Bruges

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Bruges

120,000 inhabitants, capital of West Flanders. Bruges is a spectacularly beautiful city, without question the loveliest in Belgium and one of the loveliest in Europe. Consequently, of course, it is overrun with tourists. It receives about 2,500,000 visitors per year. It is still dazzling. It is a medieval city, a showpiece in its heyday just as it is now, redolent of money and power. It is also absurdly picturesque and charming, a wealthy place, spotlessly clean and in a magnificent state of preservation.

The Heyday  For about three centuries from approximately 1200 to 1500, Bruges was fabulously wealthy. The basis of its wealth was two fold: the manufacture of cloth and access to the sea. Along with the other great towns of Flanders, Bruges developed an immensely profitable dominance in quality cloth manufacture. Initially its trading was largely confined to the wool trade, imported wool from England needed for its cloth industry. Wool came straight into the town centre via the river Zwyn which gave Bruges direct access to the North Sea. Soon though, the port came to expand massively, trading in all the major industrial and agricultural products of medieval Europe. It attracted merchants and bankers from the great Italian trading cities of Venice, Genoa, Siena and Florence. (Dante visited the city and wrote glowingly about its magnificence.) Bruges then became the overseas headquarters of a vitally important group of trading towns of northern Germany called the Hanseatic League which controlled all the commercial activity of the Baltic and the North Seas, stretching in their influence from Novgorod in Russia to London.

By about 1300 Bruges had developed into the great financial metropolis of western Europe. At its height the Minnewater dock was receiving 150 ships a day. It was in Bruges that the old bartering system of trade was replaced by a modern system of cash and credit. It was the home of the first stock exchange in the western world, the Hanseatic Kontor. The great civic monuments, the artistic heritage, the magnificent churches, the grand houses and guildhalls are all testimony to the power and importance of medieval Bruges. They are also testimony to its sudden decline.

Decline and Fall  The last days of Bruges' wealth came in the late C15 as the Zwyn estuary became sand-blocked. Bruges' crucial access to the North Sea and thereby England and the Mediterranean literally dried up. In 1490 the Hanseatic League moved its overseas headquarters definitively from Bruges to Antwerp. About 20 years later the Florentine and Genoese business communities who had set up here also moved their interests to Antwerp. Bruges' economy effectively went into freefall. The city was never redeveloped.

It is largely therefore that C15 city that you see today. During the Napoleonic Wars some of the great treasures of the town were destroyed but little was drastically redesigned. Bruges had long since ceased to matter. In WW II Bruges did not suffer. It was liberated undamaged by the Canadians on Sept. 12, 1944. There are still 150 UNESCO-protected monuments in the city. Though slightly tempered in its authenticity by the ravages of tourism, Bruges remains probably the best preserved medieval city in Europe.

A Day in Bruges  The following presumes that you arrive in Bruges as early as possible, i.e. around lunchtime, in order to maximize your time in the city. It also presumes, perhaps rather ambitiously, that the weather is good and that it is not raining. You should leave your canal boat trip until the evening when the floodlit city is looking it very best. There is plenty to keep the group occupied until then.

The Markt and the Belfort-Hallen  From the hotel you should walk the group first thing to the Markt in order to explain what they can see, orient them and give them options for free time. (If you haven't yet had lunch then here or on the Huidenvettersplein there are plenty of possibilities. Mussels in Belgium may be a cliché but they are still the things to have.)

This used to be the old market square from 1200 right up until 1983 when it was moved round the corner to 't Zand (Saturday mornings). It is still the centre of Bruges life with its hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars. In the Middle Ages this was the scene of tournaments and pageants. It is also where the town gallows were set up (and the guillotine in the late C18). Until the C18 the canal network used to end here. The boats would have moored in covered docks on the east side where the Post Office and the C19 Provincial Government Building now stand. The beautiful gabled houses of red and orange brick on the north and west sides were mostly guild houses (fishmongers, tilers, weavers, bakers) and some homes of wealthy merchants. The oldest of them dates to the C13. The statue in the middle of the square is of the great patriots Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breydel, two Bruges tradesmen who in 1302 rose up against the French occupying forces in the first great action for Flemish nationalism leading to victory over France in the Battle of the Golden Spurs at Kortrijk in July of the same year.

The Belfry (or Belfort in Flemish) dominates the view. It is huge, 280 feet high, with 366 steps to the top, built between the C13 and C15. It leans noticeably to the southeast. Inside is the carillon of 47 bells cast in 1748, with a combined weight of 27 tons. It strikes the quarter hour. From the first floor balcony laws were proclaimed to the citizens by the bailiff. You can and should walk up to the top (passing the carillon and a small treasury) for a superb view over the rooftops of the city. It doesn't cost much, it is open until 5:00 p.m. in the summer and 4:00 p.m. in winter. The belfry stands over the covered market or Hallen with its large and attractive courtyard. This was originally not only the market halls but also municipal offices and the city treasury.

As the evening shades descended,
Low and loud and sweetly blended,
Low at times and loud at times,
And changing like a poet's rhymes,
Rang the beautiful wild chimes,
From the belfry in the markt
Of the ancient tower of Bruges.

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Belfry of Bruges")

You now need to point the group in the direction of other possibilities. It is really not normally necessary to do a fully-fledged walking tour. If you explain the Markt, climb the belfry, direct them to the Burg, recommend the Groeninge Museum and the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, have the promise of an evening canal trip and leave them plenty of time for shopping and wandering, then you have done enough. This is primarily a city for quiet exploration. The serene Minnewater or Lake of Love with its swans is among the loveliest areas for aimlessly strolling. To walk around the medieval ramparts is impressively evocative of Bruges' earlier wealth and power.

The Burg is the only great square of central Bruges. Here among other public buildings is the C14 Town Hall, the oldest in Belgium though much restored. Horse-drawn carriages go from the Burg and head down through picturesque corners towards the Begijnhof and the Minnewater. They last for 35 minutes and cost approximately $20, good value if you have four people in a buggy. They make for an appealing and effortless way to see the city. Incidentally, on this square is the Tom Pouce Tearoom (not cheap) where you can get the best waffles in Bruges.

Shopping  Most shops tend to open between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m. closing between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. It is quite common for shops to close for lunch between 12:00 and 2:00 p.m. Some of the more tourist-oriented shops will stay open later or open on Sundays. Bruges is generally not a cheap city to go shopping in. All the below-mentioned shops are right in the centre of town. There are obviously many others, both cheaper and more expensive.

For the very best, though not the cheapest, of Belgian chocolates you could try recommending:
Depla  Huidenvettersplein, 13 also Eekhoutstraat, 23
Godiva  Zuidzandstraat, 36
Sweertverghaer  Philipstockstraat, 29

For the best lace (again not cheap but guaranteed to be made in Belgium as opposed to China) you might try:
Gruuthuse  Dijver, 15
Kantjuweeltje  Philipstockstraat, 11 (daily demonstrations at 3:00 p.m.)

Museums and Churches  The chances are that most people in free time will just want to go shopping or exploring but you should mention at least a couple of Bruges' extraordinary legacy of cultural treasures. Best of the museums is the Groeninge Museum. Works by the Flemish primitives Van Eyck, Gerard David, Hieronymous Bosch, Rogier Van der Weyden, Hans Memling (Bruges' most famous son) and a modern section with a couple of works by Belgian surrealists Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Of the church the most striking is the C15 Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, largely because of its huge tower, over 400 feet tall. (At the time of writing, early 1998, the church is under scaffolding and not looking so special.) Inside, the most famous of its treasures is the only work by Michelangelo ever commissioned for outside Italy, a white marble Madonna and Child (on the altar at the end of the south aisle).

Canal Boat Trip  Ideally you want to do this in the evening if the weather is good. This is when Bruges floodlit looks its romantic best and, just as importantly, is when the day trippers have gone. Evening boat trips on the canals or reien generally only happen in the summer months though with a decent-sized group you should never have a problem (unless of course the canals are frozen). You need to book or confirm any reservations that you may have. Boat trips start from the Dijver at the corner of Wollestraat or Huidenvettersplein, go down to the Begijnhof and back up as far as the Spiegelrei. They last about 50 minutes. A commentary is given in whatever languages are necessary. The Bruges canals are beautiful, romantic, idyllic, picturesque, the "Venice of the North" etc. They are also perfectly clean.

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