THE STORY OF THREE GENERATIONS OF SHOPKEEPERS IN AN ICONIC LOCATION IN BRUGES & TOP TIPS FOR VISITING BRUGES
It’s a Saturday as I’m walking across the market square in downtown Bruges, my home town. Typically, there are horse-drawn carriages waiting to take tourists (or locals with a special occasion to celebrate) for a ride across the medieval city centre. Today, the ‘Grote Markt’ isn’t exactly swarming with people, but then again, Bruges is never really ‘void’ of them either, but that’s what I love about the place. There’s always a buzz of visitors trying to take selfies with the Belfry in the background (and failing despite their contortionist moves) or locals hanging out when there’s one of the many events in Bruges. Today however, I’m heading for a rather special place. A place that I thought was ‘just another shop’ (although its location on a corner of the ‘Grote Markt’ with a perfect view of the Belfry is well…rather amazing). But – and rather luckily, I might add – it has come to my attention that there is a rich history hiding behind the pretty wooden storefront and its many displays.
So come on in and meet Frédéric Goetinck-Moret: the third generation of his family to own and operate SOUVENIRS M.MORET. And no, we won’t only be talking about the shop, but also about Fré’s favorite spots and things to do in Bruges. I mean, he practically LIVES on the market square. If you’re going to trust someone, it’s going to be him, right? Right.
ABOUT SOUVENIRS M. MORET’s HISTORY, THE STORE TODAY and TOURISM IN BRUGES
To tell the story in full, we need to rewind back to the beginning, which is about 80 (!!!) years. It’s the 1930’s, and Michel Moret (Frédéric’s grandfather) is making his way selling rags in markets across the Bruges area (note from the author: I also didn’t know there was such a thing as ‘selling rags’, so don’t feel bad. If you did, good for you – just don’t be a smarty pants about it). Michel’s soon-to-be wife sells ice cream on Bruges’ market square in the meantime, while Michel’s saving up to start his own business, which will eventually become SOUVENIRS M.MORET. He rents a beautiful three story building right on the corner of the iconic market square with the intent to start a shop selling ‘faux bijouteries’ (which is a lovely way of using the French language to say ‘replica jewelry’). It actually wasn’t until the 1950’s that the store started focusing on souvenirs, and was named SOUVENIRS M.MORET. Throughout the following years, Michel’s son (and Frédéric’s father) Raymond took over the business, had the opportunity to actually buy the property, and it continued flourishing.
Fast forward to 1997. Enter stage: Frédéric (or just Fré for short). Fré (now forty years old) is a tall, slim guy, with kind eyes and the coolest mustache you’ve ever seen. He’s also a great bass-player in a blues/rock band and an avid bike-enthusiast – he even builds his own bikes from scratch. But I digress. In the late 90’s, Fré had just finished high school and was enrolling in college to continue his studies, but the call of the family store was too great. He explains: “When I was young, we even lived in the apartment above the shop, which is now actually the storage space. So you can imagine that the shop had always been a big part of my life. Besides, studying just wasn’t for me, and I knew my father would welcome me to help out. In the beginning, I was more of an ‘employee’, but after some time it became a partnership. I really liked working together with my dad. It also heralded a ‘transition period’, where in the end I was going to take over the store from him. And so we did: since 2002, my wife Annesofie and I are running the store together as a team. And it works great that way, but don’t kid yourself. It’s still ‘work’, and there is a lot of competition out there, especially in the recent years. We try to differentiate ourselves from the other shops by only offering products and memorabilia that WE ourselves would buy if we were on holiday, you know? We also noticed a trend lately that people prefer souvenirs they can actually use in daily life. So every time they take it out to use, they are reminded of their time in Bruges. Of course, we also have your more ‘traditional’ selection of magnets and shirts, but I really feel we offer something different here and there. And to be honest, we also have quite some experience in this field. Annesofie and I have been proud shopkeepers for over 15 years now, and the store’s been in the souvenir business for over 50 years”.
I’m triggered by the long running success of the store, and ask if Fré has maybe noticed changes in the people (rather than the products) that visit Bruges. He thinks, whilst stroking his mustache: “Well…yes. In the earlier days, of course a lot of English and French people came to Bruges. Then there was an inflow of Spanish visitors. We also had a surge of Japanese people a couple of years back. So I guess you could say we’ve had quite the international company in Bruges and our little shop” (laughs).
He continues: “Sometimes things get lost in translation (even though we speak four languages) or we get funny questions. It happens a lot that Americans ask me “I’d like to go to point A. How many blocks is that?” and I then have to explain “Well, I’m sorry, sir. Ehmmm…we don’t have ‘blocks’ in Belgium. But I can explain where that is: just follow that street, then over the bridge, second street to the left. If you come across a mill, you’ve gone too far.” In turn they give you this questioning look like ‘how do you people navigate around here?!’” (impersonates what I can only describe as a ‘confused tourist’). That’s what you get when you live in a medieval town, I guess. A recurring question we also often get is people asking if that (pointing to the Belfry) is where Colin Farrell threw himself off of in the movie ‘In Bruges’. And we triumphantly go ‘Yep, that’s the one!’” (laughs).
FRÉDÉRIC’S TOP 3 PICKS FOR BRUGES
Like I promised in the introduction, we’re also going to talk about what to do, what to visit, etc. in picturesque Bruges. When I ask him if people should visit Bruges, he replies without any hesitation and a lot of conviction: “Yes! Of course! Bruges is the most beautiful city in the world! Like we said, we see a lot of tourists and they all agree with me. (laughs) In all seriousness, Bruges really has to be on everyone’s itinerary coming to Europe or Belgium. It has a true medieval feel, and if you go even just one street away from the well-treaded trail, you’ll find yourself all alone getting lost in the small streets. Also, getting around is a pinch: you can easily hit all the sights walking. No need for taxis or buses once you’ve arrived.”
Fré’s been living in and around Bruges even longer than I have, so here are Fré’s top 3 picks for visiting Bruges:
- DE REIEN
“De Reien (the little canals running through the center of the city) are the first thing that come to mind. Spiegelrei, Speelmansrei, Sint-Annarei, Groenerei, Potterierei, Augusteinenrei, etc. with their small bridges are quintessential Bruges. You have some excellent photo ops here as well. By the way: since ‘Brugge’ looks a lot like the Dutch word for ‘bridges’ (‘bruggen’), one might be led to believe that the city gets its name from all the small bridges in the city, but that’s not the case!”
“The Groeningemuseum is a must if you are into art or culture in general. It houses, among other paintings and expositions, a nice collection of ‘de Vlaamse Primitieven’ (FYI – these are Flemish renaissance and medieval painters such as Jan Van Eyck or Hans Memling). It’s also beautifully located along ‘De Dijver’ (if you want to pronounce it like a true Bruggeling: ‘dun dee-vur’) in the heart of Bruges, which is on the ‘tourist checklist’ anyway.”
- BREWERY DE HALVE MAAN
“This is something all ‘Bruggelingen’ are particulary proud of: Brugse Zot. It’s a true Belgian beer brewed at De Halve Maan, sitting on a cosy square in the middle of the city, close to the ‘Oud Sint-Jan’. You can take a tour there or enjoy a beer at the bar (although you can enjoy one of the beers on tap in many places in the city. Fun fact: the brewery completed a pipeline to transport the fresh beer from the brewery in the city to their distribution center a couple of miles away. This way there is no more need for the trucks driving in the narrow cobblestone streets. Good for the environment and the downtown traffic!”
So dear reader, in conclusion, and although it probably was already clear from the title (but I’ll spell it out one more time for the cheap seats): this is NOT your average souvenir shop. When you’re in Bruges, be sure to swing by and pay a visit, say hello to the friendly shopkeeps Fré and Annesofie, buy a cool shirt for yourself or a trinket to appease the mother-in-law (you still need to make up for your horrendous remark at last year’s family Christmas party where you said the main dish ‘could probably do with a bit more salt’). Tell them Jan says “Hi”.
SOUVENIRS M.MORET is open from 10AM to 6PM, and closed on Thursdays. You can find the store at Vlamingstraat 1 (Bruges). Or you can just look at the Belfry from the middle of the market square, look back over your shoulder to the left and you’ll see it right on the corner. This is a non-sponsored post, by the way.