the town hall the Basilica of the Holy
If you are planning to visit Brussels, 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.
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. 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.
A canal leads to the Belfry
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.
the Church of Our Lady
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.
The Lake of Love
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.