If you are planning to visit Brussels on EU or other business, make sure you plan a day trip to Bruges. The trains that service the city are frequent (every half hour), fast and dependable, and there’s nothing to tell you that you’ll actually be travelling back in time.But you’ll know it the moment you cross the canal in front of the railway station and walk down the street towards the centre.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, the historic heart of this city with two names (as with most things in Belgium – Bruges in French and Brugge in Flemish) is preserved in all its mediaeval glory. You may have read that Bruges is the Venice of the North, but don’t expect a gondola ride and sumptuous palaces. Yes, there are canals as well as at least 50 romantic bridges – but in Bruges you’ll find yourself in the realm of Gothic architecture at its finest, amidst cathedrals, towers, belfries, vaults soaring towards the heavens. Their awe-inspiring grandeur is softened by the colourful facades of the terraced houses with typical Flemish stepped gables casting their reflection on the smooth surface of the canals. But how come there are canals just 15 km (9 miles) away from the coast? In the 5th century, this area was under the North Sea. When the water retreated, it left behind fertile land criss-crossed by channels and waterways. In the late 9th century Baldwin Iron Arm, the first count of Flanders, built a stronghold on one of them to ward off Viking marauders. This was the beginning of Bruges (which stems from the old-Norse word ‘Bryggia’, meaning ‘wharf’ or ‘landing place’), which got its city charter as early as 1128 and became the flourishing capital of Flanders.
The city’s Golden Age stretched from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Merchant ships from Genoa and Venice, Germany and England, Portugal and Russia cast anchor in its port, and local merchants sailed as far as Calcutta. The exquisite and fabulously expensive Bruges lace was coveted by the rich and noble across Europe. The fine cloth and garments made of English wool were of such high quality that they were exported all over the known world. People in the city lived in luxury, purchasing exotic goods to indulge their fancies from as far away as the Levant. Italian bankers set up branches here. Bruges became a commercial and financial hub of mediaeval Europe. Did you know that the bourse (stock exchange) originated in Bruges? The word (and concept) derived from Robert van der Beurse, a tradesman who opened an inn at Vlamingstraat 35 and called it Ter Beurse in 1285. He assisted the merchants and money-changers staying at his inn in their negotiations, advised them on local laws, translated their contracts and became a guarantor of their deals. He was one of the first brokers in Europe. As this formula proved highly successful, soon others started offering the same services and, thus, the first stock exchange (bourse) opened in Bruges in 1309. In the 15th century, Duke Philip the Good set up court in Bruges. His marriage to Isabella of Portugal was celebrated with great splendour, as was that of his son Charles the Bold to Margaret of York. On the occasion of the first of these two memorable events, Philip the Good founded the Order of the Golden Fleece. Other royals who lived in Bruges at the time, albeit in exile, were Edward IV and Richard III of England.
As the city flourished under the dukes of Burgundy, so did the arts. Painters and sculptors from all over Europe came to work in flocked to Bruges. The first printed book in English, Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy, was published in the city in 1475. Strolling around the historic centre, you can’t miss the Church of Our Lady, famous for its 122 m (400 ft) tower. Its foundations were laid in the 13th century, while the Portail du paradis (‘gates of paradise’), through which all funeral processions passed, date from 1450. Inside, to the right of the altar, you’re in for another surprise: a beautiful white Carrara marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. A Bruges merchant bought the sculpture in Italy and donated it to the church. Like most treasures, this, too, has not sat undisturbed on its pedestal – during the French Revolution, it was taken to France where it remained until 1816, then it was stolen by the Nazis and hidden in a salt mine in Austria. It was finally returned to Bruges after 1945, with the help of General Eisenhower. In the crypt below the altar are the splendid tombs of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy, killed during the Battle of Nancy in 1477, and of his daughter Mary of Burgundy, who died five years later at the age of 25 after falling off her horse. Before that she had given her hand in marriage to Maximilian I of Austria. We can only speculate what Europe’s history would have been like if she had chosen to marry the dauphin of France…
These unfortunate events marked the beginning of the end of the richest city in Northern Europe. The dukes of Burgundy left, the River Zwin linking it to the sea silted up, trade dried up, Antwerp became the main city of Flanders, and Bruges declined. Time seemed to have stopped for Bruges, leaving it stranded in the Middle Ages – to the delight of tourists, who discovered this lovely city in the late 19th century. Or, more precisely, rediscovered the city, as the first guidebook to Bruges – Brugge die Scone was published as early as 1380! As you continue your walk towards the heart of the city centre, you’ll hear the melodious chime of bells ringing out every 15 minutes. The sound comes from the Grote Markt (Market Square), which is dominated by the 80 m (262 ft) Belfort (Belfry) built in the 14th century to announce the time and to serve as an observation post for spotting fires and other danger. It is definitely worth the effort to climb the 366 steep, narrow steps to the top, where you can expect a spectacular view of the whole city and nearby countryside.
You will also get to see the 47 bells of one of the most famous carillons in Europe. They are controlled by an automatic mechanism with a huge cylinder, called a drum, with 30,500 openings in which adjustable steel pins are inserted to produce different melodies. There are also complete carillon concerts several times a week. Right in the middle of the square, where in former times the people of Bruges gathered for weekly open air markets, trade fairs, spectacular mediaeval jousts, public rallies and to watch public executions, stands the Monument to Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. In 1302, the two led a dawn uprising in which the French garrison based in the city was massacred. Then they defeated the army of the French King Philip IV in the Battle of the Golden Spurs (which gets its name from the hundreds of golden spurs of French knights, collected from the battlefield) winning Flanders’ independence. In nearby Burg Square is the Stadhuis (Town Hall). Built between 1376 and 1420, this building is impresses not so much with its size than with its fine design and rich irnamentation, with Gothic windows, elegant turrets, 48 statues in niches and 24 coats of arms of the towns and villages that were once under the administrative rule of Bruges. Tucked away in the corner of the square, darkened by time and almost unnoticeable, is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. In the chapel on the second floor, a wonderful gold and silver tabernacle ornately decorated with precious stones holds a crystal phial containing a precious relic – a drop of blood believed to be the blood of Jesus Christ, brought from the Middle East during one of the Crusades. Every year, on Ascension Day, the relic is carried through the streets of Bruges in a solemn and colourful procession for which the local people dress in mediaeval costumes.
An archway near the Stadhuis leads to Vis-Markt (Fish Market) Square, from which boat trips depart. A half-hour excursion by motorboat on the canals of Bruges will help you discover the city from an entirely different perspective. The drivers are licensed guides who speak Flemish, French, English and German, and while you chug along the canals, they will tell you all about the sites on the tour, shouting to make themselves heard above the roar of the engine… If you are after a more authentic experience, you can take a horse carriage and soak up the mediaeval atmosphere as you listen to the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestone streets and equally detailed explanations offered by the coachmen.
Or you can slow your sightseeing pace and simply stroll along the streets lined with shops selling handmade chocolate and marzipan, gifts, lace and tapestries, and full of cosy little pubs. Their must-try specialties include traditional Belgian waffles, fried potatoes in a paper cone and live beer. The latter pairs well with another traditional Belgian dish – moules et frites, steamed mussels served with the ubiquitous Belgian-style fried potatoes. Across the canal, opposite the Church of Our Lady, stands one of Europe’s oldest surviving mediaeval hospitals, St John’s, which was built in the 11th century and remained in operation until 1976.
Here nuns welcomed and cared for pilgrims, travellers and the sick. Today it houses the Memling Museum. Hans Memling (ca.1430-1494), one the most important Flemish Primitives, was considered the greatest painter of his day. There are also works by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441), who was the first to mix glazes of pigment with linseed oil, apply that to the canvas, and then coat it with pigment. This technique allowed a virtually infinite combination of colours and brought about a revolution in painting.
And another curious site: the white almshouses that were built by the rich as refuge for widows and the poor. In return for the use of these houses, the residents had to work and pray for their benefactors’ souls every day. The Lace Centre is housed in one of these tastefully restored almshouses. To the right on the way back to the railway station is the Beguinage, built in the 13th century for widows and single women left without male protection during the Crusades. They wished to consecrate their lives to God and live in community, but without taking the permanent vows of nuns. Thus, they were able to return to their previous lives if their husbands came home, or to remarry. The Beguinage was a small town within the city, and it was governed by an abbess chosen by the Beguines themselves. Their work was various: teaching the young, caring for the poor, tending the sick, and sewing and lace-making to earn their livelihood.
Today the Beguinage is a Benedictine convent, and the nuns wear the mediaeval habits of the Beguines. A number of films have been shot on location in this quiet and peaceful place, especially lovely in spring when white and yellow daffodils blossom in the bright green grass. In front of the Beguinage is the Lake of Love (Lac d’Amour), a name said to have been coined by Victor Hugo in a rather free translation of its Flemish name, Minnewater (Water of Love). Actually, in 1127 the Minnewater was the entry point of the port of access to Bruges. The brick building at the end of the lake is the Sashuis or Sluice House, and houses the controls to regulate the water levels between the Minnewater and the canals of the city. But this in no way mars the truly romantic atmosphere of the lake, with its graceful white swans used to posing for the cameras. Indeed, the lake and surrounding park constitute the perfect finish to your brief escape from civilisation.