Brugge is about as close as you’ll come to imagining what a medieval city looked like, with stone walls around the town, arched stone bridges over canals, the towering Rathaus (City Hall) overlooking the city, rows of tall brick homes and apartments, and narrow, cobble-stone streets, just wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage to pass through. We arrived in Brugge from Aachen on June 4th, took a bus to the busy market square and walked a few blocks down narrow streets and across a canal to our Hotel Europ.
But it’s not the 17th century in Brugge; the city has become a hip destination for tourists. Many streets have been taken over by gaudy retail chain stores selling designer handbags, scarves, luggage, clothing, sunglasses, lingerie, cell phones, banks, as well as Belgian lace and chocolate on almost every corner.
Strolling through Brugge
After settling in, we were eager to return to the market square to stroll around, soak up the atmosphere, and enjoy a traditional Brugge dinner of a bucket of steamed mussels, pomme frites, and Hooegarden white beer at one of the sidewalk cafes lining the Square. While we ate dinner, horse-drawn carriages clip-clopped through the market square giving guided tours of the main sites of the city.
After dinner, we took our first walk to browse, window shop, and explore. First stop was into a shop, Leonidas, to buy Belgian Chocolates. Marilyn bought a sack and savored them during our three days in town. We spent the rest of the evening strolling down narrow streets lined with centuries old buildings, crossed stone bridges over canals, passed cathedrals and museums we’d visit in the next day or so, and tried not to get lost when street names changed every couple blocks.
But getting lost in Brugge is not a major problem, just keep wandering until you come to an intersection where you can spot the towering Rathaus on the market square. A five or ten minute walk in that direction, and you’re back in familiar territory.
Belgian Lace Making
Belgium is known around the world for its world-class chocolate and lace. Along every street where retails stores are abundant, the most common establishments are cafes, restaurants, and shops selling chocolate or lace. One morning we came across an elderly woman knitting lace, her fingers flicking wooden dials spread over a circular frame, lacing single cotton fibers into the creation she was making, a doily, table-cloth, or covering. It was a magical experience, hearing the clicking of the wooden dials, watching her fingers moving gracefully and quickly as each strand became another row of delicate lace.
In a mixture of broken Dutch, German, and English, she told us she had learned lace making from her grandmother. Family crafts were handed down, generation to generation, and women made a successful business of making lace. An art that seems to be disappearing.
We spent most of two days visiting several excellent museums in Brugge. Our first was the Folk Museum of Arts and Crafts (Bruggemuseum-Volkskunde), which we stumbled on in a neighborhood close to our hotel. We learned that you could buy one museum pass to visit several. The Volkskunde Museum is actually set in a series of eight 17th century almshouses in one courtyard. Each alm house was dedicated to a different craft or activity: a classroom, cobbler’s workshop, haberdasher, coopers, pipe maker, Flemish living room, bakery, pharmacy, inn, and a tailor’s workshop with traditional textiles and wardrobes. What better way to learn about daily life in 17th century Brugge.
At the Groeningemuseum, we learned about the Flemish Primitive artists, Jan Van Eyck, in particular. Our hotel was a short walk from Van Eyck Square, complete with statue, looking over a canal, an inn, and Flemish restaurant. It became one of our regular routes into the city.
The Archeology Museum (Bruggemuseum-Archeologie) had an excellent interpretive video displays depicting the evolution of early in Brugge area from prehistory, through Roman Times, and the Middle Ages, all in separate rooms with artifacts and illustrations of the various eras.
The City Museum (Bruggemuseum-Stadhuis), built in 1376, still houses the city’s administrative offices. On the second floor was a Gothic Chamber with 19th-century paintings. One room depicted various trades and industries with a socialist realism flavor .
The Bell Tower, (Bruggemuseum – Belfort), takes you up 366 steps to a magnificent view of the city. The Bell Tower houses a carillon with 47 bells that chime several times a day and can be heard all over town. Very charming and old European.
One of the most memorable locations in Brugge is the Beguinage, a monastery-like community for religious women that originated in the 13th century by the Countess of Flanders. The Beguinage is located down a secluded side street, across a canal near the old city wall. Beguins were located all over the low countries during the Middle Ages. The Brugge Beguinhof once housed more than 1200 women who were seeking a more pure form of religious experience from that offered by the traditional Catholic clergy.
Women of the Beguinage were religious, but did not have to take vow of poverty and some worked in the thriving textile industry during the Middle Ages. Today the Brugge Beguinage is one of the few remaining beguins and is home to a few elderly Benedictine nuns and sisters from Madagascar whom we saw walking the grounds and lighting candles in the centuries old chapel.
The Beguinage is in a serene setting with tall, leafy poplars shading the grounds and alabaster buildings where the sisters live in seclusion. Walking the grounds and visiting the small chapel are memorable experiences. One feels the deep spiritual sense of peace, order, and solitude.
Dinner along Brugge canals
We enjoyed many wonderful meals in Brugge, including one dinner overlooking a canal,watching ducks and swans swimming by and listening to church bells. We enjoyed pasta with fish, salad, and a delicious Merlot. The perfect setting to reflect on the joys of the day and plan for more memories the next.
Brugge during the Great War
Brugge was one of the few Belgian towns that escaped damage in WWI while bloody battles across barbed wired ‘no man’s land’ were raging a few miles away. Brugge had no major rail lines, little industry, no military bases, and the closest port on the Atlantic was a few miles away at Ostende. Brugge was occupied by Nazi forces during World War II but no battles were fought near the city.
We’ll visit World War I battle sites near Brugge next.
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Next destination: Flanders Field
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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