Brugge, Belgium: Volkskundemuseum (Folklore Museum)…(and some random cool things!)


On our last morning in Brugge, the sun finally made an appearance, and I had no particular agenda other than going for a wander and cramming as many frites in my mouth as humanly possible whilst still in Belgium.  After a lengthy stroll through the Sunday antiques market (of which more later), my boyfriend and I decided to check out the Folklore Museum because it had a resident cat (as good a reason as any, and it was also significantly cheaper than the Historium (probably the only time you’ll ever see me declining to visit a museum with authentic smells) Side note within a side note, in Dutch, historian is historicus, which I think is awesome).


The Volkskundemuseum is a good fifteen minute walk along the canal from the main tourist area, in a residential part of town, so it’s a little tricky to find without the aid of a map.  It is housed within a long row of 17th century cottages along one of the ankle-destroying cobblestone streets so commonplace in Brugge, and is part of the Musea Brugge group, so admission is free if you have a Brugge City Card.  Otherwise, it is a reasonable 4 euros.

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I think the term “folklore museum” is slightly misleading, as when I think of folklore, I picture trolls, or ogres, or Baba Yaga, you know, fairytale stuff, not handicrafts.  Folk or Craft Museum would probably be a more apt description of the contents.  The collection is divided up into about 20 rooms, each devoted to a different trade.  The signs are all in Flemish, but there are free English guidebooks at the front desk that at least give an overview of what’s going on in each room.

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We found the cat (he’s called Aristide after Aristide Bruant, singer of Le Chat Noir) fairly early on, as he kept wandering in and out of the first few rooms, and he permitted a small amount of petting before disappearing for good.  The very first room was a schoolroom, and we progressed through trades including cobbler, cooper, and storekeeper.  Every room had a waxen tradesman in it, and was set up to resemble the workspace or shop each man would have worked in. In addition, there were a few bonus objects in glass cases, including some religious artefacts, and a shoe collection.

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According to our guidebooks, the final room of the first section was supposed to be a tobacconist, but instead contained a curious mishmash of carnival rides and games.  As there was no English signage, I’m not entirely sure what happened there, but it did seem out of place next to the rest of the museum.

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We then passed through a courtyard, and re-entered the museum through a working pub, Zwarte Katze (the Black Cat).  Well, working in the sense that they sold drinks and food, but no alcohol.  As the place was totally deserted when we there, it would have been awkward to stop and demand service.  There was a room above the tavern done up like the publican’s family bedroom, with a rather impressive collection of chamberpots. I guess everyone must have had their own.  Hygienic that way, at least.

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Back downstairs, we stepped into the delightful premises of the local candymaker, and his fine collection of candy moulds.  Sadly, there was no actual candy for sale, except back at the empty pub. Fortunately, I can do without boiled sweets when scrumptious Belgian chocolate beckons from every other shop back in town (and those gummi grapefruit slices I’m quite partial to.  I don’t know why they don’t sell them in the UK).

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The candymaker wasn’t the only one of my favourite tradesmen represented, as there was also an apothecary, armed with his splendid jars (and a comical mustache).  Finally, the craftspeople were rounded out with a hatter and tailor, the latter of whom was listening to popular songs of the ’40s on his radio when we walked in. (I say “listening,” but obviously he was an inanimate wax figure.  I’m not like that weirdo who gets it on with Kim Cattrall in that awful Mannequin film).

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There was a final exhibition on lace held in an upstairs gallery, which I found rather engrossing, as it touched on working conditions in addition to the lace-making process, with a variety of bobbins, and of course, lacework on display.  Of all the crafts represented in the museum, this was the only one that would have been traditionally done by women, often under unpleasant conditions.

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The hallway leading towards the exit featured a sampling of traditional business signs, including an oversized cigar and glasses, and a strange carrot shaped object that I think was also used to advertise a cigar-maker (or was it a barber?  I didn’t get a picture, and now I can’t remember). Anyway, the Volkskundemuseum offered an overview of a good cross-section of traditional Belgian trades (and mannequins!) but didn’t really provide more than something to look at, as the cat was the only interactive thing inside!  I think it was ultimately a better way to pass an afternoon than fighting through crowds at the larger tourist attractions, as we had the place virtually to ourselves, but it would have been nice if it had gone beyond being a mere arrangement of life-size dioramas (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  3/5

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Now, I’d be remiss in ending this post without mentioning some of the highlights of Brugge, so here we go.  As I mentioned at the start, Brugge hosts a massive antiques market on Sundays that encompasses most of the city, and a large park near the train station (good luck navigating your suitcases through!).  Being Belgian, and therefore wonderfully quirky, this is no humdrum antiques market; instead, it is the finest collection of extraordinary crap I’ve ever seen!  Above, we have a head that bears a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart hanging out next to a Christ Child and some random paintings.  And if there’s another thing that I love that was to be found in even greater abundance than mannequin heads, it was terrible taxidermy.  Yes, that is a gun-toting rabbit you see above, surrounded by other furry friends.  You have no idea how badly I wanted to buy him, but my boyfriend claimed I wouldn’t allowed to take it through British Customs (I still have to check on that, because I am hightailing it back to this market to stock up on home decor if EU taxidermy is permissible.  So there!)


The derpiest fox of the many, many derpy foxes.


This clown manages to be sad and evil simultaneously.


If that portrait in the back is of Napoleon, I NEED to have it.

Another amazingly strange feature of Belgium is the wide variety of vending machines available, which is kind of perfect for someone who dreads human interaction as much as I do.  Below, we have bread and strawberry vending machines.  I mean, really, can a country be any more perfect?

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And finally, I’ll close this monster post by mentioning the frituur and gelateria that sustained me through much of my stay in Brugge (ok, actually I ate at them both every day I was there). Da Vinci gelato was amazing and creamy, and fairly inexpensive too, as Continental ice cream tends to be (stupid London prices), and ‘T Brugsch Friethuys delivered perfect crispy golden brown friten every time, (much better than the ones from the famous frituur stands in front of the church) served up by an adorable mustachioed old man, who told us to enjoy them with the sincerity that comes from taking pride in one’s craft.  Both are on Geldmuntstraat, which is one of the roads coming off the main Market Square. So really, what are you waiting for?  Get yourself to Brugge!


Brugge, Belgium: The Friet Museum and Choco-Story


Apologies for the brief hiatus. As you can see, I was in Belgium for a few days, followed by a few more days without internet access thanks to an “upgrade” by Virgin. Fortunately, Belgium has provided me with a wealth of new places to post about in the coming weeks! Belgium is justifiably famous for many of its foodstuffs, among them frites and chocolate. In fact, Belgians are so keen on the latter two that they’ve devoted entire museums to them. There are quite a few chocolate themed museums in Belgium, but as far as I can tell, only one frites museum, located in lovely, quirky Brugge.

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My visit to the Friet Museum didn’t get off to the best start, as the woman at the admissions desk was at best distracted, or perhaps outright rude. She was jabbering on the phone when we walked in, and carried on talking for a good ten minutes, despite the fact that there was a small queue forming. If I wasn’t so intent on seeing the museum for blogging purposes, I probably would have walked out. When she finally got off the phone, she then began joking around with a coworker in Flemish, rather than helping customers. However, she finally deigned to sell us tickets, which we scanned on the turnstile for admission. I found this odd Tube-like feature at most of the museums in Belgium – I guess they really want to discourage free-loaders!

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The mascots of the Friet Museum, who were featured on colourful cartoons throughout, were a fry named Fiona, and Peter Potato. Signage was in Flemish, French, and English, which was handy, as there was quite a lot of it. Honestly, I think the museum did live up to its promise of teaching us all about the history of the potato, and “potato fries,” as the museum referred to them. Most of the lower floor of the museum was solely posters, filled with potato facts. Did you know that potato juice is meant to be an excellent cure for indigestion? Or that the largest potato ever grown weighed over 2 kilos? Fascinating.

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The upper floor was devoted to the history of frites (I’m referring to them by their French name here, even though Brugge is primarily Flemish-speaking, and the proper plural should thus be fritten, because I think frites is the more common term amongst English speakers), and contained more artefacts than the lower level. I suppose there’s a lot more tat associated with frites than with the humble potato. This included a display of frite slicing and frying equipment, and culminated in a large room with a reconstructed frite stand (frituur), designed to mimic the famous stands in the Market Square of Brugge. This last room had a fabulous collection of frites paraphernalia, from postcards to frite forks, and potato flutes to frite-themed artwork. I already knew that Belgian frites are fried in beef fat (which is probably why they’re so delicious), but I was slightly taken aback to learn that the tallow often has a bit of horse fat thrown in. I can’t say it actually put me off eating the frites though; whatever they’re doing, it works!

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There was a small display of photographs of frituur, and an actual frituur in the basement of the museum, from which an enticing smell drifted up into the museum. As I had just eaten a rather large portion of frites before visiting the museum, I (shockingly) didn’t have any there, so I can’t attest to their quality. The shop was quite good though, offering a charming range of Fiona and Peter printed t-shirts, frites aprons, and special personal frites forks. I only wish they had better postcards, like the ones featured in the actual museum.

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As the frites had taken care of lunch, it was time for a bit of pudding, which necessitated a trip to Choco-Story. The Friet Museum and Choco-Story have the same owners, so it’s cheapest to buy a combined pass if you plan to see them both (which we foolishly didn’t do). There’s also another museum which is part of the Choco-Story complex – Lumina Domestica, which is all about the history of lamps. From what I saw of the outside, it looked neat, so it might not be a bad idea to get a pass to all three at once. Anyway, the staff of Choco-Story were slightly friendlier, and they offered free chocolate buttons at the desk, so I had a better initial impression of them. That said, I do think the history of chocolate is more commonly known than that of frites, so the museum wasn’t quite as interesting.

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Like the Friet Museum, Choco-story has a mascot. He was known as Choclala (I think it was a he), and looked like a combination between a rotten tooth and some poo. I don’t think an amorphous blob ostensibly made of chocolate is ever going to be a good look. At any rate, Choclala (I refer to him in my head as Chocolala, as I think it rolls off the tongue better), escorted us through the history of chocolate, beginning with the Aztecs, which meant that we were treated to a delightful Cortes mannequin. It quickly progressed to hot chocolate drinking in Europe, with an accompanying collection of china and chocolate pots.

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The level above that had a room on the ethics and sustainability of chocolate production, of which the most memorable part was a jarred monkey clutching a cocoa bean. More dainty chocolate accessories followed in the next room (chocolate egg-shaped safe, anyone?) along with some superb chocolate moulds.

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On yet another floor, which seemed to be sponsored by a local chocolate company, we learned about Belgian history, which was essentially just the history of the chocolate industry in Belgium. Chocolate and biscuit tins abounded though, and you know how I love a good biscuit tin! One of the signs included the memorable advice that whilst chocolate doesn’t make you fat, if you are overweight, you should probably lose weight before eating it. Priceless.

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We ended our tour with the ground floor, and the chocolate demonstration. Wandering through a room lined with stoical chocolate cats, and other spectacular cocoa-craft led us to a small kitchen set up in the rear of the museum, where a woman showed us how to mould chocolate pralines. The most impressive part was her commentary, which seamlessly switched between Flemish, French, and English. At the end, we were given a tasty chocolate praline, which really made the trip worthwhile (notwithstanding the fact that the 14 euros we spent on admission for the two of us could have bought quite a large box of chocolates from an actual chocolate shop). Speaking of shops, the gift shop sold, as you might expect, a nice range of chocolates, including chocolate buttons from various regions, with differing cocoa contents. However, once again the postcards were kind of lame, so I think they need to step that aspect up a bit.

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I’d give both the Friet Museum and Choco-story 3/5. They were both larger and more informative than I was anticipating, but they did feel oddly commercial, and I felt like they could have done more to make the museums interactive, especially as they’re both relatively new attractions. However, if you’re just looking for an excuse to have some frites and chocolate (though really, you’re in Belgium, how much an excuse do you need?) these museums are a good way to whet your appetite whilst learning something new.