The historic inland-port village of Damme is so super-pretty that in summer it’s all too often overwhelmed with cars, cyclists, walkers and boat-loads of day trippers jostling down the dead-straight 5km of road/canal from Bruges, the approach signalled by the scarlet sails of a working windmill. Drive or cycle another 2km east and you’ll quickly leave some 90% of the tourist crowds behind. Then turn south where two canals meet and pick a random spot to admire the soaring rows of wind-warped poplars. Whether reflected in glass-still waters or fog-draped on a misty winter’s morning, the scene is a magical, visual poem drawn straight from Jacques Brel.
Charming Damme village is little more than a single street plus a main square upon which the fine Gothic stadhuis is fronted by a statue of Jacob Van Maerlant, a 13th-century Flemish poet who lived and died in Damme. He’s buried in the 13th-century Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, which was vastly expanded in the village’s heyday, only to be partially torn down when things started to wane.
Opposite the stadhuis, a restored patrician’s house is home to the tourist office and the Uilenspiegel Museum recounting the stories of Uilenspiegel, a villain in German folklore but a jester and freedom fighter in Flemish literature.
Nearby, the Museum Sint-Janshospitaal was founded in 1249 and in addition to being a museum, also houses over 60 elderly people as well as a small community of Augustine nuns. There are occasional organ concerts in the chapel, and the museum contains a fairly absorbing collection of ecclesiastical garments and paintings, Delftware, and glass and oak furniture.
Damme is full of cafés and eateries with outside seating, but you’ll find other less tourist-swamped taverns and restaurants along surrounding canal tow-paths every kilometre or two. However, many go into semi-hibernation in winter.
The classic if somewhat over-rated way to visit Damme is to take a lazy 35-minute canal trip on the Lamme Goedzak tourist paddle steamer. It departs every two hours from Bruges’ Noorweegse Kaai, reached by bus 4 from the Markt. Alternatively bus 43 (€2, 20 minutes) runs every two hours until 3.30pm, April to September only. Or you can cycle.