IT’S the coolest place to be this season: chilling with Hobbits and Harry Potter monsters in temperatures of -6°C.
There’s an unusually cold welcome in Bruges, home one of Europe’s most popular Christmas markets.
For the Belgian city is now the setting for Ice Magic, a glittering labyrinth of frozen sculptures and structures inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books and The Hobbit plus J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Wrap up warm and enter a fascinating world of dazzling and intricate sculptures.
It’s a hands-on treat, too: children and adventurous adults can sit on an ice ‘loo,’ shuffle through a cave, stick their head in a guillotine, laze on a fur-covered ice bed or tobbogan down an icy slope, which, surprisingly, isn’t as slippery as you’d expect.
Brilliant festive fun for about £10 for adults.
After that there’s plenty to warm you up in the bustling markets thronging the historic city centre.
Grab a hot gluhwein (mulled wine) or any other beverage that takes your fancy and browse hundreds of stalls in Markt, the central marketplace, and surrounding streets.
If you’ve not had enough ice yet, a skating rink is the centrepiece of the market, with crowds hanging out, eating and drinking and waiting to see skaters come unstuck.
The World Heritage City of Bruges has one of the best-preserved centres you’ll ever see, with an air of medieval mystery.
Dominating the skyline is the 250ft tower of the medieval Belfort, or belfry. Climb 366 steps for a breathtaking view of the city.
There’s a network of picturesque canals and a maze of fascinating alleys to explore. And, as a sweetener, it claims to be the capital of chocolate.
Back in the 16th century Spanish explorers brought cocoa to what was already a bustling commercial city.
Now more than 50 chocolate makers compete to deliver the most exotic treats.
The latest attraction is Historium Brugge, housed in one of the grand buildings in Markt.
It’s no ordinary museum: as you stroll through seven themed rooms you follow a film of a love story set in 15th century Bruges, recreating the buildings of the time.
The experience is heightened by stage sets and historic furnishings and brought to life with the sounds and even the smells and tastes of the time.
By the time you’ve taken in the Historium, done your Christmas shopping, wined and dined and seen the sights, you’ll be planning your return visit to Bruges. There’s still much more to see and do.
We had a delightful lunch in the restaurant Kok au Vin on Ezelstraat, a block away from the Markt.
This cosy bistro specialises in fish, and we had a very delicate plaice served with pancetta on a bed of fluffy aromatic risotto. Plus a glass of excellent Belgian draught beer.
Or you can dine al fresco, with a huge choice of continental specialities on sale in the market.
And it’s within easy reach: if you drive to Hull, not much more than an hour from Sheffield, you can board the evening ferry, wine and dine on board, sleep in a cabin and wake up in Zeebrugge, Bruges’ harbour.
Easier than driving to our shops.
n Bill Auckland travelled by overnight P&O ferry Hull-Zeebrugge.
P&O Ferries mini-cruise fares are at their lowest during the Christmas market season, from £73 for two. The two-for-one offer lasts until December 31, two sharing a cabin with coach transfers from the port to Bruges. www.poferries.com