One of our favourite European visits is Brugge, an attractive medieval city with most of its architecture still intact. It's an UNESCO World Heritage Site in Belgium, often referred to as the "Venice of the North." It's also the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region, located in the northwest of the country.
We enjoy walking along the many canals that crisscross the city, the main ring of which encloses the historic centre, where one walks on cobbled streets and views eye-catching gabled houses that cast wavy reflections back onto the omnipresent water. It's a relaxing place where one slows down to absorb the exquisite surroundings.
Bruges was a major commercial centre for the wool industry in the eleventh century, and by the late thirteenth century, the main link to Mediterranean trade. Consequently, it became a key financial centre and the second largest city in Europe after London. In 1309, the Bourse (stock exchange) opened, making Brugge the most stylish money market in the area. Unfortunately, by the sixteenth century, Brugge was split from the Netherlands, and Antwerp seized much of its trade, Brugge gradually declining into a provincial backwater. The first book in English ever printed was published in Brugge by William Caxton, and both Edward IV and Richard III of England spent time in exile here.
We explore about to observe the fine art and architecture in Brugge. The Church of Our Lady boasts Europe's highest brick spire at 122.3 metres along with a Michelangelo sculpture of the Madonna, apparently the only sculpture to have left Italy within his lifetime.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood displays a vial that supposedly contains the blood of Christ. Try and get there early so you can view the chapel when it is quiet and not filled with tourists. And don't forget to visit the chapel underneath, in heavy Romanesque style, a contrast to the lovely light Gothic above. Admittance is free.
The Groeninge museum offers viewers paintings by Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck, who both lived and worked here. The new Flemish-school, oil-painting techniques gained world renown here. The Memling Museum is also worth a visit, and the Beguinage or marketplace in Burg Square is a great treat with the red and white horizontally striped Belgian flag gaily flying from the multi-towered mediaeval Town Hall building that dominates the large space. At night,
Brugge becomes magical, soft light radiating against intricately carved stone and wooden walls, providing a glow that makes one pause to drink it in or at least take a caleche ride to savour the romantic atmosphere.
A ride on one of the tour boats around the canals with multilingual guides provides a short history of the city at only a few Euros, a great introduction to Brugge. A boat tour show you places which are otherwise unreachable, as not every canal runs next to a street. (7.60 plus tip to the driver/guide)
Other than sightseeing and canal boat trips, I recommend that you sample one of Brugge's hundreds of hearty beers; several are named after Brugge, such as Brugge Blond, Brugge Tripel, Brugs, Brugse Babbelaar, Brugse Straffe Hendrik and Brugse Zot. However, only Brugse Zot and Brugse Straffe Hendrik are still brewed in the city itself in the Halve Maan Brewery. There are also many boutique-style beer shops that sell high quality gift packs of Belgian beer.
Brugge is also noted for its mouth-watering chocolate, a speciality of the area. Chocolate shops are plentiful and the standard is high. A fairly cheap option is Stef's on Breidelstraat (between Markt and Burg). If you are willing to spend a little more, Chocolatier Van Oost on Wollestraat is a must for high-quality artisanal chocolate.
In Bruges, a 2008 film from Oscar-winning director Martin McDonagh, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, is set almost entirely in Brugge. The city's major landmarks and history are mentioned repeatedly throughout the film.
Not far from Brugge is Ypres, an important site for the first series of
major battles fought by Canadian troops during the WWI, with
cemeteries, monuments and traditions such as the
Last Post (every evening). It's about one hour and 40 minutes by train, changing at Kortrijk with a 40 minute wait between trains, and a very scenic ride.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
Brugge is full of charm. It's clean, the houses freshly built, painted or sand-blasted (they're mostly brick). Experienced travelers are negative over the Disney qualities of a place that's been rebuilt and gussied up for tourists, and in a way they might be right. But still, a walk along a tree-lined canal bordered by evocative buildings without a lot of car traffic has its charm, and Brugge has it in spades. Besides, you can get that medieval flavor of Brugge without the cholera and other bugs that lurked in the canal water in those ancient times. (Yes, drinking water was illegal then, a boon to the brewers of course.)
The prices of a restaurant meal are quite high; Gent prices are about 40 per cent cheaper in some cases. But that's what you pay when the tourists outnumber the working folks.
Brugge was once known for its lacemaking, and a small and inexpensive lace museum is worth a visit. The old laces were unbelievably detailed and complex. If you go at the right time, there are women there who will demonstrate the craft, although not nearly to the level of detail as the old work.
There is also a small brewery museum; for three euros you can see how many breweries Brugge had in the past and see the process of making beer. Afterwards they'll pour you a free brew of your choice, so you haven't actually paid anything for the museum.