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Scott Wilson's Postcard from Brugge
AS well as its inspiring architecture, Brugge is also renowned for its chocolates and beer. Perhaps predictably, the 8,000 or so Newcastle supporters who descended on the city yesterday were concentrating on sampling one rather than the other.
So let's start with the beer. We're fond of a tipple in England, but beer is something akin to a national treasure in Belgium and it is far from unusual to see bars stocking more than 100 different varieties.
Most come with their own unique glass, many of which embrace the weird and the wonderful. Long thin test tubes which come in their own wooden stand, wide-bottomed tumblers which seem to be everlasting and beautifully-decorated tankards that you have to pay a deposit just to be able to use – over here, beer drinking is an art.
It's also a challenge, given that most of the local beers are super strength compared to what you might be used to at home. Nine or ten per cent proof is regarded as nothing out of the ordinary, with local brews such as Hoegaarden, Leffe and Kwak all boasting a high alcohol content.
One of Belgium's most famous beers is Delirium Tremens, named after the delirium that accompanies withdrawal from alcohol dependency. It's bordering on nine per cent, so after a couple of glasses, you'll probably understand the connection.
Much safer to stick to the chocolate then, although perhaps no better for the figure. Belgian chocolate is renowned as some of the finest in the world, and the country's chocolate-making heritage owes much to the days of Empire.
In the 1880s, Belgium took over the Congo and suddenly gained access to Africa's most productive cocoa fields. Cocoa was imported by the tonne, and thousands of companies sprung up to turn the raw material into a galaxy of chocolate products.
Walk down any Brugge side street today, and it is a safe bet that every other shop will be a chocolatiers, many of which stage demonstrations and tasting sessions. There's even a beauty parlour advertising chocolate massages.
At the moment, the shops are all selling their Christmas wares and it's been hard to avoid the temptation to over-indulge.
ANOTHER Flemish speciality down the years has been art, and Brugge was at the heart of the emergence of the Flemish primitive movement in the 1400s.
The city's rich nobles wanted huge oil paintings to acknowledge and celebrate their wealth, and the likes of Jan van Eyck and Pieter Brueghel were employed to provide them.
Many of their works are displayed in one of Brugge's two main galleries, along with works from later Renaissance painters such as Pieter Paul Rubens and Pieter Pourbus.
Perhaps the most famous work housed in Brugge is actually by an Italian though – Michelangelo's “Madonna and Child” which stands in the city's biggest cathedral.
IN the build up to last night's game there were fears that thousands of ticketless Newcastle United supporters would potentially cause a headache for the Brugge authorities.
The club's official allocation of around 2,600 tickets sold out in an instant, and despite attempts to secure further tickets for the game, thousands of fans were left disappointed.
Most had already booked flights or ferry tickets though, and the Brugge police issued a string of statements warning fans they risked the possibility of arrest if they were in Brugge city centre yesterday without a ticket for the game.
Thankfully, their stance softened significantly at the start of the week, and instead of turning Newcastle fans away, the Brugge authorities opted to make them as welcome as possible.
As a result, the city's main square was transformed into a giant fan park yesterday, with Newcastle and Brugge supporters happily mingling to drink in the open-air bars before watching the game on two giant screens.
As a crowd-control measure, it certainly seemed to work more effectively than simply assuming that the worst was inevitable.