Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt
Bruges is an anachronism — a sprawling, medieval metropolis once world renowned, now preserved as if in amber — a stop-frame portrait of a community that died while it was still young.
From a village that grew up around a castle built by Count Baudouin by the River Zwyn in the 9th century, Bruges soon became an important trading center. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the city was one of the most powerful communities outside of Italy. Its wealth was enormous. As the only significant rival of Venice, every exotic spice from the East, every jewel, every bit of fur, every sizeable shipment of fabric. fish, wine, and precious metal destined for northern Europe passed through the hands of its merchants.
During the Middle Ages, Bruges was the greatest trading center in northern Europe, a multi-national marketplace for importing, exporting, storing, and displaying the finest of everything. Then early in the 15th century, tragedy struck. A gradual silting of the River Zwyn, which connected Bruges with the North Sea, choked off shipping, ceasing commercial activity and forcing over half the residents to move to other cities to seek employment. Poverty set in and the rest is history. Time and two World Wars seemed to pass Bruges by, leaving it preserved and intact.
Bruges' residents and the stillness of its canals sustain the city's medieval character and peaceful atmosphere. The blue-green waters lap gently at the walls of ancient houses and pass serenely under the spans of 100 bridges, for which the town's founders named it.
During the height of her power in the 14th century, Bruges existed on her trade alone. Craftsmen, who were members of guilds, worked fantasies in gold and wood on the many beautiful buildings built by the town's wealthy businessmen.
Narrow winding cobblestone streets with rows of high-peaked house lead through a maze of canals to the Grote Markt, the central square from which merchants traded goods from around the world. In this heart of the city, no one building can be singled out for its greater beauty or interest except the famous octagonal-topped 13th-century Belfry of Bruges. You'll feel a bit overwhelmed at the elegant facades tinted in the lovely shades that the passing centuries have imparted to the brick and stone.
Many great artists also lived and worked in Bruges in the days of its glory, including Jan van Eyck, Hieronymous Bosch, and Rogier van der Weyden, and the Groeninge Museum contains much of their work. But it was Hans Memling, an artist who adopted Bruges as his home town, that stands as the only one to get his own museum, now housed in a reproduction 14th-century building.
Serenely beautiful and in keeping with the spirit of Bruges is the Beguinage, the 13th-century religious community built around a shaded grassy courtyard. The peaceful quality of this retreat for secular nuns hasn't changed since the 7th century.
Bruges is a day-town, a place which gets many tourists during daylight hours due to its close proximity to several large cities. The modern town bustles, yet it blends naturally with the old town of the Middle Ages. It's best seen by walking. You should feel the charm of the city up close. While there are enough treasures to fill several days, with a little planning, you can visit the best attractions in one day. But before striking out on your own, take a canal boat tour of the central area. A half-hour leisurely cruise with ongoing commentary will acquaint you with all the major sights and allow you to choose those you wish to visit.