An urge to visit Bruges

BELGIUM 

An urge to visit Bruges

Catherine Vanesse

24 December 2017

As Charles Baudelaire wrote in Invitation to the Voyage, a poem inspired by Bruges, “There, all is only order and beauty, luxury, peace and sensuality”. Words that still resonate today along the canals and cobbled streets of the “Venice of the North”, where Latitudes has been walking along the waterside over the course of a weekend. 

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, Bruges is a fine example of a perfectly preserved historic city, with its belfry overlooking the main square, its brick houses with their high-stepped gables, its humpbacked bridges and its canals lined with willows. Small in size, but big in style and architecture, Bruges is captivating, romantic and a little mysterious, especially in winter (as is so aptly suggested in the film In Bruges with Colin Farrel and Ralph Fiennes) or very early in the morning before the arrival of the tourists for the day. Located in the Flemish region and less than an hour by train from Brussels (2h25 min from Paris), the city and its 20,000 inhabitants welcome seven million tourists a year!

Installed aboard a shuttle boat that traverses some of the city’s 50 canals, the guide enjoys recounting the city’s grandiose past, as well as highlighting in a more colourful way, and with a lot of humour and anecdotes, its sometimes crazy strategic choices… We navigate the waters in another era.

A medieval city, Bruges was built in the 9th century as a fortified position along a strategic sea inlet, the Zwin. With the development of trade from the 12th to the 15th centuries, Bruges becomes a veritable hub of European trade while the city enjoys an exceptional reputation for the quality of its draperies. Merchants from Genoa, Venice, Florence, Castile, Portugal or Scotland are among its regular visitors. The first stock exchange in the world is created there. “In the Middle Ages, Bruges was the equivalent of New York today”, the inhabitants of Bruges like to recall. Sometimes French, sometimes governed by the Netherlands, the city continues to grow and grow, going from 35,000 inhabitants in 1340 to 100,000 in 1500. At the end of the 15th century, the bay of Zwin gradually begins silting up and the link between the city and the sea breaks, forcing the court of the Duke of Burgundy and the merchants to settle in Antwerp. The city of Bruges then becomes impoverished and passes under Spanish rule. This decline earns it the nickname of “Bruges-la-morte” (The Dead Bruges), the title of a novel from the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach, a masterpiece of symbolism.

In 1907, Bruges found some of its pride again thanks to the opening of its new port: Zeebrugge. But it is by turning towards tourism that the Flemish city is really reborn from the ashes, starting in the seventies. Although several tourist circuits have been developed by the city’s Tourist Office, it is good to simply stroll, to get lost in the streets with an occasional flea market along the canals, exploring for oneself the treasures of local craftsmanship, the lace, the chocolate, the paintings of the Flemish Primitives in the Groeninge museum or to discover the true history of Belgian fries at the Frietmuseum. The most courageous will not hesitate to climb the 366 steps of the Belfry for a panoramic view of the city. When you get down, stop off at one of the bars or restaurants located on the Markt, the ideal place among the colourful facades, the town hall and the incessant passage of onlookers and carriages, to enjoy a local beer and a warm waffle with whipped cream!