The city of Brugge, or sometimes known as Bruges, has had a rich career as a great commercial city on the shores of the North Sea. By the 13th Century, Bruges had already staked its claim as one of the leading commercial centres of Europe, dominating the valuable cloth trade.
Today, Bruges’ heydays are well and truly over. Declining in the 15th Century as a result of the silting of its river Zwin, the city has been bypassed by much of the development of the modern age, resulting in some truly well-preserved medieval buildings which you can enjoy today.
The waterways of Bruges
The most outstanding characteristic of Bruges is its canals. While Amsterdam may lay claim to the title of“Venice of the North”, Bruges may actually have the better claim, as its period of fame roughly corresponded to the height of Venice’s commercial power. Take a tour of the waterways of Bruges first thing when you arrive, to get an overall feel for the place. You can start by visiting the Minnewater, regarded as the entrance to the city. Today it appears to be a lake connected to the canal system of the city, but in fact it was actually the point where the river Reie connected the city to the coast. It was then used as a reservoir to regulate the water level of the canals to ensure that navigation could continue through the year.
The lake is surrounded by a scenic park area. A notable feature of the park is the presence of swans. In 1488, Maximilian of Austria decreed that the people of the town will be obliged to keep swans in their waterways forever, as a result of the townspeople’s execution of Maximilian’s administrator, Pieter Lanchals. The swan was a symbol for Lanchal’s family, and the town’s obligation serves as a punishment for what the ruler deemed as an unlawful death.
In the old days, the trading ships would sail up the Dampoort which was the waterway entrance to the city’s canals in the old days. The Langerei is the main canal and this led into the center of Bruges. Before it reaches the center, a boat would pass the Potterierei, which was the boatyards section of the town. There, it branches into several smaller canals. The Spinolerei, one of these canals, led to a basin where in the past, goods would have been unloaded and stored in warehouses known as Water Halls, or brought straight into market. The Spinolerei is the location of the impressive Poortersloge — the Burgher’s Lodge. Topped with an impressive, slender spire, the Poortersloge was a gathering place for the privileged burghers who ran the affairs of the town.
The two squares — one, a market place; the other, a civic center
Make for land and explore the streets of the medieval town. Many of the town’s main streets line the banks of the canals that were the primary means of transport in the past. The belfry, located on the Market Square, is one of the fine landmarks of the city. It is located in the Market Square, once the center of activity for the cloth trade. The belfry is part of the Cloth Hall, which was the marketplace where the cloth trading transactions took place. The tall tower is 88 metres high and was built to house the detailed records related to the city’s finances. For example, there is a record showing that in 1399, 384 merchant stands operated in side the cloth hall. While it may be imagined that a tall tower would be a good place to store records safely from floods, this tower has been hit by fire numerous times in the past. It was also equipped as a watch tower, and of course, being a belfry, it boasts several bells as well. These bells produce different sounds and are used to mark different occasions — time markers, announcements and warnings, for the tower allowed guards to see to a great distance.
In the market square, there is a statue of two local heroes — Jan Breydel and Pieter Coninck. In 1302, they had led an army made up of the town’s common people against an invading army of French knights led by their King. The unexpected victory by the people of Bruges has, ever since, been known as the Battle of the Golden Spur, as a mockery of the fine spurs worn by the French soldiers. The statue itself was set up in the 1880s, in a move that observers say was inspired by contemporary issues — the desire of the local Flemish people to assert their language and cultural identity in the face of a French-dominated modern Belgium.
While the market square was the heart of the commercial life in Bruges, the government of the city was carried out in the Burg Square. Bruges was the trendsetter in building a grand town hall, a trend which became common in other cities in the low countries later. Built in the Gothic style in 1376, its front is decorated with six tall windows and numerous niches for statues, and topped by three tower-like appendages to the sloping roof. Various other building sport architectural styles from different periods — the Old Civil Registry is renaissance, the Court of Justice is neo-classical, and the Deanery, which was the official home of the Dean of St. Donatius Church, is baroque.
The Church of the Holy Blood, or “De Steeghere”, is located on the Burg Square, and contains a relic said to be a container holding the blood of Jesus Christ. The relic is believed to be from Constantinople (Istanbul) and arrived here in 1250. A procession is held every year on Ascension Day in May, and townsfolk will dress in historical costume to re-enact the return of the count of Flanders, bearing the Holy Blood and presenting it to the town. The church has an intricately decorated façade, and combines elements of late gothic and early renaissance styles. The church itself actually consists of two separate chapels on different floors. To reach the chapel of the Holy Blood, you go up directly from the front entrance into the chamber housing the relic. The relic is on display every Friday, and during the first week of May.
Make a trip to the oldest hospital in Europe
Among the many towers of Bruges, the highest is that of the Church of Our Lady. 122 metres in height, the church tower was built of bricks and has been embellished with design flavours from the styles of the preceding 700 years. The highlights of this church are a rare Michelangelo sculpture of the Madonna and Child — the only one in Belgium and the Netherlands — and the tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold, with their lifelike cast effigies.
Opposite the Church is one of Europe’s oldest hospitals — St. John’s Hospital. Dating as far back as the year 1188, the oldest part of the hospital is the Mariastraat section, near Mariaspoort, which was the southern gate into Bruges’ early wall. The hospital expanded over the centuries as the population grew, and in 1855, a group of new buildings were built side by side with the oldest ones, and the hospital continued in operation until 1978, when finally, the hospital functions were taken over by a modern institution. The chapel of the hospital houses a small museum dedicated to the works of Hans Memling, a 15th Century painter whose works were commissioned by the sisters who operated the hospital.
Exploring the many medieval sights of this grand city might make you thirsty, so make a trip to one of the two breweries of Bruges. The De Gouden Boom brewery and museum gives you a quick summary of the history of the brewery from its foundation in 1587, and then you get to taste the products made in the brewery proper — Abdij Steenbrugge, Brugse Tarweiber, and Brugse Tripel. Rival brewery Straffe Hendrik dates from 1546, and also offers testing at its brewery.
O the edge of the town, by the canal that marks the boundary of the city, you will find four windmillslining the banks of the canal. The photogenic windmills were mostly from other parts of the country, and were rebuilt here in the course of the last century. As you depart from this city, you will find, on reflection, the many reasons why some have declared Brugge to be a romantic, fairytale city, with its many medieval buildings, canals, heroic history and lovely scenery, with some fine in between.