I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.
How To Spell Bruges
Bruges is a city of many faces—and, it seems, spellings. Bruge, Brugge, Bruges, Brugges are just some I've come across (not to mention Venice of the North). Brugge is the Flemish term for the city, while Bruges is the anglicised version. In the interests of International Peace Keeping, I shall use both.
The old centre of Brugge is made for walking. As with so many places when travelling, the best way is to head out, map in hand, and simply wander. Hidden lanes and amazing vistas beckon (not to mention the chocolate shops).
Below are some suggestions for some different things to spot and do along the way.
Explore the Canals of Bruges
I pushed open my hotel window and sat on the ledge a few feet above the water. Across the way, the branches of an ancient willow gently stroked the water. A small stone bridge arched over the canal; medieval buildings with their Flemish roofs zigzagged against the sky. (In a city built largely of wood, a stepped roof was essential for escaping fires.) Some swans glided up to my window. White swans, not the black swans of home. Dressed by the fallen leaves of autumn, the water sparkled in the sun.
As if on cue a barge chugged past. I raised my glass, and the boatload of tourists waved back. Ah, Bruges; a town where past and present merge so seamlessly.
Even today, the canals remain the heart of the old city. The original arteries of the town, they are best seen from a boat, for not all of them can be reached by foot. Like Venice, the canals of Bruges make it impossible to walk in a straight line; the simplest way is to follow a canal.
Bruges from the Water
The Groenerei (or Green Canal) is one of the old town’s major waterways. Towards its end is the Fish Market (which sells seafood of a morning before turning into a tourist market). A cobbled lane leads to the Huidenvettersplein—The Tanners’ Square. Dating from around 1300, the square is now filled with cafes, restaurants, shops and bars. Be wary after a long lunch—not only is the square cobbled, it slopes down towards the canal, where the stones become quite slippery on a damp day.
Tourist boats set off from a corner of the Huidenvettersplein (as well as other places around the town, all offering the same tour). The ride lasts some thirty minutes, complete with a multi-lingual commentary. (I was always amazed hearing shop assistants move effortlessly from Flemish to Dutch to German to English to French – the list seemed endless. I never heard them ask a person’s nationality; they always seemed to choose the right language.)
Taking care to avoid the swans, the boat passed the gates of the Groening museum, which houses the world’s finest collection of the Flemish masters. Like Venice, most buildings have gates and stairs leading straight to a landing stage, or doors opening straight onto the water.
A plethora of medieval buildings can be seen from the water. The boats pass the 12th century St John’s hospital (Sint-Janshospitaal), which continued functioning until 1978. Opposite the hospital is the 13th-century Church of Our Lady. Built in the 13th century, it was originally outside the city walls. The chapel's brick tower is the highest of its kind in Europe.
The view from the Rozenhoedkaai, so named for the roses sold here in the Middle Ages, gives the classic postcard view of Bruges. From the bifurcation of the canals can be seen, amongst all the medieval buildings, the Basilica of The Holy Blood, the Belfry, the Town Hall and The Church of our Lady.
A large canal encircles the old city, at the site of the original town dykes. Swans glide grandly by. On top of the old city walls (now grass-covered mounds) stand four windmills, of the original 25. The Bonne Chiere stands besides the town gate, the Kruispoort, which dates from the 14th century. Near the windmill of Sint-Janshuismolen is the St Sebastian Archers’ Guild. This guild dates back to Crusades when members used longbows in The Battle of Golden Spurs in 1302.
Wander the Streets of Brugge Old Town
With none of the cobbled streets running in a straight line, the Old Town is perfect for wandering and becoming completely lost. At every turn is the charm of moss-covered bridges and medieval buildings, or a delightful restaurant in a centuries-old house.
The Burg is considered the birthplace of the city, where a castle was built to defend the town from invading Norsemen. Now the cobblestone square is filled with horse-drawn carriages, while tourists and locals alike sit under colourful umbrellas outside the many bistros and cafes. To one side of The Burg is The Basilica of The Holy Blood. Its Lower Chapel—Bruges’ oldest building—dates from the 12th century. A relic in the Upper Chapel was brought back from the Second Crusade by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. The crystal phial is believed to contain a relic of Christ’s Blood.
Winding from one corner of The Burg to the Grote Markt (the Big Square) is the cobbled Breidelstraat. Like much of this town, it abounds with cafes, more chocolate shops than can be decently visited, and a quintessential Christmas shop. It is always packed with tourists.
The 13th-century Belfry dominates the Grote Markt. Those brave enough to climb the 366 very narrow steps are rewarded with a spectacular view over the centuries-old skyline to the coast. Next to the Belfry is the Provincial Palace. In the 13th century, this area was a harbour—a reminder of the important role Bruges once played in Flemish trade.
Most importantly, simply wander. I came completely lost, somehow emerging from the maze at the bus depot when I was aiming for the other side of town. Yet in the process I found a restaurant in a 17th-century wooden building, beginning lunch with a Kir Royale, followed by pheasant, braised witlof, fig, and croquettes. In another I dined on deep sea oysters, golden fish soup brimming with shrimp, mussels and a variety of cold-water fish, followed by salmon with shrimp sauce.
"We were highly delighted by our visit to the Hospital of St. John's. It is a Gothic edifice of ancient structure. The sick lie in a large apartment, which is supported by Norman arches and pillars. The Sisters of Charity attend upon the invalids; and everything appears in that state of order and excessive neatness, so admirably conspicuous in this town.”
— Charles A. Stothar, English antiquarian, in a letter to his mother on 20th Sept 1890
Visit Europe's Oldest Preserved Hospital
The wall of the hospital running along The Groenerei is in classic Flemish style: ivy-covered stones, a roof stepping against the skyline. Tall gothic windows peer over the water. In medieval times this wing doubled as both a chapel and a ward (for since spiritual healing was considered more important than the healing of the flesh, a chapel stood inside the open ward). The wash from our barge lapped against the weathered stones and landing stage, where a door opened onto the water.
Dating from the 12th century, Sint-Janshospitaal is Europe’s oldest preserved hospital and remained in use until 1978. The buildings now house a museum of medieval medical instruments, hospital artefacts, furniture and even original records. The earliest document relating to the hospital is dated 1188, dealing with the vows taken by the brothers and sisters working here. The sisters were in charge of the daily organisation of the sick and of the kitchen; the brothers took responsibility for the hospital’s administration.
Even the medieval apothecary and herb garden remain. One of the more unique items on display is an old ambulance, little more than a metal box with long wooden handles, in which the patient had to stand as he was carried by porters to the hospital. On the door is written St John’s, Bruges (in English, interestingly, not Flemish). The box looks more like a cage carrying a condemned man to the scaffold than an ambulance.
The Flemish Primitives
There are also six masterpieces by the famous Vlaamse Primitieven (Flemish Primitive) Hans Memling (1430-1493). The wealth of Bruges attracted leading artists from over Europe, giving rise to the innovative style of the Primitives. Memling lived for a while at the hospital and also died here. It is said, after being wounded at the Battle of Nancy, the Hospitalliers of Sint-Janshospitaal treated his wounds and cured him.
Four of the works by Memling were painted specifically for the hospital, including the famous St. Ursula Shrine. Completed in 1480, this work is considered the masterpiece of the artist’s later years. Taking pride of place in the hospital chapel, the shrine is a carved reliquary cased in gold and shaped like a miniature wooden Gothic church. Within, it contains St Ursula's relics. The three painted tondos on each side depict the medieval tale of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who were massacred by the Huns in Germany while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome. The figures are remarkably delicate, the landscape and costumes full of detail, reflecting the artistic innovations of the time.
Sint-Janshospitaal is one of the most beautiful medieval buildings in Bruges, if not Europe. For over 700 years it served not only as a hospital, but also as a charitable institution, caring for the needy as well as the ill, and giving spiritual guidance to the suffering and the dying. Although some of the original buildings have vanished – including a bakery and, unfortunately, the brewery– the atmosphere of a medieval hospital remains, a place not only utilitarian but also aesthetically beautiful, designed to cure the body, the heart, the mind and the soul.
Look Out For the Dog of Bruges
Walking along The Groenerei, I spied a golden retriever pawing at a window. His owner opened the latch, put a well-loved mattress over the sill, and the dog made himself at home. Head on his paws, he lay watching the world go by. I didn’t know then that The Dog of Bruges does this every day, starting up as the first tourist boats drift by, having a break for lunch, before returning for the afternoon. His soulful eyes grace the photos of nearly everyone who visits, and he has starred in both TV commercials and movies (including a two-second cameo for In Bruges).
Despite the charm of moss-covered bridges and medieval buildings, it is the dog who causes a photo frenzy in each boat as it passes. Every day he rests in the window of the Côté Canal Hotel, oblivious to his fame. He doesn’t even rate a mention on the official Bruges website, yet for anyone who has seen him, The Dog of Bruges remains an enduring memory of the town.
A Chocolate Museum—Why Not?
Belgian chocolate is famous, and there are enough chocolate shops in Bruges to sample all that is on offer. Traces of cocoa have been found in Mayan pots dating back to 600BC; hot chocolate did not reach Spain (along with a chocolatier and a foamer) until 1527. Choco-Story, the chocolate museum in Brugges, traces the history of the cocoa bean, in a multi-lingual interactive display (aimed at children, but the story is fascinating). It's an unusual way to pass a few hours.
What I found most interesting (aside from the free samples!) were the displays: sculptures carved from chocolate. They ranged from Michelangelo replicas to a statue of Barack Obama. The skill involved is amazing. Them, for the inspired, are receipes - some also available on the website. After all, a day in Belgium without tasting chocolate is a day wasted.
Michelangelo in Bruges
In the 13th-century Church of Our Lady is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, (1501-4). The style was quite unique for the time, with the Madonna looking away from her child, who stands beside her rather than resting in her lap. It is believed it was originally designed for an altarpiece, with both Madonna and child looking down at the congregation.
The work is also notable in that it was the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was bought by Giovanni and Alessandro Moscheroni, (who came from a family of wealthy cloth merchants living in Bruges), for the cost of 4,000 florins. In 1794 it was taken by the conquering French and not returned until Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Then, in 1944, it was smuggled into Germany in a Red Cross truck, and returned a year later on being discovered in Altaussee.
So, whether in Bruges or Brugge, simply wander and discover!
© 2016 Anne Harrison