Bruges

Bruges, or Brugge in Dutch, is a small medieval town located in the Flanders area in the northern part of Belgium. The town offers the rare pleasure of pre-motorised charm of Europe, even though the town is relatively cosmopolitan and bourgeois in terms of size. It is a picture perfect destination of any European tour.

The cobbled lanes and picture perfect market squares linked by the picturesque canals, historic churches and whitewashed, old, alms houses make Bruges a fairy-tale, medieval town in all its senses. Efforts have been made to retain the town’s medieval looks and preserve the age old charm of gabled houses, beautiful squares and canals for the visitors as tourism is the main industry of the town.

Following the lines of the city’s medieval fortifications, a ring road encircles Bruge’s historic centre, which is still compact, visually resembling a small island amid winding waterways. The ancient gates Smedenpoort, Ezelpoort, Kruispoort and Gentpoort still stand on this road. Most of the town’s sights lie inside the centre and is easily explored on foot. Though small in size, the centre is divided into parishes or kwartiers like, Sint-Gillis, Sint-Anna, Sint-Magdalena, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Sint-Salvators and Sint-Jacobs.

The town is famous for its seafood. There are taverns serving quick snacks and high-end restaurants serving Flemish and French multicourse meals. Food cooked with local Belgian beers is very good and a unique experience. Friet met (fries with mayonnaise) in the Markt, is a Belgian favourite.

Chocolate business too thrives in Bruges and is more than adequately represented by around 50 stores that sell the best of the chocolate goodies available. Though some are famous chain outlets, most others are shops selling traditionally-made chocolates. They have their guild and a chocolate museum that celebrates the history of cocoa and its final product.

The town’s official name is Brugge (bruhg-guh) in Flemish, though it is mentioned as Bruges in many guidebooks. Making an effort to pronounce the original name will definitely win you more friends.
If ever there was a competition to design a true blue medieval town from scratch, the winner would most probably resemble Bruges. To really experience this unique place, make it a point to stay overnight, in fact a couple of days. At night, floodlighting brings Bruges alive. To avoid weekend tourists who take over the town, try to visit during midweek.

Medieval buildings dot along the canals that are full of exotic swans and excitable tourists, surrounded by willow trees hanging over the lake, with rich chocolate and the Belgian ale decorating the café tables, fresh air filled with the music from the carillon chimes – Bruges is an idyllic city.

Fans of Hollywood movies and of Colin Farrell in particular, make a beeline to visit Bruges too, as the popular film from 2008 ‘In Bruges’ was shot almost entirely here. It would interest Bollywood fans that a song sequence from the popular movie PK was shot here too.

Whatever the reason, Bruges would charm you as it has been doing so for centuries.

WHEN TO VISIT BRUGES

The weather year around is similar to the infamous English weather, damp and chill. The best time to visit Bruges would be the summer months of June, July and August. The weather is mild and the trees are pleasantly green. Spring and fall have cooler temperatures and fewer tourists, and one should not rule out visiting during these times due to lesser crowds and more agreeable prices. Daffodils in full bloom during spring is a wonderful sight indeed. Winter sees temperatures dropping to freezing levels.

HOW TO REACH BRUGES

By Air

There are many direct flights to Brussels operated by various international and European carriers. Brussels Airport has its own railway station from where Bruges can easily be reached by train. Taking a train to Bruges will have only one change at one of the main stations of Brussels with the entire journey including connection taking just a little over an hour.

By Train

From Brussels main station, trains run to and from Bruges every 30 minutes during the day. The journey from Brussels to Bruges takes about 50 minutes. As Bruges is not a terminus, the destination would read as Oostende or Blankenberge. If you are arriving from London by Eurostar and wish to proceed to Bruges or any other Belgian destination on the same day, you can book an economical add-on ticket through Eurostar to any station in Belgium

GET AROUND IN BRUGES

Walking is the best option to go around Bruges; it takes just 30 minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other. Cycling is another good and quicker way to get around Bruges. The bus is the best option to reach the centrem from the train station, but may not be a good option to explore the town. Cars are not allowed in the streets of Bruges as they are narrow and are webbed with canals. If you opt for a taxi, you would have to book them in advance.

WHAT TO SEE IN BRUGES

Markt

The current market place or Markt as it is called, has been functioning at the very place as it is now since 958. It is one of the liveliest places in the entire town.
The valiant deeds of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who led the commoners of Flanders on their famous but short-lived victory over the aristocrats of France, is commemorated by a memorial in the centre of the Markt.

A provincial government house and a post office, which is an excellent example of Burgundian Gothic, stands at the east side of the Markt. The north and the west sides of the square are lined by old guild houses which are famous for their step-gabled facades and have cafes on their ground floor that have spilled over to the sidewalks too.

The highlight of the Markt is on its south side where the medieval Belfort (Belfry) stands. Dating back to the 13th century, the tower had its octagonal lantern crown constructed in the 15th century, and together with it, rises to 270 feet, and commands the view of the beholder standing on the Markt square.

The valuables of Bruges that used to be stored in the second floor that housed the treasury have now been shifted to the 47-bell carillon, which was recently installed with new bells in 2010. Interestingly, the base of the medieval belfry houses a gallery with a permanent collection of sketches and watercolours by the maverick 20th century artist, Salvador Dali.

An interesting albeit expensive and touristy option that could be indulged in are the half hour rides offered by horse-drawn carriages, which includes a short stop at the Begijnhof, costing euro 39 plus

Historic Centre of Bruges

UNESCO has announced the historic centre of Bruges a World Heritage site since 2000, for its outstanding efforts in keeping the medieval historic elements of the town intact, in spite of the technological evolutions around. The medieval buildings are built aside canals or cobblestone paths that give the area an old world feel. Goods like leather, fish, etc., were housed in these buildings in medieval times by merchants. Now these buildings house cafes, boutiques and art galleries.

Groeningemuseum

If a crash course in Flemish masterpieces is one of your objectives, a visit to Bruge’s most celebrated art gallery, Groeninge museum, is a must. It has the most wonderful, rich, and exhaustive collection of Flemish Primitives and Renaissance works, with almost all the masters being represented including the much celebrated Jack van Eyck, whose seminal work heralded the Primitives movement in 1420s, Hugo Van der Goes, the father son duo, Pieter Bruegel Elder and Younger, Petrus Christus, Rogier van der Weyden, Pieter Pourbus, Hieronymus Bosch, Petrus Christus, and Gerard David, whose death in 1523 ended the era of Flemish Primitives.
One of the most celebrated artwork in the museum is Jack van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Van der Paele, with which he attained artistic immortality for achieving excellent texture and depth through multiple layers of oil and varnish.

A nondescript medieval gate and a small park beyond it belies the invaluable assets housed in this museum. It takes a full morning or afternoon to tour the museum entirely. An audio guide is available in English.

Open daily between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., the museum charges an entrance fee of 8 euros.

The museum is only a few minutes’ walk from the Markt.

Burg

The Burg is a beautiful meeting place during the day and an even more charming area when floodlighted after dark. It is flanked by centuries-old civic buildings. The former site of the 10th century Carolingian Cathedral of St. Donaas, which was destroyed by French Republicans in 1799, Burg was named after Count Baldwin I who was also known as called Baldwin Iron Arm, who built a ‘burg’ (fortified castle), around which Bruges developed.

The Old Civil registry (1537), which was once the old court house, stands next to the Stadhuis, the Gothic town hall of Bruges. The Voormalige Civiele griffie with its 15th century front gable and Heilig Bloed Basiliek (the Basilica of the Holy Blood) are nearby.

Hospitaalmuseum – Memling Museum

The 12th century hospital building with majestic beam work done to its interior, was restored as a chapel later. The medical equipment displayed look very torturous. Sedan chairs and a painting of an anatomy class are also on display.

Six masterpieces of the 15th century artist Hans Memling are what have made this museum famous. The reliquary of St. Ursula requires special mention. The gilded oak reliquary resembles a mini Gothic cathedral painted with scenes from the life of St. Ursula.

Ursula was an extremely devout Breton princess who was betrothed to a pagan prince. She agreed to marry him on the condition that she could go to Rome on a pilgrimage along with 11,000 virgins via the historic cities of Cologne and Basel. Unfortunately, on their way back, the entire entourage including Ursula and her betrothed, were massacred by the Huns.

Church of Our Lady

The church was built in the 15th century and along with its soaring 381-foot brick spire, which is the largest in the world, took two centuries to complete.

Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna and Child’ sculpture is the most famous treasure of this church. The famous church and the sculpture features prominently in the movie, Monumental Men. After Michelangelo’s Pietà in Rome was attacked in 1972, this sculpture was placed behind bulletproof glass and can be viewed only from a distance of 15 feet.

Tombs and a couple of mausoleums in the region are worth a visit. The name of the church, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, means Church of Our Lady.

De Halve Maan Brewery

There were dozens of breweries in Bruges earlier. But only one survived – De Halve Maan, which dates back to the 16th century. The brewery has been operational in the same site since 1856. Visitors can visit the historic brewery and sample its beer and take amazing photos on a tour.

Minnewater Lake

South of the De Halve Maan brewery lies the Minnewater Lake (‘Lake of Love’), a beautiful water body bordered by canals. Together with the swans in the lakes, the weeping willows, park benches and the walking paths, enhance the charming ambience. Autumn changes the colour of the willow leaves and presents a wonderful view. Visitors enjoy its romantic atmosphere and beautiful views.

The Beguinage (also called Begijnhof)

Dating back to the 13th century, this small commune of modest homes and a church, the Beguinage (Begijnhof), was founded by the Countess of Constantinople, Margaret, for the Beguines – young women or widows who devoted themselves to charitable work. Benedictine nuns still reside within the houses. Visitors are allowed to tour the grounds and a small museum with a request to respect their vow of silence. The horse-and-carriage rides offer a quick look around, with a 10-minute stop outside the beguinage.

Basilica of the Holy Blood

The basilica, austere in parts, as well as ostentatious in other, houses one of Europe’s precious relics, the Holy Blood of Christ himself.

The sombre Romanesque features are visible prominently in the 12th century Lower chapel. It also houses a poignant 14th century Pieta and a statue of Christ carved in the crypt. An elaborate stairway in Gothic, leads to the Upper Chapel that is decorated lavishly. The chapel had to be rebuilt twice, once after it was destroyed by Protestant iconoclasts in the 16th century and the then by French Republicans in the 18th century. The Upper Chapel is closed to visitors during Eucharistic Mass on Sunday 11 to noon. The stain-glassed windows were also replaced twice, once in 1845 and once again after an explosion in 1967, the latest restoration done by the famous Bruges painter, De Loddere.

A vial thought to contain a few drops of blood of Christ is the basilica’s namesake attraction. It was brought from Jerusalem to Bruges in 1149 by Derick of Alsace on his return from the Second Crusade. The vial is displayed every Friday in the Lower chapel between 8:30 and 10 am, and in the Upper Chapel between 10 to 11 am and 3 to 4 pm. It becomes the centrepiece on Ascension Day, a major medieval pageant in which it is carried through the streets of Bruges – De Heilig Bloodprocessie (Process of the Holy Blood).

Choco-Story

This museum may seem out of place in comparison to the historic and medieval atmosphere of the rest of Bruges, but then sometimes, it pays off because what you get in return is an enchanting history of cocoa beans, right from its origin in the America to its popularity in Europe. The chocolate making demonstrations and importantly, a chance to taste, are the highlights. There is also a museum on similar lines for French Fries, the Frietmuseum Vlamingstraat 33 that tells you the history of potatoes and the reason behind why the French fries should actually be called Belgian fries!

The opening times and entrance fees for both these gastronomical museums are the same.

Sint-Janshuismolen and Koeleweimolen

Numerous windmills used to dot the outer ramparts of medieval Bruges, out of which only four remain along the ring road. Of these, St-Janshuismolen (1770) and the Koeleweimolen (1765) are still used for grinding flour and can be an interesting place to visit.

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