Bruges, Belgium: Great Art, Ancient Grandeur
By Tristan Cano
Ever since watching the film “In Bruges” I had been fascinated with the idea of visiting the capital of West Flanders located in Belgium’s Flemish region.
The film’s dark plot centers on the lives of two Irish hit men who hide away in Bruges after a mob-style hit goes horribly wrong.
Ken, the older more cultured of the two, enjoys every moment he spends in the city whereas younger, twitchier Ray (played by Colin Farrell) is bored out of his wits and pines for a return home.
Arriving into the city on a rainy day, I knew exactly how Ray felt. Bruges is after all, a city which is best enjoyed on foot or on bike, or perhaps by taking a boat trip along the many miles of picturesque canals which have earned it the sobriquet the ‘Venice of the north.’
Bruges was already far wetter than the Venice I recalled so dearly, and I hoped that the persistent drizzle would not disqualify me from enjoying Bruges by these three modes of travel.
The rain was thankfully not to last and as the gray clouds cleared, a beautiful medieval city revealed itself, with rows of tidy coloured houses along seemingly enchanted cobblestone streets. The City’s old center largely caters for tourists who hungrily lap up Bruges’ big sellers: beer and chocolate.
A good selection of Belgian beer is on offer at The Bottle Shop, on Wollestraat and although there are excellent chocolatiers on virtually every corner, a more than honourable mention is due to Pralinette on the same street due to the variety of chocolates and pralines it offers.
Fans of Hergé will also find plenty to occupy themselves at the Tintin Shop on Steenstraat with its many interesting objects dedicated to the fictional young cartoon reporter.Lace was once the City’s biggest export and although much of today’s offerings are machine-made in Asia, locally produced products can still be purchased at a significant premium from specialist shops.
An historical city
Learning a little about a city’s past often provides an excellent backdrop for enjoying its present. My guidebook told me that Bruges was originally founded by Viking settlers in the early Middle Ages but remained relatively obscure until the 13th Century when it grew into an important international trading center due to the demand for Flemish textiles.
Interestingly, Bruges was part of the Spanish Netherlands and under Spain’s control from 1579 until 1713, when it was ceded to Austria by way of the Treaty of Utrecht.
The inevitable silting of the river Zwin and competition for trade from nearby Antwerp put an end to the City’s prevalence as a commercial port and it was perhaps the rapid decline which ensued that holds the secret to Bruges’ present beauty.
By essentially bypassing the heavy industrialization of the last 300 years, Bruges has remained a perfectly preserved remnant of an all-but-forgotten era in western European history.
Nowhere is Bruges’ former grandeur more elegantly displayed than in the Basilica of the Holy Blood on Burg Square, a square which itself boasts some of the most beautiful buildings in the city. An austere Romanesque chapel on the ground floor contrasts with the brightly colored upper chapel which took on its extravagant Gothic Style in the 15th Century.
The Chapel takes its name from a vial of blood which is on display on the side altar, said to belong to Jesus himself. The floor-to-ceiling frescos colorfully depict biblical scenes including images of Christ shedding the blood contained in the vial and the transport of this relic from Jerusalem to Bruges. Entrance is free of charge and the Chapel is well worth a visit, if just to catch a glimpse of the spectacular main altar.
There is a good range of artwork on show in the Stadhuis, but those wishing to have a master class in Flemish art should head to the Groeningemuseum whose permanent collection includes paintings by the likes of Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling.
Also on Burg Square is Bruges’ Town Hall the Stadhuis, which was once the city’s center of government and is one of the oldest in the Low Countries. The Gothic Chamber contains magnificent 19th Century wall paintings which, thanks to a highly informative audio guide, ably illustrate the history of the City’s glorious past.
If you can’t tell your Hieronymus Bosch’s from your Jan Provoost’s and frankly don’t give a Van Damme, The Friet Museum on Vlamingstraat may be more your cup of tea, claiming as it does to be the only museum in the world dedicated to the story of the humble ‘frite’ (‘chip’ or French fry).
After enjoying a deep fried entrée, you could do far worse than grabbing lunch on-the-go at either the Grotemarkt or Vismarkt, which offer an astonishing array of local foods and drink. If you fancy a sit-down meal, make sure you avoid the ‘tourist traps’ on Bruges’ central squares.
Bruges is surrounded by an almost continuous ring of canals and it is near these canals, around the edges of the city that you can still see operational windmills and chance across some of its better restaurants.
Be sure to savor the famously Belgian combination of mussels, cooked with herbs and vegetables in a stock of butter and white wine, and served with frites. The general rule is that these taste best from September to December; however, lower quality mussels can be purchased all year round.
Although most restaurants will offer an interesting selection of desserts including waffles and pancakes, chocoholics should simply head down to the Choco-Story Museum on Wijnzakstraat for a lesson in the history of everyone’s favorite confectionery and plenty of free samples to savor along the way too.
How to get there
Ostend-Bruges International Airport is about 25km from the center of Bruges but has only limited European connections. On the other hand, Brussels International and Brussels Charleroi are major international airports connecting Belgium with the rest of the world. A train from Brussels to Bruges takes approximately 1 hour and can cost as little as €10.00 return, depending on the time of departure.
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Tristan Cano was a freelance travel writer and journalist who lived and worked in his beloved Gibraltar on the southernmost tip of Europe. He wrote extensively in the Gibraltarian and international press about Gibraltar’s history and was the author of Historic Walking Guides: Gibraltar. Sadly, he passed away in 2013 from a brain tumor.