"Bruges is a shit hole", says hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) at the beginning of the cult film In Bruges. In fact, Bruges is a magnificent chocolate box of a place, with deeply delicious chocolates nestling inside.
But Ray might have a point. Even the most beautiful of cities is coloured by personal perspective, as Ray and his partner in crime Ken (Brendan Gleeson) discover when visiting Bruges. Ray, particularly, is not there for tourism. He's lying low, guilt-struck after a hit goes wrong in London. He doesn't care about the beauty of Bruges, he is tormented by his actions.
Ray's reaction to the perfectly preserved World Heritage-listed Flemish medieval town is an example of how mood affects travel. It is indeed possible to step off a bus, switch off, gaze blankly at a new place and then leave. Finding the joy in different places comes from open-mindedness and from allowing complexity, both of our own making and from literary or other sources.
Having a firm plan helps. It's worth researching your destination beforehand – its art, history, architecture, trade links, politics, the social fabric – and to be willing to learn a bit of the language.
Unlike Ray, who merely complains, the more mindful Ken gradually succumbs to the city's charms with the help of his guidebook. Even an inept hitman understands that a place benefits when you scrape away the pretty layers to reveal meaning.
Visiting somewhere already interpreted through books or films imparts an added, light-hearted dimension. This is where the dark comic thriller In Bruges – "Shoot first. Sightsee later" – comes in.
Movie fans can download a Visit Bruges movie map of the city and experience Bruges along with director Martin McDonagh's two hitmen, Ray and Ken, as they await instructions from the East End crime boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who has sent them there.
The city, which suffered virtually no damage during the two world wars, deserves its own Academy Award and In Bruges elicits a soulful desire to visit. The Christmas Bruges of the movie is enchanting (Bruges council extended the Christmas light display for three months to accommodate filming), though this joyful time only darkens Ray's mood.
Here are some Bruges highlights that spangle in In Bruges. A canal boat trip reveals the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce. Film aficionados will recognise the four-star hotel, which overlooks the canal and Rozenhoedkaai (Rose hat quay), as the place from which Ray jumps to escape Harry.
Canal trips also pass the lovely Hotel De Tuilerieen, inhabiting a 15th-century building and modern annexe overlooking the Dijver Canal, one of Bruges' oldest canals, also called "holy water". This was used as a location in the film, though it's equally famous for being the place where the relic of the Holy Blood was kept in the 16th century, before it was transferred to the Basilica of the Holy Blood (which the two men visit, though the scenes were shot in the Jerusalem Church).
Ray and Ken pass by the Gothic Church of our Lady (Onze Lieve-Vrouwekerk) on their canal trip, but it's worth visiting this church that dates from the 13th century. Its 115½-metre perfectly crafted brick tower is the city's tallest.
The gilded bronze effigies on the tombs in the choir space are of the last Duke of Burgundy and his daughter. The large chapel's altarpiece is the white marble sculpture of Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. No other Michelangelo statue left Italy during his life and it features in another film, The Monuments Men.
Ken climbs the medieval belfry's 366 steps in Markt Square, which features somewhat dramatically in the film. Ray prefers to plonk himself on the bench below.
Their visit to the Groeningemuseum art museum offers crucial scenes. The museum – which houses the works of great artists such as Jan van Eyck, a painter from the Flemish Primitive school – elicits introspection.
Ray, for whom Bruges is purgatory, is drawn to Hieronymus Bosch's The Last Judgement, ironically, as he prepares to meet his maker in the film's later scenes.
There are many other stops on the movie map, including Minnewater (Lake of Love), the Astridpark botanical garden, Vismarkt, the Jan van Eyckplein, Huidenvettersplein and more.
And for those who prefer historical drama to film noir, the BBC series The White Queen was also shot substantially in Bruges and there is a movie map for that one, too.
Enjoy with a Bruges chocolate hit.
Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Paris via Ho Chi Minh City. See vietnamairlines.com
Movie fans can download a Visit Bruges movie map of the city. See foto.brugge.be/city_film_office/moviemap_uk.pdf
Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours operates a variety of Western Front battlefields tours. See battlefields.com.au
Alison Stewart was a guest of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours.