Bruges is well off the beaten track for tourists in Belgium, but is well worth a visit for its old world charm and historical sights..
During the Middle Ages the sea flooded the area around present-day Bruges, carving out channels and waterways such as the Zwin. As in other Flemish cities, Bruges prospered in the textile trade. This trade was connected to England’s wool industry, the source of the finest grade of wool. By the late 13th century Bruges was a major center of cloth manufacturing. In the 14th century Bruges became a key member of the Hanseatic League of Seventeen Cities, a powerful association of northern European trading cities.
Prosperity continued under the rule of the dukes of Burgundy. By 1500 the population had ballooned to 200,000. Flemish art blossomed and the city’s artists, known as the Flemish Primitives, created paintings that are still vivid today. During the 15th century the Zwin, the waterway linking Bruges to the sea, silted. Despite attempts to build another canal, the city’s economic lifeline had withered. When the headquarters of the Hanseatic League moved from Bruges to Antwerp at the end of the century, many merchants followed, leaving abandoned houses, deserted streets and empty canals. Bruges, once a former hub of Europe, rolled into a 400 year slumber.
The city slowly recovered in the early 19th century as tourists started passing on the way to the Waterloo battlefield south of Brussels. In 1892 Belgian writer and poet Georges Rodenbach published Bruges-la-Morte or Bruges the Dead, a novel which described the town’s forlorn air and alerted the well-heeled to its preserved charm. Ironically, this sealed its fate as a town frozen in time. In 1907 the Boudewijnkanaal, a canal linking Bruges to the new port of Zeebrugge, was constructed.
Although Zeebrugge suffered extensive damage during both world wars, Bruges had escaped unscathed.
Today, a freshened Bruges, as the capital of the Belgium province of West-Vlaanderen, has a manufacturing center outside the city that produces glass, electrical goods and chemicals, although it now lives largely off tourism.
Rising 272ft from the Markt is Belgium’s famous Belfort, a famous belfry tower. It was built in the 13th century when Bruges was a bustling center of trade. It used to contain the city’s valuables, including money and documents. The treasure house, with seven keys, can still be seen. The 366 steps to the top are an exhausting and usually crowded climb. But it is well worth it, particularly in the afternoon when the view reveals the town’s rustic roofs and warm tones. A 37 bell carillon is also located here.
Church of Our Lady
This church was built over two centuries, from the 13th to the 15th. Its soaring 387 ft. spire can be seen from miles around Bruges. Among the many art treasures located in the church is a beautiful marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. This statue, made in 1504, was the only one of Michelangelo’s works to leave Italy in his lifetime and is today one of the few that can be seen outside Italy. It was bought by a Bruges merchant, Jan van Mouskroen, and donated to the church in 1506.
The church also holds a painting of the Crucifixion by Van Dyck, and the impressive side-by-side bronze tomb sculptures of the duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, who died in 1477, and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy, who died at age 25 after falling from her horse in 1482. A windowpane under the tombs allows the visitor to view the 13th- and 14th-century graves of medieval priests.
Architecturally, the outside is a slightly forbidding hodgepodge of different styles. Each period had its concept of good architecture and the importance of preserving previous designs. Today’s architecture of the church varies from late Romanesque over Scheldt-Gothic to French Gothic.
The Groeninge ranks among Belgium’s leading traditional museums of fine arts. It is a small but well laid out building. It has a collection that covers paintings from the Low Countries dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries. The Gallery of Flemish Primitives holds some 30 works by painters such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hieronymus Bosch, and Hans Memling. Works by Magritte and Delvaux are also on display.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
The basilica is in the Romanesque style, but with a Gothic upper floor. The church houses a venerated relic of Christ, as well as a mystery worthy of Indiana Jones. Since 1150, the basilica has in its keeping a fragment of cloth stained with what is said to be the coagulated blood of Christ, wiped, the legend says, from his body after the crucifixion by Joseph of Arimathea. The legend goes on to say that the cloth was brought to Bruges at the time of the Second Crusade by the Count of Flanders, Diederik van de Elzas, who received it from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. More likely it came from Constantinople, which in 1204 was taken and sacked by the Crusader army of Count of Flanders Baldwin IX. Every year, in the colorful Procession of the Holy Blood on Ascension Day, the relic is carried through the streets, led by the bishop of Bruges and accompanied by costumed townspeople acting out biblical scenes.
The relic is embedded in a rock-crystal vial, which itself is inside a small glass cylinder adorned with a golden crown at each end. Normally, the relic is kept in a magnificent tabernacle, on which is an image of the “lamb of Christ,” on a side altar in the upstairs chapel, but it is brought out regularly so that the faithful can venerate it.
Another interesting piece is the carved wooden pulpit hanging on high. It is a magnificent globe from one piece of wood, the shape symbolizing that the Word must spread across the globe There are also two altars, one of The Last Supper in alabaster, another of marble set in carved wood.
Choco Story Museum
The museum is located in the Maison de Croon, built on 1480, and was originally a wine tavern. The museum covers everything concerning chocolate from the discovery of the cocoa bean to how everyone’s favorite confectionary is made. Naturally this museum will get one in the mood for some delicious purchases in the well-stocked gift shop.
A Flemish nobleman and herb merchant named Lodewijk Van Gruuthuse, a counselor to the Dukes of Burgundy in the 1400s, lived in this ornate Gothic mansion. Among the 2,500 numbered antiquities in the eclectic collection contained in the house are paintings, sculptures, tapestries, lace, weapons, glassware, and richly carved furniture. Take note of the painted wooden bust of Habsburg Emperor Charles V in one of the rooms: It shows him as a fresh-faced child, ready to go to work on the political, military, and religious dilemmas of the empire, worries that were to age him quickly enough.
The collections are displayed to give a visitor a hint of what the house must have been like when occupied. Precious tapestries and late medieval furniture and plate, for example, come together to create a dining room. A huge collection of culinary artifacts is displayed, of course, in the old kitchen. There is even a real live French guillotine, for those with a more macabre bent.