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Bruges, Belgium, was but a blip on the tourist map until the movie In Bruges hit theaters in The dark comedy, featuring a duo of Laurel-and-Hardy-type hit men, resonated with audiences that were intrigued by its twisted plot, but also by its deliberate obeisance to a city that had managed to elude most American tourists. The success of the film sparked an uptick in travelers to Bruges. People even learned how to pronounce its name broozh.
Yet despite the national media blitz, most American travelers still view Belgium as a mere trifle—like the amuse-bouche before a gourmet meal. It's often passed through, or over entirely, en route to somewhere else perceived as more significant, like Spain or Austria.
Belgium is certainly small. You can drive across it in three hours. On a map it looks like the thyroid of Europe—a small land mass squished between the Netherlands, Germany and France. Yet this Maryland-sized country is far from indistinct. Its capital, Brussels, is the de facto capital of the European Union.
It also has three cultural communities—Dutch, French and German—and despite its national motto, "strength through unity," the northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders region and the southern, French-speaking Wallonia are notorious for their antagonism. Bickering between the regions' political parties beginning in led to a month stalemate without a national government—a world record. Having seen In Bruges, I did some research on the medieval city and found numerous draws.
Bruges is clearly the jewel in Belgium's crown. But I also discovered scores of comparisons between Bruges and another Belgian city—Ghent—which is also in the Flanders region. Intrigued by the pair, I set out to see whether the more-obscure Ghent could measure up to Bruges' storied reputation. Bruges may not fully be on Americans' radar, but it's exceedingly popular with Europeans, and for good reason: It's a fairytale, complete with rich chocolates, quiet canals, fine art, first-rate cuisine and more than varieties of beer.