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Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest
Wonderfully walkable and beautifully preserved, Bruges is a bit of medieval history set amongst meandering canals

By Mary Reynolds Thompson

With picturesque canals, gabled houses, and stay-and-linger cafés, Bruges is a first-class sightseeing destination, as well as an amblers delight.

Here you can you saunter along a canal, sip delicious Belgium ale over lunch, eat heavenly chocolate, and view the artwork of Hans Memling and Michelangelo, all just minutes from a bell tower that’s kept time for hundreds of years.

Essentially, Bruges (Brugge in Flemish) is really one big attraction – a sort of medieval wonderland that offers romantic cobblestone streets and canals, tempting cuisine and, yes, plenty of culture too: The Flemish Primitives art movement perfected a style of painting and colors that are still vivid today. The historic center of Bruges was deservedly added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000.

Situated in the western corner of Belgium, a 2-hour train ride from Brussels, Bruges is surrounded by countryside that saw some of WWI’s most dreadful battles. Yet these days, Western Flanders is better known for its atmospheric towns that, despite attracting tourists en masse, should not be missed. These include Ghent, Ypres and Kortrijk – and, the jewel of them all: the beautiful, the impressive, the enchanting -- Bruges.

A Maritime History

Founded in the 9th century by Vikings who settled here at the end of the little river, the origins of the name Bruges are still debated today. Some say it derived from the old-Scandinavian word byrgga, which means 'harbor’ or mooring place'. However, in Flemish, brugge means bridges, and Bruges certainly has its fair share of those.

Because of the proximity of the North Sea, Bruges very quickly became an important international harbor and, in the 11th century, as with so many Flemish cities, it grew wealthy on the cloth trade. Visiting Bruges in 1301 the King of France’s wife, Joanna of Navarre, was so taken aback by opulence of dress that greeted her that she’s purported to have declared, “I thought I alone was queen, but I see that I have 600 rivals here.”

In the 14th century Bruges became an international financial and trading center and, with 35,000 people, boasted a population as great as that of London’s. The prosperity was not to last however. With the unstoppable silting up of the Zwin estuary, the waterway that connected Bruges to the sea, the city’s economy declined. And when the headquarters of the Hanseatic League (a powerful association of Northern European trading cities) upped and moved to Antwerp, the die was cast for Bruges economic collapse.

By the end of the 16th century the former glory was only a memory and Bruges, like the sleeping beauty of fairytale fame, slept for 400 years until awoken by the ‘kiss’ of tourism in the early 19th century. And what a “happily ever after” tale Bruges boasts today – and still thanks to tourism.

Getting Around

Bruges’s ultimate sight is the town itself. The architecture alone attracts around two million visitors a year, so be prepared to move with the throngs in the high summer season. For the most relaxing and scenic way of enjoying this city of canals, step on board one of the many tour boats that depart every 20 minutes from several jetties south of the Burg. For those who like to walk, however, part of the charm of Bruges is that you can explore this city entirely on foot, for its sights are dotted within leisurely walking distance of its compact center.

Mapping Your Stay

Neatly framed by an oval-shaped series of canals that follow the city’s medieval fortifications, Bruges still has four of the original main gates. In the center are two squares, the Markt and the Burg, where the tourist office is situated. Most of the major sights are collected in these squares as well as south of the Market. The train station is about 1.5 km south of the Markt; buses shuttle regularly between the two.

What to See

Must-See Museums

Europe isn't short on museums, but Bruges can boast its fair share of beautiful buildings filled with extraordinary pieces of artwork and other collections. The connoisseur of fine art will find much to delight in Bruges’s offerings, and the Groeninge and Memling are simply not to be missed.

Groeninge museumis the quintessential Bruges museum, showcasing the art produced during the city’s heyday in the 1400s. A tour of the early Flemish works in this museum with its paintings by Jan Van Eyck, Rogier van de Weyden, and Hugo van der Goes, will soon persuade you of the subtle, technically advanced beauty of this school of art. The real challenge will be mastering the museum’s name (HHHROON-ih-guh)! Closed Mondays.

Memling Museumis housed in the recently restored chapel of the 12-century St John’s Hospital (Sint Janshospitaal). Displaying surgical instruments, documents, and visual aids, it offers a fascinating glimpse into medieval medicine as you work your way to the museum’s triumph: a handful of masterpieces by Hans Memling (c.1430-1494). Some Memling trademarks to look for are unblemished faces; remarkable details like precious carpets, mirrors and brocade; glowing colors, even lighting, no shadows; cityscape backgrounds. Closed Mondays.

On a lighter note, learn more about Belgium’s favorite food at Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum. This could be the ultimate experience for the chocoholic. Or dig deeper into the history of diamonds, one of Belgium's most important exports, at the Diamond Museum.

Also, not to be missed:

Bell Tower: Overlooking Market Square (Markt), with 366 steps to a spectacular view and a carillon close up. Open Daily

Market Square: Grote Markt is a lively center of town. The huge square is free from traffic and offers a gathering place for people complete with restaurants, museums, a belfry tower and a statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, leaders of the 'Battle of the Golden Spurs.’

Burg Square: Scan the square to see six centuries of architecture, from the Romanesque Basilica of the Holy Blood to the pointed Gothic arches of City Hall, to the well-proportioned Renaissance windows of the Old Recorder’s House, to the elaborate 17th century Baroque of the Provost’s House. Talk about a whirlwind tour through history!

The Church of Our Lady: This sees a lot of visitor traffic not because it's the most important church in Bruges, but because of a Renaissance-era Italian: Michelangelo. His delicate Madonna and Child can be seen near the apse as you enter, somewhat overwhelmed by its ornate Baroque niche, but nonetheless a wonderful example of the master’s work.

St Anna Quarter: The St Anna quarter, or Verloren Hoek (Forgotten Corner) as its nicknamed, is somewhat off the beaten track and lies to the northeast of Markt, on the east side of St Annarei canal. Hire a bike and pedal around this largely tranquil, residential area, dotted with churches and small museums.

Brewery tour: When in Belgium, drink beer. Take a tour of the De Halve Maan Brewery and discover Brugse Zot, a tasty local brew, and the only one still brewed within the city walls.

Shopping

For your taste buds - sample the local monk-brewed Belgian ales and look for the famous chocolates (particularly pralines). Lace abounds in every corner shop, but make sure to ask for the handmade bobbin lace, a specialty of Bruges going back hundred’s of years. However, Bruges is not known for spectacular shopping, but there are plenty of boutiques, bookshops, and galleries to peruse.

Most shops are open from 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday. Friday evening is late night shopping when most shops stay open till 8 or 9pm. In summer, many shops also open on Sundays for part, if not all of the day. If it’s bargains you’re after, then look for the signs in the shop windows indicating Solden (Sales).

Where to Stay

Large numbers of tourists visit on day trips and are gone before the sun sets. If you stay overnight and linger on a midsummer evening when the tower bells echo through the cobbled streets you’ll have an entirely different experience of Bruges. And Bruges is a great place to sleep, with Gothic spires outside your window, no traffic noise, and the bells heralding the new day at 8:00 precisely. For the best value, check out the B&Bs.

What to Eat

Belgium is where France meets the North, and you’ll find a delicious mix of French and Flemish influences in Bruges. Flemish specialties include: Carbonnade, a rich beef stew flavored with onions and beer; Chou rouge a la Flamande, red cabbage with onions and prunes; Lapin a la Flamande, marinated rabbit braise in onions and prunes. A la Flamande, if you haven’t already guessed, is any dish done in the Flemish way.

Bruges’ specialty, however, is mussels. And the best way to enjoy them is to get away from the touristy area and choose a quite restaurant in the backstreets. Or stop and enjoy a Belgium waffle. The Belgians never eat them for breakfast, but savor them as a sweet snack during the day.

When to Go

At the height of summer, when the temperature is a pleasant 75 degrees, the hoards of people can make it difficult to fully appreciate the old-world atmosphere. Instead visit in spring when daffodils carpet the bigijnhof or in autumn when the falling leaves add fiery color to the scene. In winter, when you can sometimes skate on the canals, you have the town almost to yourself. At these times, Bruges readily reveals its magical beauty to the visitor. Major events and festivals are generally held outside the winter months. The Canal festival and lace festivals in August; the Sandcastle festival also takes place in summer.

Mary Reynolds Thompson is a lifelong writer and traveler. Born in London, England, Mary fell in love with Positano, Italy at age three on a family vacation and hasn’t stopped exploring since. From the cobblestone lanes of Ljubljana to the wild, windy tip of Tierra del Fuego, Mary’s diverse range of travel experiences provide the insights for our destination features.

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