Bruges—From Fishing Village to Tourist Mecca

The Rise of Bruges Belgium

Bruges Belgium began as a small fishing village in the 2nd century AD. As citizens began raising sheep. the village evolved into a trading port around wool exports, and increasingly around the cloth that it wove. While it initially traded with a growing number of communities, it was vulnerable to attacks, particularly by Vikings, and France, which by then controlled the city and built a defensive fortress in 843. Once protected, it grew rapidly by migrating ever higher up the textile value chain and even inventing the production of lace.

By the 13th century, Bruges was one of the largest cities in Europe. Its 45,000 population was close to London’s 50,000 inhabitants. France attempted to capture a greater share of the country’s wealth through taxation. A weaver and a butcher led Bruges’ citizens to rebel and massacre the 300 French soldiers stationed in the city. While the city managed to win the first battle against the French, this didn’t hold. France soon recaptured the city. A statue in the Markt Square marks the rebellion.

The city continued to prosper with the 14th and 15th centuries being its Golden Age. Fortunes were made and mansions and churches were built. Markt Square became the commercial center of the city and contained grand guild houses. The square also contains the Belfort, the tallest and most of the town’s towers. Such towers were built around the city to scan the horizon for potential invaders and watch for fires. The bells in these towers notified citizens when they had to man the defenses, fight fires, congregate to hear the reading of new laws and so forth.

Bruges Falls Onto Hard Times

The good times continued until 1488 when the control of Bruge had passed to Burgundy which, at that time was ruled by Duchess Mary. The problem came when Mary died and her husband, Maximillian, Archduke of Austria and member of the Habsburg Dynasty gained control of the city. Maximillian attempted to raise taxes. The Burghers of Bruges not only protested, but they also captured and tortured both Maximillian and his top advisor and executed the advisor. Fearing for his own life, the Archduke (who soon after became German King and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), promised not to raise taxes and was released. He returned with an army and exacted his revenge on the city by imposing three terms. The city was required to:

  • Honor his deceased advisor (Pieter Lanckhals whose last name translates to “long neck”) by hosting a large flock of swans on its lakes and canals “until the end of time” (which swans are in the city today);

Bruges - Swans

  • Tear down its city walls, thereby leaving the city defenseless; and most importantly, he
  • Rescinded the city’s trade rights and awarded them to Antwerp.

As if this weren’t bad enough, its river began silting up and a plague befell the city. All combined, Bruges was transformed from one of the wealthiest cities in Europe into one of the poorest. This misfortune, however, eventually yield something of silver lining. The lack of economic development eliminated the need for, or ability to afford to new buildings. While most of its medieval buildings fell into disrepair, they did at least survive. Then, in 1920 a French book highlighted the city and its architecture led to a tourist boom.

The good part is that tourism brought in money that allowed the city to fund restoration projects in a way that led to UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the city’s entire inner ring. The bad part is that the city now attracts about 9 million visitors annually, and virtually all tourists stay within the inner, historic ring. During cruise ship season, 80,000 tourists per day (compared with an inner ring population of 17,000) pack into a small segment of the city. Of even concern, visitors who come on cruise ships don’t need hotels, breakfast or dinner. The may buy lunch, souvenirs and a couple of drinks, but contribute little revenue to the city or the city’s upkeep. This is a growing issue with many cities that welcome cruse ships.

Touring Bruges’ Historic Core

Not surprisingly, we started our exploration of Bruges in the city center which contains the:

  • Markt. The commercial center of the city since the 13th century, is packed with a morning food market where you can buy all types of prepared food, cheese, sausage, flowers and food to prepare and eat at home. The plaza is surrounded by the bell tower and dozens of beautifully restored, ornate, steeply stepped-gable guild houses from the Middle Ages. Today the building house restaurants, tourist shops and an “info-tainment museum” of history which sells chocolate and Belgian friets (fries) on the bottom floors and has residences above.

Bruge main square 06Bruge main square 02Bruge main square 03 (2)

  • Bell Tower (Belfort). This a 272-foot tower was built between the 13th and 11th centuries to advertise the city’s prosperity and to provide warnings and notification to citizens. During the city’s Golden Age, its courtyard was also the center of the city’s weaving industry. It now has a 47-bell carillon on which concerts are played three days a week (beginning at noon) and on special occasions.

Bruges Bell Tower

  • The Burg is on the original site of the city’s fortress. It evolved into its political and religious center (in contrast to the Markt’s commercial center). The Burg houses City Hall, the Palace of Justice, the Basilica of the Holy Blood and the beautifully carved arch that leads to a neighboring square, with a totally different function and character.

Bruge - The Burg

  • City Hall (Stadhus) is a 14th-century structure whose carved façade is filled with more contemporary statues of Flanders’ royal families.

Bruges city hall

  • Basilica of the Holy Blood is a 12th-century portion of St. Basil’s Chapel that supposedly contains a bottle with a few drops of Christ’s blood, making it one of Europe’s most sacred sites. While one may take the authenticity with a grain of salt, it is sufficient justification for an annual celebration.
  • Fish Market is located just past the covered alley from The Burg. It has occupied this market ever since its previous occupants, the city’s tanners, were “evicted” from their city center location to a place where its fumes would affect fewer people.

Bruges Tanners Square

  • Gruuthaus is a 14th-century palace, now a museum. Its owners had the exclusive right to tax Gruut, a mixture of herbs used to make beer. The museum is furnished with period antiques, art and collection of musical instruments.
  • Groeninge Museum, through whose garden and small sculpture park we walked, but did not enter, is supposed to have a nice collection of Flemish and Dutch master paintings.

Bruges - GroeningemuseumBruges - Gruuthuse Museum 02

  • Old St. John’s Hospital of Brugge was establish as a hospital and sanctuary for the poor in the 12th century and continued to operate until 1976. (A very similar concept to the Hospital of Beaune, which we toured and discussed in our blog on Beaune);

Bruge - hospital

  • St.-Salavator Cathedral began in the 12th century as a parish church. It expanded through the 15th centuries and was designated as cathedral in 1799. Although huge in scale, its design is quite austere.

Bruges - St Salvators Cathedral (5)Bruges - St Salvators Cathedral (1)Bruges - St Salvators Cathedral (4)

  • Church of our Lady was constructed from the 13th through 15th centuries. It combines a number of styles. Its spire soars 400 feet, among the tallest in Europe. While the interior is rather plain, it has an elaborately carved alter, beautifully carved confessionals and carved mausoleums of the Burgundian duke, Charles the Bold and his daughter. It contains a rather disproportionately-scaled 16th century, Madonna and Child statue by Michelangelo.
  • Bruges - Church of Our Lady pulpitBruges - Church of Our Lady confessionalBruges - Church of our Lady - Michelangelo Madonna and childBruges - Church of our Lady Charles Mausoleum
  • Half Moon Brewery produced strong, hoppy, Brugse Sot beer. The beer became so popular that the ancient and pedestrian-filled historic city streets could no longer accommodate the trucks. The brewery moved the main brewery to a suburban location. However,  it runs a 3.2 km pipe to carry fresh beer to its city center location.
  • Beguinage is a tranquil complex of white buildings in which rich, Catholic war widows, from as far back as the 13th century, were able to live simple, religious, self-sufficient lives, often by weaving. This gated community of their peers was not subject to city laws of requirements. While the women lived with and acted like nuns, they did not take vows. They could leave the order and marry at any time. Although the community still exists, it is now down five nuns and 30 women who have much more freedom and many more options than in the past. It has applied to be taken over by the city.

Bruges - BeguinageBruges - Beguinane entrance

  • Red Light District which was established in the Middle Ages. Although it no longer exists, the area was the only spot in the city where men could go for hot baths.

Unlike most tourists, we stayed in and walked extensively through the eastern section of the Inner Circle that is still part of the UNESCO site but is more relaxed, uncrowded and in some ways, picturesque than the central area. The area, especially along the canals, provides views of lovely homes and mansions and a few historic sites such as Kruispoort, the original, 1402 East Gate of the city, the 16th-century Longbow Archers guild house and the 15h century Jerusalem Church, which was modeled on Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Bruges Restaurants

  • De Gouden Kroes is a lovely seafood restaurant where we had two very nice meals. The Turbot fillet came with celeriac puree, forest mushrooms, and Chablis sauce. Our lobster was flambéed in cognac sauce. Our pre-dinner amuse bouches consisted of a bowl of tasty baby shrimp and always challenging-to-shell whelks. We choose a 2017 Vandon Drouin Chablis white burgundy.
  • De Koetse, where we shared a delicious pot of jumbo-sized mussels steamed in a tasty blend of beer and cream. Tom sampled a rather hoppy, somewhat bitter Davel Blondebeer.
  • Bonte B is an upscale restaurant where we had two very good dishes. The pan-fried seabass came with pasta, clams and miso sauce. The pan-fried cod came with spinach, leeks, whipped potato, and hollandaise sauce. Our dinner began with a similarly delicious amuse bouche of pork jowl confit with cepe mushroom sauce. Our wine was a nice bottle of 2017 Mas Igneus Priorat Grenache. The food was delicious and the server was very helpful when he was there. Unfortunately, the dishes took far, far too long to come out of the kitchen and the server spent far too much time in the kitchen to adequately address the needs of the restaurant’s increasingly impatient customers (including us). It took almost two hours for our one-course meal. Fortunately, we didn’t order one of their four-course meals.

Bruges Hotel

Maison Amodio B&B  is a small, intimate B&B outside of the main historic area but only a few minutes walk away. You get away from the hoards of tourists when you stay here and are in a pretty little neighborhood. It is a good walk from the train station (about 30 minutes but it is fairly flat although the cobblestone sidewalks and roads make pulling a suitcase a little harder). The owners Geert and Henri live on the premises and are readily available for helping you. Breakfast is homemade. We had a choice of eggs, delicious raisin bread as well as other bread choices, cheese (at the proper room temperature) and some meat, homemade jam (Geert apologized that he didn’t make it but it was homemade and delicious) and probably some other things we forgot. When we arrived, we were offered a beer (or coffee/tea) and homemade apple cake. Our room was upstairs, which meant going up a circular stairway. But it looked like they also had a ground floor room if stairs are an issue. Our king room was large and comfortable. The bed was electronic and you could raise the head or foot as you wanted. The room had a small coffee machine that could also provide some hot water. Unfortunately, we never mastered using the machine, but hot water and coffee was also available downstairs. The bathroom was huge with a tub, a decent size shower and a large sink area. The room was nicely decorated. The room also had an extension cord on a plug so that you could plug in near the bed. The downstairs area for guests was well furnished and looked very comfortable, although we never had time to enjoy it. Nor did we enjoy the little outside area as it was too cold. They have an honor bar with beer and wine if you wanted any. Dinner suggestions were great as was the walking tour that Henri suggested. This is a very nice place to stay in Bruges. Note: This place does not take credit cards. You need to pay by deposit or cash.

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