Cobblestoned roads, old meandering canals, church bells ringing, and 15th century houses define Brugge. It is an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement that rightly earned its place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In medieval times, Brugge (also called Bruges) was known as the commercial capital of the world, but its wealth started to decline with the establishment of the port city of Antwerp. However, art and architecture continued to flourish even giving new forms to Flemish painting. By the 1800s the town’s popularity was quick to decline, it became the poorest town in Belgium and its history was riddled in bloody wars and conflicts. This rich and tumultuous history is reflected in Brugge’s Gothic, now famous architecture. Fast forward to the 21st century and it’s evident that Brugge’s main source of income is tourism.
It’s easy to get lost in Brugge and watch as time passes by. The town moves at a slow pace, shops open and close early, locals go about their business, ignoring the many tourists buzzing by. Remove tourists, and you’ll find empty streets, quiet lanes and peaceful surroundings. As my feet walk past the 15th and 16th century buildings neatly standing next to each other, my mind wonders how these structures are still surviving! My guide from a walking tour company tells me that due to the city’s dependence on tourism and love for its iconic buildings, the local government spends 20 percent of its annual budget on maintenance and upkeep of these structures.
As cars are not a common sight in Brugge, most people either walk or use the services of a horse-drawn cab. Apart from the occasional sounds of trains entering and leaving the city, and of motorised boats passing through the canals, there isn’t much activity or vehicular noise. The town centre, the Grote Markt, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also arguably the busiest part of the otherwise quiet town. Cafes, chocolate shops and bars housed in guild houses line the market. On Wednesday’s, Grote Markt transforms into a local market selling everything from cheese and locally brewed beer to clothes and vegetables. On most other days Grote Markt becomes the hub of events that are organised in the town. While the town centre used to be a meeting point for residents to discuss their day’s work or politics, today it is a meeting point for tourists gathering to take off on a guided tour.
Standing tall, and visible from any point, is Brugge’s most prized structure — Church of Our Lady. It is believed that the only Madonna and Child piece of Michelangelo’s to have left Italy during his lifetime is in the church. One can visit for a charge, but cannot take pictures. The belfry tower is another landmark structure in Brugge. Long lines greet you before you can make your way up the 366 stairs. Its architecture stands out as more Gothic than medieval. The belfry consists of a carillon with 47 melodious bells which can be heard from a distance. It is said that the belfry used to house the treasury, seals and coins of Brugge, making it a highly guarded and important building.
One cannot leave Brugge, the Venice of the North, without taking a cruise along the canals. Once seated, my guide was quick to declare that the “view of Brugge from below is often better than the one from top”. He was not wrong. The canals flow through parts of town that cannot be accessed by foot, bringing you up close to some of Brugge’s most incredible sites which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The hour long boat ride, for just 8 Euros, is also a good excuse to rest your feet from all the walking. For me, it was certainly an experience not worth missing.
By the end of the day, our stomachs were grumbling for some good food. Apart from waffles and chocolates sold all over town, some of the best places to eat at are De Lotteburg for fresh seafood and Den Dyver for authentic Flemish. A tiny shop in the railway station also sold some great ice-cream and authentic Belgian desserts, leaving us with a sweet memory! Any downside of the whole trip? Most seasoned tourists know of Brugge’s pretty sights and photographic canals, so it’s best to travel just before summer peaks or in the icy winters. What I really loved about Brugge was the quieter places I found when I wandered away from the main centre. The still canals, deserted bridges, cobblestoned streets, old narrow alleys and intricately carved stone facades left a lasting impression on me.
Shreya Challagalla is a Research Fellow at India Foundation.