I have been to the Venice of the North and I have much to say for it.
Think medieval. Think fairy tale pretty. Chocolate shops queuing up on cobbled stoned streets, their bay windows replete with sculptures, fountains and what have you – in precious cocoa. Canals flanked by brick houses weathered by age and spires of churches and towers soaring high above the town. Whitewashed almshouses, clip clopping horse carriages and intricate lace curtains peeking out from windows and doors. Put them all together and you have Bruges in a mini montage.
Old Bruges town is hedged in by a moat that traces the city’s medieval fortifications. It is encircled by canals and earth banks, the remains of the fortifications. The fortress was constructed by the first count of Flanders with the curious (to my mind) name, Baldwin Iron Arm. It was strategically located beyond the head of the Zwin – a long sea channel – that brought trade to the city. Four of the nine 14th century gates still stand guard today. At its heart are the Markt, the medieval marketplace, and the Burg, the ancient seat of government, dominated by the Stadhuis (city hall).
My husband and I reached this large city in West Flanders (in the Flemish region of Belgium) on a stunningly cold January afternoon. The wind chill added an icy bite to a grey day.
Pardon the lack of sunny disposition or not, Bruges is bound to sweep you off your feet. If you are a romantic like me, just don’t fight it. Winter is when you feel the charming mysteriousness to Bruges, without the horde of tourists who invade it in summer.
The Lake of Love led us to the centre of the old town, a 20-minute walk from the train station, Bruges Centraal. Minnewater, as the lake is also known, gets both its names from the tragic legend of Minna and her warrior-farmer lover, Stromberg.
Minna fled home because her father wanted her to marry a fisherman. When Stromberg returned after a week of fighting battles, he found Minna in their hiding place where she died in his arms. The story goes that Stromberg dug a grave for his beloved on the dry banks, covering her body with a blanket of water lilies. He rolled a heavy black stone onto the banks, hacking the letters ‘Minna’s Water’ into it. Minna’s name also means love, so the lake finds itself mired in a romantic aura.
It might take about a half hour to reach the city centre, if you dawdle like we did along the way. The beautiful begijnhof — a secluded compound featuring a group of houses, built around a courtyard and garden – looms up along the way. In medieval times when Bruges had its moment in the spotlight, this was the area where ships sailing from afar would unload their invaluable cargoes of wool, silk, spices and wines.
Lend your imagination to Flemish history and you can picture the peaceful existence of begijns (beguines in French), unmarried religious women who lived together in tranquil begijnhofs (béguinage in French) under vows of chastity. These sisterhoods of the Roman Catholic Church were founded in the 13th century in the Low Countries by women who served god, without giving up their wealth or retiring from the world.
The whitewashed begijnhof, Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde, here dates back to the 13th century and though the last begijn is long gone, there is a convent of Benedictine nuns in the complex. The sight we missed is that of the field of daffodils which carpet the area during spring. Well, like Wordsworth did, I shall picture it in my mind’s eye.
Right at the entrance to the begijnjof is ‘t Begijnhuisje, a 17th century house that has been transformed into a four-room museum. It gives you a nifty insight into the begijn’s life, complete with a stone cloister and a well. Cross over, outside the 1776 gateway bridge of the begijnhof, and you are into tourist land. Horses catch a quick bite here, off their bright coloured buckets, before whisking you off in carriages. The romantic in you would want to hold onto that feeling of being transported to a different time altogether as the big, beautiful horses clip clop their way down the cobbled lanes leading you into the heart of Bruges.
Outside the begijnhof is also where temptation lurks, in a line-up of shops that promise to make inroads into your wallets and purses. The heady vanilla lure of crunchy waffles, beautiful lace work, tapestry-inspired woven cushions and wall hangings, and chocolates, make you swoon with delight. We took turns in dragging each other away from each shop – but not before we had given into a few buys.
It is strange when you see present-day Bruges and hear that the city was once asleep for 400 years. As much as it pops out of the pages of the Grimms brothers’ fairy tale tome, reality is that the city was crippled by revolts in the late 1400s and the silting up of the Zwin cut off its access to the sea. It was left deserted – referred to as Bruges-la-Morte (Bruges the Dead) by Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach in 1892.
Yet the city was so prosperous by the early 1300s that it prompted Joanna of Navarre (wife of French king, Philip the Fair) to observe: “I thought I alone was queen, but I see that I have 600 rivals here.”
It was only by the early 19th century that the city was put on the path of a slow revival with inflow of money from wealthy visitors.
It is pretty obvious to all and sundry that Bruges is a city that thrives on its sizeable influx of tourists. Yet it retains a peculiar charm, thronged as it might be by travellers. In the city, you will also be charmed by the pretty pink or beige facades of crow-stepped gables of houses in brick.
After you have peered through the windows of a row of chocolate shops and souvenir shops, you come upon the canal. A beautiful and massive brick building with red window frames stands out there, demanding attention. It belongs to Sint-Janshospitaal (Saint John’s Hospital) that was built in 1188 as a hospital for pilgrims and travellers. The medieval wards, run by the nuns and monks, are still preserved as are paintings by the famous painter Hans Memling.
Ambling through the streets you chance upon fascinating pieces of architecture and history at every turn of the road. The Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Palace) in the markt or the open market square stuns you with its imposing neo-Gothic style and is the nerve centre of the town.
The pages of Bruges’ history demands to be rifled through as you set your eyes upon the statue of Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breydel in the markt. These worthy gentlemen were the leaders of an insurrection called the Bruges Matins or Brugse Metten of 1302 — when the local Flemish militia led by Coninck and Breydel massacred the French garrison in Bruges on an early May morning. The insurrection resulted when the medieval guildsman of Bruges refused to pay new rounds of taxes to their French overlords. It also sparked off a Flemish rebellion that led to a Flemish victory at the Battle of Golden Spurs.
For a bite or two, do as the locals do and avoid the eateries around the markt where the prices are invariably steep. But if money is not a constraint, there are Michelin-starred restaurants such as Den Gouden Harynck and Kardinaalshof. However, a tried and tested winner is a frietkot or frituur in the main square that serves up frites and mayonnaise. We also gave into the frites and assorted fare of grills and fries at Flemish Stew House, a local joint. Wash down your grub with the local brew of Brugse Zot (Bruges Fool).
As I walked down each narrow lane in the old town, where cars rarely ply, I was entranced by the history that there is behind every building in town. Typical to Bruges are the 14th-century Godshuizen (almshouses) for the needy elderly folks of Bruges, the 13th century Belfort that towers above the markt and the 1420 stadhuis (city hall). The Belfort or belfry tower that served as a bell tower, watch tower, and market during the 13th century when Bruges was growing into a prominent centre of the Flemish cloth industry, is worth the 366-step climb. On a clear day, you might even sight the North Sea.
The Belfort was reconstructed after it was burnt thrice over – in 1280, 1491, and 1781. I quite took a shine to these lines from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem titled “The Belfry of Bruges”.
“In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilt, still it watches o’er the town.”
Then there is the Gruuthuse Museum. It is a mansion that once belonged to one of the wealthiest family of Bruges – the lords of Gruuthuse. ‘Gruut’ in old Flemish means peeled barley or wheat and it is obvious from their name that the family held a monopoly over the beer brewing market.
Don’t miss out on the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek or the Basilica of Holy Blood that gets its name from a phial of Christ’s blood that was brought to the basilica during the 12th-century crusades. It is at the western end of the Stadhuis and if you go at 2pm, you can be witness to the pious veneration of the phial that takes place daily.
Meanwhile, take a 15 minute walk from central Bruges and there are two functioning grain windmills — Sint-Janshuismolen (St. John’s House Mill) and Koeleweimolen (Koelewei Mill)—built in the late 1700s.
There is so much to do in Bruges. A day visit falls short.
Once the night lights start lighting up the various facades in the markt, the city is transformed into something so magical, you will be loath to leave it. A night stay is a wise option when you visit Bruges.
A few must dos: the tour at Brouwerij De Halve Maan that is the last family brewhouse in central Bruges and the diamantmuseum that boasts of a 252-carat raw diamond and offers diamond-polishing demonstrations. The idea of polishing the stones with diamond ‘dust’ was pioneered in Bruges even though Antwerp is the mecca for diamonds.
Do give into what the chocolateries have to offer. We have two bagful to last us a few days. As for waffles, we had our fill of those perfect squares stuffed with dark chocolate and raspberry. It has only left us craving more.