opening door to give you a clue. I got on the elevator at two to go to four, and at three, a huge group of people came on to go to four as well. When we got to four, they had no idea what to do. I was in the middle of the group so I couldn't open the door myself and they didn't speak English so they didn't understand me when I told the ones at the door to open it. So the elevator proceeded all the way to ten (the cafe), where they all got off as a couple of others got on, and then I finally got to four. I hope they ever figured their way out of the building.
But beside that, the MIM was gorgeous, though I suppose it would only be interesting if you like musical instruments. They have thousands of instruments of all types and from all cultures, and if you get the audio tour, you can listen to samples of music made by those instruments. A large number of the wind instruments were created by the Sax family, the inventors of the saxophone. They created a lot of woodwind and brass instruments, though only the saxophone is still commonly used today, as well as a lot of experimental items, such as a seven-bell trombone. (The bell is the end of the instrument where the sound emanates from, so the trombone had seven bells with two sets of valves, one to control the notes being played and one to control the bell being currently used. I have no idea why you would want to change bells.)
I also visited the Royal Museums of Fine Art, specifically to view the special Brueghel exhibit. It turned out to be a joint venture with Google, where they project on the walls of a room a film of a Brueghel painting and information on what makes it noteworthy. While it's nothing like viewing a painting directly, it was far more informative. I also toured the Flemish art exhibit, as that's my favorite era and style of art.
Beyond that, I wandered the streets of Brussels, visiting the Grand Place and shopping for chocolate. You can't not shop for chocolate in Belgium. In Brussels and Bruges, every other shop is a chocolate shop. I also tried Belgian fries, which apparently they eat with mayo and were disgusting. But the problem was that the place that I got them from (a walk-up chip shop) just drenched it all with mayo. I had fries later on with the mayo on the side, and I enjoyed them a lot.
My hotel, the Hotel Mozart, was interesting as well. Situated in a 17th-century building, it's this maze of staircases and weird hallways leading to small, oddly-shaped rooms - and it was utterly charming. The owner is Moroccan, so the entire place was covered with Moroccan mosaics and carving, with 19th-century Romantic brass fixtures and paintings. My room overlooked the street, which was lined with cafes that stayed open late into the night, giving it this air of romance and camaraderie. (As I think about it, it felt very much like what I thought Paris would be like - and which Paris turned out not to be at all.)
Bruges was just gorgeous. Apparently the romance and the charm of the town is entirely due to the town's rocky history. It used to be the richest city in Europe, back when its terrible fertility necessitated sheep farming and produced the continent's best wool, and Bruges was known as the haven of knowledge and art. Then they turned the newly-fertile land (from all the sheep) to cow farming and the river silted up, and Bruges became the poorest city in Europe. It couldn't afford to modernize and expand, so it simply reinvested in its infrastructure and retained its historical buildings and atmosphere.
It was a bit of a mecca for me, since it was the home of my favorite painter, Jan van Eyck, as well as others of that time period, such as Hans Memling. Touring the Groeningemuseum and the Sint-Janshospitaal was just a dream. (And omg, you can really tell Hieronymus Bosch paintings from across the room. <3 ) Also, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk houses the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy in his lifetime, the Madonna and Child. Bruges was a fantastic choice for this amateur art historian.
Honestly, though, I think the best part of being in Bruges is simply being in Bruges, walking through the town and over the canals, soaking in the atmosphere. Oh, one place that's a bit off the beaten track that I enjoyed was the Gentpoort, which is the only city gate tower that still exists. It's now a museum of the city walls and the history of the town as a trade and strategic point, and I loved it. To me, it was much more interesting than the Belfort, the famous tower on the Markt in the center of town that everyone visits. The only thing that I didn't get to see that I really regret are the windmills on the northeast side. Next trip!
Oh, last thing. If you go to Bruges, have lunch at the Brasserie Uilenspiegel. They have the best fries I've ever tasted - crispy on the outside and unbelievably fluffy on the inside. Just a bit of mayo, and YUM. I tried fries elsewhere in town and they weren't even close. Couple those fries with a table on the canal and a nice glass of wine, and it's heaven.