Bruges is a city of contrasts. Medieval buildings and cobbled laneways sit alongside busy tourist attractions and lively markets. Cars and buses squeeze past horse-drawn carriages in the narrow streets. Shops are filled with traditional lacework and divinely decadent chocolates while a few steps away stalls sell Belgian frites and waffles. The blend of old and new is seamless.
Walk through the door of the Volkskundemuseum in Baalstraat and suddenly you’ve travelled backwards in time for a unique shopping experience. Inside this row of 17th century almshouses is a collection of olden day shops; their stories told in life-sized dioramas.
The milliner’s shop has the latest fashionable hats, created to match a new dress purchased from the dressmaker, while for men the tailor can craft a new suit in just a few days.
No outfit would be complete without a pair of bespoke shoes handmade by the local cobbler.
At the grocer’s there’s a wide range of food on display while the confectionery store is a magnet for those with a sweet tooth.
And if too many chocolates have been eaten, the apothecary can help with the necessary medicine.
At the Black Cat Tavern one of Bruge’s famous beers might be stored in barrels just like this one.
At the end of a busy shopping day refreshments might just be the best purchase of all!
More than 120 000 people call the city of Bruges home and another 3 million visit every year. During the day the atmosphere in the central area around the Markt and its surrounding streets is vibrant, and the shops and cafés hum with activity.
In the evening, after the day-trippers leave, the streets are practically empty. The medieval buildings light up and the carillon in the Belfry continues to play into the night.
In medieval times the town of Damme was a bustling port on the river Reie. It was connected to the city of Bruges, six kilometres away, by the river and it was to here that boats would come laden with exotic goods.
Because of Damme’s strategic position as a major trading post, a protective system of ramparts, walls and moats in the shape of a seven pointed star was built in the early 1600s. Unexpected guests were not encouraged.
Luckily today visitors are very welcome and, like us, many come for a day trip by paddle boat from Bruges. The day we went to Damme though we seemed to be the only visitors there and the serenity was a welcome change from the clamour and crush of tourists in Bruges.
The only person there to greet us was Jacob Van Maerlant, a medieval poet known as the father of all Dutch writers, whose most important works were created in Damme. From his plinth in the centre of the tiny markt he smiled down on us as if to say “Welcome”.
We wandered the empty streets and explored the remains of the ancient fortifications.
We ate our lunch next to a medieval water pump in the centre of the Herring Market. In the 15th century 28 million herrings were sold here every year. In the quiet of this day we could hardly imagine how hectic the market must have been.
After several hours of peaceful exploration we boarded the Lamme Goedzak again. We had just one more half hour of serenity before we would re-join the throng of travellers in the Markt once more.
When travelling in Europe it’s possible to get from one place to the next in a very short time. There are planes, ICE trains and fast ferries. But once we’ve arrived at our destination we like to enjoy our surroundings at a much slower pace.
The canal system around Bruges is perfect for slow travelling. When trading was in its heyday in the 16th century the canals were filled with barges and merchant ships. Now they’ve been replaced by boats full of admiring tourists; and during the day it seems as busy as ever. So we plan our escape to a more peaceful destination.
The tiny village of Damme is a mere six kilometres from Bruges but it may as well be a world away. To get from Bruges to Damme there is a perfectly good road and also a cycle and walking path that follows the canal bank. We decide to take the most relaxing way and buy €10.50 round trip tickets for the paddle boat Lamme Goedzak.
The 35 minute journey gives us the time to appreciate the beautiful scenery on either side of the canal as we sail along. Lush farmland and pretty cottages are interspersed with woodlands and windmills.
There’s the occasional waterbird and plenty of contented farm animals in the fields.
As we pass by, we wave to those on the path who are more energetic than we are.
When the boat arrives at Damme and ties up at the tiny wharf, we will stroll into the Markt along a cobbled street past ancient buildings.
At the end of the day we’ll return to bustling Bruges … and we’ll sit back, relax and let the boat captain do all the work.
When I told my friends we were going to holiday in Belgium the most frequent comments they made were: “Make sure you buy some lace/drink some beer/eat some chocolate.” I couldn’t ignore these instructions and needed no encouragement to indulge in all three.
Belgian lace is world renowned and has been made since the 15th century. In Bruges there are lace shops on every street, with window displays showcasing everything from simple bookmarks to elaborate tablecloths. The workmanship is beautiful.
The Volkskundemuseum, or Folklore Museum, in Baalstraat, Bruges has an exquisite antique lace collection and some of the pieces are more than 200 years old.
Climb the stairs to the exhibition room in the attic to see delicate collars, mantles and shawls displayed in glass cases at low light levels.
It’s not even necessary to imagine how these garments were worn as there are also paintings showing the wealthy citizens of Bruges dressed in all their finery.
The finest Belgian lace is still made by hand. Look carefully in the doorways as you walk through the streets of Bruges and you might just see the next beautiful piece being created.
On 3rd May 1915 a Canadian soldier sat at the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station outside Ypres. He had just performed the funeral service of a dear friend killed in the second battle of Ypres and was so moved he penned three verses of a poem in his friend’s honour. The soldier was Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae and the poem “In Flanders Fields” has become one of the most famous and beloved commemorative poems in the world.
After the devastation of war on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium there was almost no vegetation left. The seeds of the hardy Papaver rhoeas or red field poppy, stirred up by the constant movement of battle, germinated and flourished, and the bright flowers grew around the trenches and graves. These resilient yet delicate poppies were the inspiration for John McCrae’s poem.
At the end of the war the poppy became a symbol of remembrance and silk poppies were traditionally worn on Armistice Day. Today wreaths of poppies are placed on the graves of the fallen and at memorials while single blossoms are placed beside names on Rolls of Honour.
You don’t need to wear a watch when you’re in Bruges – every quarter hour the bells of the carillon in the Belfry ring out over the city, signalling the passage of time as they have done for centuries.
The Belfry is a medieval bell tower, first built in 1240. At 83 metres it dominates the skyline of the Markt. Climb 366 narrow, winding steps to the panorama viewing platform and you will be rewarded with expansive views of the city and the lush countryside surrounding it.
The Belfry houses the carillon, a set of 47 bells dating from 1741. The bells of the carillon are usually played by a clockwork mechanism and an enormous cylindrical drum just like the ones in children’s music boxes. For weekly concerts and special occasions however, the carillonneur plays a keyboard with both fists and feet, although the music he creates sounds so light and delicate.
It’s the bells that many tourists come to hear and a twilight performance on a chilly autumnal evening is a magical experience.
PS Note to self – don’t turn the camera when recording!
As part of European Car Free Day celebrations September 15th was Car Free Sunday in Bruges this year. From 10 am to 6 pm the cars were replaced by markets, performers, bands and dance groups. The streets were filled with people wandering freely and enjoying the party atmosphere. Even the city museums had free entry for the day, which was an unexpected bonus for tourists.
There are so many places to see in and around the Markt in Bruges and the medieval architecture of the ancient buildings is simply beautiful. Take a walk just a couple of blocks away from the city centre and there are more stunning details in the simplest of structures. I found myself drawn to doors – some brightly painted, others ornamented or elegantly carved, and all individual.
It’s easy to travel around when visiting Bruges. You can drive a car on all but the narrowest of cobblestone streets in the centre of town.
Bicycles can go anywhere, and parking is never a problem.
For an old world feel take a slow carriage ride along the bustling thoroughfares and quieter back streets.
However, for a completely different perspective on this beautifully preserved city, you must go on a canal boat ride.
At first glance it seems a little ‘touristy” but at €7.60, a half hour cruise along the canals of Bruges is not just great value. It’s also great fun.
The boats sail come rain or shine and there are dozens of them on the canals every day.
Their captains tell the stories of the medieval buildings and the people who lived in them in centuries past, the ancient bridges and the canals themselves. Bruges is sometimes known as “The Venice of the North” and when the little boats filled with people gazing upwards in wonder sail up and down the waterways it’s not hard to see why.
At the end of the day, when the boat rides finish, the water stills and the canals become restful.