That’s Brugge in a nutshell.
Brugge (spelled Bruges in French) is a remarkably well-preserved medieval city in northwest Flanders blessed with a signature beauty. Like Amsterdam, where we’d just spent nine days, Brugge is all about canals (they’re both nicknamed “Venice of the North” for a reason), narrow, winding cobblestoned streets, and ancient buildings with step-gabled architecture. But to think of Brugge as a mini-Amsterdam would do it a great disservice.
Brugge has a more fantasy, fairy-tale quality, almost otherworldly. It’s a place you would conjure up in your dreams, or expect a Hollywood set designer to fashion as a backdrop for a romantic period film spiced with intrigue and mystery. That said, Brugge has served as a locale for a number of movies, including the dark comedy “In Bruges” with Colin Farrell and the inspirational “The Nun’s Story” with Audrey Hepburn.
Further, UNESCO named the historic center of Brugge a world heritage site, calling it “an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement, which has maintained its historic fabric as this has evolved over the centuries, and where original Gothic constructions form part of the town’s identity.” From 1200-1400, Brugge was a commercial and cultural capital of Europe, and its architecture from the Middle Ages to nowadays reflects its links to other parts of the world.
Before we left for Europe, friends who had traveled to Brugge and lived there spoke of Brugge in near reverential tones, almost as if they were under a spell. Now we see why. You can’t help but be captivated.
Brugge was an easy 90-minute metro and train ride from our rental apartment in Brussels. We divided our time in Brugge over two days, returning to Brussels in the late afternoons. The weather in Brugge both days was sunny with a brisk, cooling wind blowing in from the nearby North Sea. Rather than adhere to an itinerary, we decided to wander along the streets and simply let Brugge unfold before us.
Walking from Station Brugge in the direction of the center city presented us with the first of many beyond-belief sites – the Minnewater, a canalized lake, and its adjacent park.
Could any city have a more enchanting approach? Minnewater means “the lake of love,” a perfect name for this idyllic setting. We delighted in the panoramic view of weeping willows and turreted houses from the circa-1740 bridge.
Nearby was the Begijnhof (Beguinage), also a UNESCO world heritage site. This enclave was home to a community of religious women who lived independent, committed lives serving others. The dominant features were orderly white houses, a simply designed church, and a central courtyard carpeted with blooming daffodils. Discreet signs urged visitors to proceed in silence through the property. Installation artist Tadashi Kawamata was in the process of building plain wooden tree houses high above the garden for a temporary exhibition, the sculptures exploring the boundaries among art, architecture, and nature. Their presence in the treetops, representing childlike play and adventure, was a counterpoint to the Begijnhof’s air of spirituality and calm.
We hopped aboard a small open-air boat for a half-hour excursion through the canals, which took us past some spots inaccessible by foot. Also like Venice, Brugge is a city of bridges – 43, said our multi-lingual guide. One bridge was so low that he warned us to duck as we passed through or risk receiving inadvertent buzz cuts, and the 30-odd heads aboard obediently lowered. Another option for exploring was a horse-drawn carriage. Far from the languid pace of the horse-drawn carriage we’d ridden in Charleston, SC, the Brugge horses quickly hoofed it, their spirited clip-clops echoing on the cobblestones.
Teeming with visitors, Brugge is definitely not a best-kept-secret kind of destination. The crowds seemed incongruous with Brugge’s quaint charm; then again, that charm is precisely why the city is such a draw.
Especially busy were the two main squares. Hugely picturesque, their wide-open spaces easily accommodated the throngs. The hallmark in the Markt (market), the heart of the city, is the towering 13th century, 83-meters-high Belfry. To its right is the more recent (19th century) Provincial Palace. The showpiece of the Burg is City Hall, both for its intricate façade and the ornate wall paintings and vaulted ceiling in the second floor Gothic Hall. The better way to experience the room would have been to lie on our backs on the floor.
Visitors also converged on the Rozenhoedkaai at the intersection of the Groenerei and Dijver canals. Understandably, this spot is one of the most photographed in Brugge.
In addition, people flocked to the Church of Our Lady to see Michelangelo’s magnificent Madonna and Child. Perhaps, like us, they became familiar with the sculpture, and its theft during World War II by Nazis and subsequent recovery by Americans, from watching George Clooney’s “Monuments Men” movie.
Come to think of it, there actually is a best-kept-secret in Brugge. The place is underground, and the only entry is via the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the Burg. We learned about it from our aforementioned friends, which was helpful given the absence of any signs outside indicating its presence. The hotel is built on the site of the former Sint Donaas (St. Donation) Cathedral (c.950 A.D.), and has incorporated the exposed remains of the foundation into cellar-level function rooms. In addition, on display are multiple artifacts and relics unearthed during excavations, as are tombs and frescoes.
The streets of Brugge are a profusion of mostly high-end boutique shops catering to tourists. They primarily sell artisanal Belgian chocolates, waffles, and delicate lace. We bought waffles at Porta, where the lone employee, apparently in need of diversion, invited me behind the counter to help monitor the hot iron while they baked. Crisp, light, and dusted with powdered sugar, the waffles were delicious. We also bought luscious dark chocolate-covered caramels at Dumon. How did we choose among the dozens of chocolatiers in this chocoholic’s nirvana? The sign posted outside touting Dumon’s recommendations from such influential media as Frommer’s, Gault Millau, and London’s Sunday Times, sold us.
Returning to the train station on our last day, we walked from the Burg along the Noordzandstraat to Smedenstraat, passing more upscale shops and tantalizing traiteurs (food emporiums). Ahead of us was one of the original gates to the city, an appropriate metaphor for our final departure.
Describing Brugge as “A Place Beyond Belief” is no promotional hype. Now that we’ve been to Brugge, we’re true believers.