It was 15 years ago when Bill and I went to Bruges, Belgium and that was for less than 24 hours. At the time we were staying in Paris which is only 2 ½ hours away by train and in those days we tried to pack in as much as possible to our annual two-week vacations. On that same trip we had already spent the week in a Loire Valley castle making driving excursions into the surrounding areas to see at least one other chateau every day, so why not visit another country too? All I can remember from back then is the chocolate, the beer, and the lace. On our recent return to the city we had the luxury of being there an entire week but we also had to sneak in a day trip to Ghent, only 30 minutes down the train tracks. Old habits die hard.
If there is a “ground zero” for tourists, it has to be the Markt, the giant main square that’s been used as a weekly marketplace (on Wednesdays when we were there) since 985 and where we could find a week’s worth of fruits and vegetables and even a bouquet for the dining table. You can stand in the middle of the square and look in any direction to see interesting and historic buildings, the most prominent of which is the Belfry, on which construction began in 1282. Apparently the view from the top of this bell tower is magnificent but we chose to leave those 366 steps to others and spend the 12 euros entrance fee elsewhere on beer.
A pedestrian street leads from there to another square, Burg, that’s been inhabited since at least the 2nd century. While there is no impressive bell tower here, the town hall from 1376 dazzles with turrets, arched windows, and gold accents everywhere. Standing next to it and sharing similar design elements, but minuscule in comparison, is the 16th century former Liberty Palace that was a courthouse and the center of local government until 1795. A neighboring building on this same square is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, called that because it displays what legend says is a cloth stained by the blood of Christ brought back from the Crusades in 1149.
Another church that hosts a somewhat more modern attraction is the Church of Our Lady where we saw a sculpture by Michelangelo, Virgin and Child, that he carved in 1503. It was his only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime and it was hidden away during the French Revolution and WWII for protection. The entrance fee to the museum part of the church to see this and many other works of art is 6 euros. It was just after leaving here that we crossed over the wonderfully picturesque Bonifacius Bridge that leads to the Groeninge museum where 5 galleries are devoted to Old Flemish masters.
The oldest building in Bruges is there in the same neighborhood. St. John’s hospital was founded in the 12th century and continued in operation until 1987 when a new facility was opened. It’s now a museum and arts center. About a century later in 1245 another benevolent group was created as the Beguinage for women who did not want to marry nor to take vows as a nun. Interestingly, today it’s the home for Sisters of the Benedictine Order.
Fortifications that once provided protection for the inhabitants of Bruges now give them a place to enjoy nature. There is a 6 kilometer (3.7 miles) walking/biking circular path that will take you past the 4 remaining out of 25 or 30 original windmills, 2 of which continue to grind grain 250 years later. There are also 4 city gates still standing, including the Kruispoort from 1297.
We both like chocolate and in Carcassonne there are 4 chocolatiers within a few blocks of each other that see us on a regular basis. In Bruges there are 50 chocolate shops, oh my, resistance is futile! And what about that other famous Belgian product, beer? For us, it’s hard to beat French wine but in a city that boasts an underground beer pipeline there just wasn’t any choice. To avoid having their huge tanker trucks stuck in traffic on narrow, winding streets, the De Halve Maan brewery connected their in-town brewery to their bottling plant, 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) away by a pipeline that allowed them to remain in the city. Naturally we had to see that for ourselves.
The best advice I saw from a guidebook was that after you had seen all of the best-known places just put the book away and wander the streets fanning out from the main squares. Within minutes we found ourselves surrounded by everything except tourists—quiet cobbled streets, 14th century architecture, canal views, and even pubs popular with the locals including the Windmill. They served our favorite beer made there, Brugge Tripel, so with our shopping bags full of chocolates we could then happily head home. (Next week’s post: the “other Bruges”, Ghent, where we spent the day.)
Restaurant notes: In that part of Belgium it’s rare for a restaurant to serve tap water; you must pay for a bottle of water just as you would a soft drink or a beer. Some also have a service charge to use their knives and forks.