A weekend in Bruges
Bruges: a city left behind in the 16th century!
The city of Bruges was founded in the 9th century, but its real flourishing began at the start of the 12th century, in a somewhat unusual way. During a period of severe flooding, the city was given the chance to develop when a tidal wave opened up an inlet between Bruges and the North Sea. This allowed the small town to develop into a major commercial port, thanks to its central position in northern Europe. In the 13th century, Bruges became an important financial centre, to the point where the first stock exchange in the world was founded there! The population of the city tripled between 1340 and 1500.
But by the 16th century, Bruges began to face two serious problems: business began to turn towards the Americas, and in particular, the inlet linking the city to the sea was silting up. Deprived of both its role as a port and of its investors, Bruges experienced economic decline, overshadowed by Antwerp which became the leading city in Flanders. Without its former energy, the Venice of the North fell into a kind of stupor, which had the benefit of freezing its urban development in that period so that Bruges has preserved its typical architecture of the Middle Ages.
From 1907 onwards, Bruges recovered its access to the sea, thanks to the creation of the port of Zeebrugge, and enjoyed a new phase of development. Now restored, Bruges is one of the most popular tourist cities in Belgium, with its well-preserved mediaeval streets. Since 2000, the historic centre has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bruges appears a city frozen in time, offering you a complete change of scene. In order to preserve this atmosphere, you are strongly encouraged to leave your car in one of the out-of-town car parks. The city is compact, on a human scale, and is easy to walk around.
Bruges is also best explored at first by strolling around its charming streets. Take time to look at all the little architectural details of the houses, evidence of former uses. For instance, here and there you will see bricked-up windows, from a time when a tax was applied according to the number of windows in a house. People who did not want to pay the tax chose instead to block off some of their windows. A hole in the front of a building doesn’t mean a missing brick, but a former shelter for carrier pigeons. As for the red colouring of the house fronts, this is the result of adding ox blood to the rendering. You should also take a walk to the outskirts of the city to see the windmills.
Then jump into one of the river boats which tour the canals. The usual charm of a boat trip is enhanced by the pleasure of seeing the city from another angle, and the captain of the vessel will explain some of the subtleties of the architecture and the local history as you float along. – 8 € for a trip lasting about half an hour.
For the braver among you, climbing the 366 steps of the Belfry will give you an amazing, all-round view of Bruges. Try to arrive whenthe building opens, because the number of visitors allowed inside is limited, helping to improve the quality of the visit, but means queuing if you arrive later. – 10 €
Bruges and culture
Bruges is not a large city, but it has no shortage of museums. If you are there with a family, go to the Historium. Located on the site of the former Waterhalle (a large covered harbour), the Historium traces the town’s story through the ages. The entrance fee is quite high, but it is a novel experience. An interactive tour plunges you into the golden age of Bruges’ history, following the adventures of a young apprentice of the painter Jan van Eyck. – 13.50 €
As you stand in front of the Historium, you can enjoy a stunning view across the main square of Bruges.
But the museums of Bruges above all pay homage to the painters who built the city’s reputation. The Groeningemuseum has a fine collection of Flemish Primitives, with some works by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and others, as well as the Neoclassicists (end of 18th century). – 8 €
Another essential visit is to the former Saint John’s Hospital. Established in the 17th century, it is one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, still in use until the 1970s. Today, it is a museum, housing in its collections six paintings by the Flemish Primitive artist Hans Memling, as well as religious works. There are also temporary exhibitions worth seeing: at the moment, until 20 February, there is an inspiring exhibition devoted to the South African artist William Kentridge. During your visit, take time to admire also the architecture, especially the magnificent structure of the first floor – 8 €
Finally, the Béguinage is a curiosity of Bruges well worth a look. Created in 1245, it has a garden surrounded by white houses, home to the béguines, celibate women who wished to live a devout life, but without taking vows. You can visit one of these houses for a glimpse into the way of life of these women. – 2 €
On the other hand, don’t linger at the Museum of Chocolate, which is rather dull, or at the Dali Museum, whose collections are somewhat scanty.
Where to eat in Bruges?
There is no lack of restaurants. There is something for every taste and for all budgets. But if you are ready for a little culinary treat, you are strongly recommended to visit the Bistro Refter with its blend of contemporary design and traditional cooking. The 37€ menu (starter, main course and dessert) will give you a taste of top quality cooking to die for!
For the greedier among you, watch out for the tourist-trap chocolatiers, often poor quality. We recommend The Chocolate Line as well as Chez Juliette’s for cakes and chocolate spread. And no Belgian break is complete without trying a waffle, so go to Lizzie’s Wafels – excellent and huge!
Where to stay in Bruges
We stayed at Hôtel Marcel, right in the heart of the city. The rooms are not large, but it is very quiet and clean. Every room here is decorated in the city’s colours, so you are still immersed in Bruges even in your dreams.
During our stay, confusion over the booking forced us to find a back-up solution for the second night. As the hotels were full, we found refuge with a local family. This fall-back solution turned out to be very productive, as it is always pleasant to chat with local residents. The sofa surfing option could prove worthwhile. And our sincere thanks to Jan and Anna for their welcome and their kindness.
We also tried the breakfast at the hotel Monsieur Ernest where the staff were very friendly. We will test it out for a night’s sleep next time we come!