Sue Dobson finds one of Europe’s best preserved medieval towns crammed with life and history.
A romantic city of ancient, beautifully kept buildings, medieval squares and canals criss-crossed by cobbled streets, Bruges may be packed with tourists but it’s a living and working city too, with enough charm to knock you sideways.
Warm stone, red-roofed houses are reflected in the dark waters of canals, narrow streets lead through leafy green squares and wind between buildings that have stood there, seemingly unchanged, since medieval times. At night, floodlit buildings are mesmeric against a dark sky and candlelit restaurants invite with their warm and cosy atmosphere.
Bruges was once one of the most important trading centres in Europe and famed for its wood, linen and lace. But when the Zwin, its outlet to the sea, silted up in the 16th century the city’s prosperity waned and it went into hibernation. The Industrial Revolution passed it by. Its riches, however, left us a legacy of splendid architecture and masterpieces in art – the 15th century was the Golden Age of Flemish painting – making Bruges’ museums magical places to visit today.
The historical centre of Bruges, largely traffic-free, is easy to walk around and it is simple to find your way to the highlights. But you may be tempted by the evocative sound of clip-clopping horses’ hooves to take a carriage ride, while a canal tour gives you a different and charming angle on the city’s architecture and history.
A gem of a city for photographers, some favourite walks are along the Groenerei for trees, water and pretty gabled houses, and across the Rozenhoedkaai, where the view of the canal is spectacular. Slightly away from the ancient centre, near the Potterie Church Museum, canalside houses and a picturesque little bridge are worth seeking out.
Language is no problem, everyone here is multilingual, it’s easy to get to and once discovered Bruges tempts you back again and again.
Some of Bruges’ finest step-gabled houses, some dating back to the 14 th century – most are now busy cafés, bars and restaurants – edge this splendid square. In December it is the setting for the Christmas Market and skaters skim across an ice rink against a backdrop of gothic spires and the 13th century Halle. From the soaring Belfry, a melodious carillon of 47 bells marks the quarter hours.
Linked by Breidelstraat to the Markt, the Burg is a smaller but perhaps even prettier square. Inside the Stadhuis (Town Hall), its façade a riot of statues, turrets and elaborate windows, is a Gothic Hall of great beauty with a 14th century vaulted ceiling and romantic wall paintings relating the long, prosperous history of the city.
Tucked into the corner of the square, its entrance quite easy to miss, is the stunning Basilica of the Holy Blood. The dark, Romanesque Lower Chapel is simple and contemplative, but walk up the stairs to the Upper Chapel and your senses are assailed by colour-stained glass, frescoes, every surface painted. A holy relic is kept here – a crystal phial said to contain drops of Christ’s blood, given by the Patriarch of Jerusalem to one of the Counts of Flanders during the Crusades.
The arts flourished in 15th-century Bruges as rich merchants commissioned paintings to reflect their wealth and importance. The portraits and religious paintings of Jan Van Eyck epitomise the Flemish masters of that period and the Groeninge’s collection is particularly fine. Hieronymous Bosch’s Final Judgement is here, and Hans Memling’s breathtaking Moreel Triptych. There are paintings by Pieter Breugel the Elder, baroque works, and modern art and sculpture also have their place in this excellent museum in a garden setting.
A 15th-century palace originally owned by a brewing family, filled with furniture, ceramics and silverware from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Upstairs, the art of lace making is revealed – a Bruges tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. The next-door Arendts Garden has modern sculptures representing the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk
The works of art in this church are wondrous and include Michelangelo’s delicate sculpture Madonna and Child. Mary of Burgundy is buried in a lavish mausoleum in the choir area, where there are some surprising 14th-century painted tombs and a stunningly beautiful painting by Isenbrant of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows.
Hans Memling, born in Frankfurt in 1433, studied and lived in Bruges and his brilliant use of colour made him the most highly acclaimed artist of his time. His shrine for a relic of St Ursula, shaped like a gothic cathedral is a masterpiece – see what made him so special in this renovated museum in the old chapel of St Janshospitaal.
A serene place, of little white houses circling a lawn that’s bright with daffodils in spring, the Begijnhof (house of lay sisterhoods) was founded in the 13th century by Margaret of Constaninople. Benedictine nuns live there now and you can visit the chapel.
Until the 16th century, barges could come this far up into the city. A lake with a legend of lost love, it has swans and picturesque small houses. On your way back to the centre of town, via the Walplein, look out for the ornate fountain where the carriage horses are watered.
Potterie Church Museum
Fabulous furniture and a take-your-breath-away chapel, housed in a 15th-century former hospital facing on to a canal. Just along the road is a scenic bridge, the Boterbrugje.
St. Anna Area
Quieter because it is less often found by tourists, while this area has less colourful architecture than the historical centre, it has character and interest. Look for the Jeruzalemkirk at the corner of Peperstraat, a church built on three levels, with a copy of Christ’s tomb in the crypt and beautiful stained glass. It is still owned by the descendants of the Italian family that commissioned it. Also, in a row of 15th-century almshouses opposite, the Lace Museum and the Volkskunde (Folklore) museum with its Black Cat tavern and tableaux showing 1930’s shops and lifestyles.
Almost completely ringed by parkland and a canal where the old city walls once stood, Bruges has three windmills on grassy banks that mark the boundary before the busy main road and intersection at Dampoort; one is original, the others came from nearby villages. The 18th-century Janshuysmill may be operating and open to visitors.