For our final day in Flanders, we took ourselves to Bruges, one of the prettiest Medieval cities in the world! The historic centre of Bruges is delineated by canals and characterised by cobbled streets, typically Dutch/Belgian townhouses with stepped gables, and grand Gothic churches. It’s a beautiful town and a great place to visit for a day, though we could easily have spent a week there, losing ourselves in the narrow laneways and chocolateries.
Bruges shares many similarities with its sister city Ghent (which is just 45km down the road): like Ghent, Bruges boomed during the Middle Ages and became a wealthy town thanks to the cloth trade. It also suffered the same economic downturns as Ghent (hence the a beautifully preserved Medieval town centre). The main differences between Bruges and Ghent, from what we’ve seen, is that Bruges is a little bigger and grander in scale, and far more touristy. Compared to the quiet streets and sedate pace in Ghent, our day in Bruges required a little more patience and a bit more elbow-work to encourage people to move over. Still, just a few turns out of the centre of town and things quietened down considerably. Away from the cafés, waffle shops, and big sights, we had Bruges virtually to ourselves and it was awesome!
Bruges became an important trade city due to the access it had to the North Sea; the Zwin Canal began silting up around 1500 however and as the city lost access to the sea, so its importance as a port diminished. In the late 1800s, however, British and French aristocrats, looking for new places to holiday, discovered Bruges. They put the city on the tourist map, so to speak, and Bruges has been a popular destination for Europeans every since. All the tourist dollars (pounds, francs, etc) helped the original Medieval city flourish again and helped fund extensive restorations across the city*. The entire historic city centre of Bruges is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
*Ghent receives fewer visitors and one of the consequences of this is that many of the old buildings in Ghent has a more “worn” look to them. Many of the townhouses and grand buildings in Bruges have been repainted and renovated, giving it a more gentrified look, but Ghent seems a little more “real”.
To get us started we hopped straight on a boat to do one of the ubiquitous canal cruises on offer. It was actually a great way to start as it gave us a sense of the look and feel of the town, and we got to see some of the facades of buildings that front onto the waterways and would not be visible from the streets.
After the canal cruise we spent hours strolling through the streets of Bruges, with some of our favourite photo-stops being around the Grote Markt and Burg Square. The Grote Markt is the main square in Bruges and the focus of most tourists’ attentions. It’s busy, but beautiful, with Medieval buildings lining it and the Belfort (Bell Tower) at its centre.
Not far from the Grote Markt is Burg Square, Bruges’ second town square. Although smaller than the Grote Markt, this was once the administrative heart of the city and so is encircled by some very grand historic buildings. Including the stunning 14th century Stadhuis (Town Hall) and 18th century Liberty House (once the mansion of a local noble, now the city’s records archive).
In one corner of Burg Square, tucked away behind a decorated façade, we found the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek), by far Bruges’ best church. Originally built in the 12th century as the family chapel for the Count of Flanders, the church became a pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages as it houses a vial containing what is said to be the blood of Jesus. The vial was brought to Bruges after the sacking of Constantinople in the 1200s and, whether it really does contain the blood of Jesus or not, it quickly brought fame to the little church that housed it. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is beautifully decorated and, though small, a charming church to visit.
A far busier church in Bruges was the 15th century Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), which attracts hordes of people due to its altarpiece: a white marble statue by Michelangelo entitled “Madonna and Child”. Meant originally for Siena Cathedral, it was purchased in Italy by two Brugean merchants and donated to the church in 1514. Though the subject is obviously different, the statue reminded us a lot of Michelangelo’s work “La Pieta”, which we saw at the Vatican years ago. The amount of detail and life that a good sculpture can carve out of stone is incredible (as usual no photos allowed inside – the image below is from their website).
There were numerous other notable buildings that we stopped by to visit, including St Salvator’s Church, one of the oldest in town; and Sint-Janshospitaal (Saint John’s Hospital), a Medieval infirmary that now houses a museum.
It also made us laugh to discover that Bruges has a museum dedicated to chocolate, and one all about fries (which we cannot, in good faith, refer to as French fries any longer as we now know they are in fact BELGIAN fries!).
After all the chaos and excitement of bruges’ town centre, it was really nice to stumble upon the Béguinage Ten Wijngaerde. Like the béguinage we saw in Amsterdam, this collection of buildings was once the home to women seeking to retire from “the outside world” and live a quiet, peaceful life, whilst doing charitable work. Founded in 1244, this béguinage was much larger than the one in Amsterdam, but still had the same air of quiet and serenity about it.
The béguinage was our last stop in Bruges, and what a nice way to end our sightseeing day it was! After a short train ride back to Ghent we’re back here now and contemplating having to leave this corner of Belgium as we’re off to Brussels tomorrow to see what the Belgian capital has to offer.