A city made famous by the quality of its beer that was originally brewed by monks, Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of the number of canals surrounding the city, it is called the ‘Venice of the North’ From the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries Bruges was one of the greatest commercial cities in the then known world. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, established his court here, attracting a following of prominent members of European society and wealthy bankers and merchants to settle in Bruges. The city became the heart of the Northern Renaissance attracting artists such as Jan van Eyck, leaving a legacy of art masterpieces valued in the millions of dollars today.
The most prominent landmarks in Bruges date from this period of prosperity, including many of the Gothic palaces and churches, the medieval squares, attractive canals and narrow cobbled by-ways. Even though they officially speak three languages – Dutch, French and German, almost anyone you speak to in the street readily converses in excellent English. Along with that, they are amongst some of the friendliest people in Europe, maybe it is something we should thank the medieval monks for.
After a quick crossing beneath the Channel, we arrived outside our hotel on a cold frosty morning. Based beside the main market square on the edge of the old part of this medieval city, it could not have been more convenient. Surrounded by canals and linked to the sea at Zeebrugge, Bruges ancient prosperity was based on its wool trades, together with tapestry weaving and lace making. Narrow cobbled streets lined with tiny specialist shops and cosy restaurants meander to and fro, making this a city just asking to be explored on foot.
There is something pleasantly surrealistically quirky about the Belgian character. This humour is immediately noticeable from the long-running Tin-Tin cartoon, to work by the artist Magrit. A print of his strange painting of a man’s head topped by a bowler hat and with his nose obliterated by a large green apple decorated our shower room.
More of this national humour stood outside our hotel. Called the Fountain ‘t zand engels by Stefan Depuydt and Livia Canestraro, it is four groups of statues representing four totally unconnected subjects. The first section is four bathing women symbolizing the towns of Antwerp, Ghent, Courtrai and Bruges. Next comes a representation of the flat landscape of Flanders, then a group of fishermen indicate the age-old ties between Bruges and the sea; while cyclists make an expression of youth and hope for the future – a figure amongst this group is waving to the final and main part of the fountain. Topping the whole is Tijl Ulilenspiegel, the court jester-cum-Robin Hood figure who sits on top of the column looking towards his beloved Damme district, the former outport of Bruges.
Just a few metres round the corner from this strangely attractive fountain took us straight into the heart of the old town; this was where festively decorated stalls selling gluwein and hot spicy sausages soon made us realise that Christmas was not so far away. Fairy lights and a skating rink completed the wintry atmosphere. Brightly lit shops were displaying delicate Belgian lace and intricately woven tapestry work, as well as those selling the famous Belgian chocolates. But the shop that really caught my attention was the one where its main window was full of different bottles of beer. There must have been at least a hundred different brands and types, all the result of hard working monks, who centuries ago developed beer as an alternative to drinking polluted water.
Overlooking the Market Square, or Markt as it is known locally, stands the Belfry or Belfort tower. Built in the thirteenth century to symbolise Bruges’ prosperity, the medieval bell tower rises to a height of 83 metres (266 feet) above the square. The tower offers a panoramic view over the city and surrounding countryside, the reward for the steep climb up 366 steps to the bells and viewing platform. There are 47 bells in the carillon that is rung to give the time throughout the day, in addition to special concerts from time to time.
As befits a medieval city, Bruges has a number of museums and art galleries, the best being the Groeningemuseum covering six centuries of art, with masterpieces from the twelfth century up to the present day. It includes paintings by the likes of Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch alongside examples of more modern work. The other recommended museum is the Kantcentrum where you can follow the history of Bruges lace, which is still one of the most important products coming from the city. The ground floor of the museum shows how lace making developed from the sixteenth century onwards and there are regular demonstrations held in the workshops attached to the museum. In a lighter vein, the Chocolademuseum on the corner of St Jaansplein square is a must for all lovers of Belgian chocolates.
Probably the most photographed place in Bruges is the view of the canal with Belfort tower in the background from the old quayside at Rozenhoedkaai (the Quay of the Rosary). In medieval days it was a busy mooring place for ships carrying salt into the city. There are several attractive restaurants with verandas overhanging the canal along which tour boats now cruise, following the route where the old traders once plied their trade. As an alternative to walking, or as well as because it gives an alternative view, a ride along the canal is an ideal way to explore the old byways and backs of picturesque houses.
There are several short walks on the free city map, all explore the twists and turns of this fascinating city. We chose one of the longer routes, simply because much of its length it runs along the canal bank where four restored windmills make an interesting feature. There were once 23 mills built along the town walls in the sixteenth century. All have now disappeared and the four that remain have been brought in from the nearby Flanders countryside. They line the east bank of the canal between the old and new crossings at Kruispoort and Damspoort. No longer grinding corn, they are a tangible link with the old days. All are more or less made to an identical design, but the one most people feel is a ‘must’ to see, is the Nieuwe Papagaai (the new parrot), so named from the wooden parrot on its roof. Why anyone thought of this, can only be put as an example of the quirky Belgian sense of humour.
Brian and his wife Sheila travelled to Bruges for the Bruges Winter Market with Slacks Travel of Matlock, travelling by coach through the Channel Tunnel.