Bruges, just one hour’s drive from the cosmopolitan center of Brussels, is one of these enchanted cities European fairy tales are made of; cities vanished into the sea at the height of their grandeur to reappear untouched by time every 100-years or so. Bruges, however, was simply abandoned by the sea.
The first records of its existence trace back to Julius Caesar’s conquest of the area in the first century B.C., when fortifications were built to protect the coastal settlement from North Sea pirates. Over the next millennium it grew into the most important citadel of the Flemish coast. By the time it received its city charter in 1128 Bruges was on its way to becoming a major seat of trade between the Flemish countries and the Mediterranean, ushering in a golden age that was to last three centuries. Great commerce wealth flowed in and Bruges became one of the artistic hubs of Europe. Then the late fifteenth century, the Zwin River silted up. Deprived of its access to the North Sea, the city became a sleepy backwater town.
Sleeping Beauty reawakened
Bruges slept for 400 years, when the development of twentieth century mass tourism turned its long-ago demise as a commercial powerhouse into posterity’s gain. Today, with its gothic architecture still intact Bruges is one of the most visited medieval cities in Western Europe. High-speed trains have put it within an easy three-hours’ reach of Paris, Amsterdam, London, and the western part of Germany. Hordes of sightseers stop for a quick look on their way from one major city to the next. These daytime tourists mainly congregate around the Grote Markt (Market Square), the grandest square and commercial heart of Bruges since the thirteenth century, dominated by its 272 foot (83 meter) belfry, and the Burg (Town Square) that was and remains to this day its administrative core. The cobbled streets surrounding the two squares are lined with shops brimming with the chocolate and lace for which the city is famous, conveniently ensuring that visitors do not have to stray far afield to load up on souvenirs, and miss most of the romance of the city.
A treasure trove of romanic boutique hotels
Every decade or so, I conjure up an opportunity to return to Bruges for a couple of days. The historic center is a treasure trove of centuries-old mansions reborn as lovely boutique hotels that combine the latest in twenty first century comforts with the all the charm of their bygone heydays.
My personal favorite retreat is the Pand Hotel, an early eighteenth century carriage house turned luxury boutique hotel, on a tiny tree-shaded square right in the heard of the city. Owned and managed for a couple of generations by the Vanhaecke family, the property has been personally decorated by Mrs. Chris Vanhaeke. An enthusiastic antiques collector, she used superb pieces from her own collection to give the hotel the authentic feel of a gracious home from Bruges’ romantic past, with the welcomed addition of a whirlpool bath in most rooms and Wi-Fi access everywhere on the property. With its warm, attentive staff and wonderful, prepared to order champagne breakfast, I find the Pand reason enough to return to Bruges anytime.
Back to the middle ages
During the day, I leave the main squares to tourists to wander in a world unchanged for centuries. Regal swans glide by canal-side homes. Humpbacked stone bridges lead into a maze of narrow lanes opening onto squares bordered by stately gothic mansions or culs-de-sac surrounded with whitewashed almshouses. There, I revisit my personal favorites:
Built in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, the grand gothic Church of our Lady with its 401 feet (122 meters) bell tower remains to this day the tallest structure in Bruges. It’s quite a climb but I am rewarded with the best view of the city and surrounding countryside. The church is also home to a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo.
The cradle of Flemish Art during the renaissance, Bruges has retained many works of the Flemish Primitives masters Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes and Gerard David among others. While some their paintings are scattered around the churches and public buildings of the city, the most important collection is at the Groeninge Museum.
Then in a quiet neighborhood north of the city center, there is the small Jerusalem Church with its unusual octagonal tower, and even more unusual history. Completed in 1470, the church is a replica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, including a faux tomb of Christ. It consists of a nave, with right in the center of it the tomb of Anselm Adornes (deceased in 1483). The church is still privately owned by his descendants, originally merchants from Genoa, Italy, settled Bruges in the thirteenth century. The Bruges Lace Museum is next door in the former Adornes mansion.
I never miss a return visit at the Beguinage, a pastoral retreat at the edge of the historic center. It is a walled religious community founded in the thirteenth century by beguines (women who wanted a life dedicated to God without retiring from the world). Inside, some 30 individual medieval homes, many with small walled-in front gardens and a sixteenth century church surround a central park shaded by soaring trees. The park, church and largest house, originally the home of the Grande-Dame who ruled over the Beguinage and now a small museum, are open to the public. Since the Beguinage is now a Benedictine nuns’ community, visitors are required to keep silent, making the park a serene hideaway only a few minutes from the city center.
As dusk descends on the city, the daytime visitors fade away. The ancient buildings are bathed in the glow of soft floodlights, their reflection mirrored in the stillness of the canals. After dinner in one of the cozy local taverns, I walk along the deserted streets echoing with the steps on cobblestones and muted voices of occasional passers-by. High in one of the many towers that dominate the jagged roofline, chimes mark the passing evening hours. This is when Bruges finally reveals itself as it must have been at the peak of its medieval romance.