Bruges is a stunningly attractive little town: medieval and Renaissance buildings everywhere, quaint streets, the celebrated canals. It immediately made us think of Venice, although not so much because of the canals. It was because we found ourselves instantly hugged in a seamless, beautiful, transporting world. Modernity doesn’t intrude (other than via plenty of tourists like us). We get to inhabit bits of the best of Bruges’ past.
In the 13th century, Bruges was the leading trade centre of northwestern Europe. One of the reasons for this prosperity was its location very close to the North Sea, and along the river Reie. The Brugeais (the name for the residents) developed canals that flowed from the river, which they lined with warehouses.
This network of canals has earned Bruges the nickname of “the Venice of the North.”
(It seems that any town in Europe with at least one canal is “the Venice” of somewhere. Annecy is the “Venice of the Alps.” Castres, not far from our home, with one walled river through its center, is the “Venice of Languedoc.” Even Amsterdam can be called the “Venice of the North,” although we thought Bruges already claimed that nickname. Is Venice the “Amsterdam of Italy?”)
Merchants from all over Europe settled in the city. The world’s first ever stock exchange (‘Beurs’ in Dutch) was founded in Bruges. These market activities took place on a square in front of the house owned by a powerful family of brokers, the Van der Beurse family. As a result, their name became linked for all time with this kind of financial institution: the Bourse, or Stock Exchange. (source)
This is the Markt, or Grand Place. There have been weekly markets in this place since the 10th century! Major canals used to run right to and through the Grand Place. They’re still there, but underground. Today, you feel the attention of us tourists in the Grand Place; imagine it in its commercial heyday: Canals full of barges and boats, chaotic movement of goods, buying and selling. (source)
Dominating all other buildings in the city, the belfry of Bruges rises to 83 m / 272 ft above the Grand Place. It was a symbol of power in medieval times. There have been many wooden versions of the belfry in this spot since the 13th century. Regularly they would burn down and need to be rebuilt, taller and grander, but equally flammable. The brick and stone version we visit today comes from the 18th and 19th centuries. (source)
The flamboyant Gothic-style City Hall goes back to the 14th century.
We visited the beautiful main chamber of the City Hall, and discovered that, despite its styling, it is almost modern. A fire in 1888 severely damaged the building. The municipal architect of the time, Louis Delacenserie, led the 10-year reconstruction. In the last decade of the 19th century, the painters Albrecht Devriendt and Emiel Rommelaere produced these luscious Gothic Revival murals; they illustrate the history of the city. (source)
During our wanderings, we stumbled upon this sculpture of Simon Stevin, at the center of Simon Stevin Square. Kind of hard to miss. We noticed that his name finishes with a period. That’s curious for a historical sculptural figure. Google whispered in our ear. Mr Steven is the 16th-century father of the decimal point! Actually, decimal fractions already existed, but he effectively explored and explained how they could be used in math, coinage, measures and weights. Hence his emphatic name. Period.
We wandered into the district of the Old St. John’s Hospital, which was founded in the mid-12th century. It was one of the first hospitals established in Europe. It was under the patronage of Saint Augustine that the religious of the Middle Ages cared for the sick. Dedicated to pilgrims and people deprived of everything, the hospital gradually opened to the inhabitants of the surrounding area. (source)
While we were enjoying the tidy brick and stone medieval architecture, we noticed a modest free-standing sign panel; it invited passersby to a free harp concert by a musician named Luc Vanlaere. We were feeling relaxed, enjoying our wander, and thought, “Why not?”
The signs led to a tiny performance space: three closely-packed rows of chairs, and a stage filled with harps and harp-adjacent stringed instruments.
At the announced time, a 60-something man appeared, and said hello. He said that he had composed all the pieces he was going to play — so please don’t expect your favorite cool-jazz tunes. He said that his compositions aim to calm and soothe; if you fall asleep, he doesn’t mind.
I started to feel drowsy in anticipation. No need to have worried. While the pieces were indeed gentle and calming, they were not boring — mostly because of the tour of instruments that Luc Vanlaere took us on. He played a couple of concert-hall harps. He played simultaneously two stringed instruments from China and Japan. He played a reconstruction of an ancient Middle Eastern forebear to the modern harp. He played bells and gongs and a wall-size invention of his own: the Harmonic SoundHarp, which is a set of panels. 20 strings of a single note fill each panel. When strummed, the 20 strings reverberate and flow. At the end, Mr Vanlaere explained that funding for everything he does comes from our donations. By this time, giving a donation and buying some CDs were exactly what we wanted to do.
We learned later that Mr Vanlaere is a famous part of the Bruges landscape. There are tons of TripAdvisor reviews out there. In addition to the concert experience, we were impressed by this man’s passion, skill, and creation of his own independent world. Bravo!
Our wonderful walking-tour guide, Stephanie, led us to one of Bruges’ gems: the Béguinage of the Vine.
Beyond a simple stone portal, right in the heart of Bruges, a green oasis meditates. This is the remnant of a 13th-century community for women who chose to join religious life for a while — when their husbands were on a crusade, for example. There were many of these enclaves in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands. They were called Béguinages after the name of their first Canon, Lambert Begh or Le Bègue.
Over the years, the the religious orders have changed. Buildings have burned down and been replaced. What we see today dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. (source)
Today, many of the accommodations are reserved for single women in need of social and economic support. There are a few nuns in residence also; they are all quite elderly, and many have come from the Philippines.
These green fields of daffodils and narcissus (just exiting their prime), the serene white houses, and the bright blue sky told us just to be quiet for a few minutes, and absorb.
We don’t usually include mention of the hotels we choose for our travels. Mostly we look for attractive, moderately priced hotels and B&Bs in good locations. You will not be surprised to know that we try to save lodging money so we can have more eating money. The hotel we chose in Bruges meets our parameters, but it turned out to be exceptionally beautiful, especially its many public rooms. The hotel is the Grand Hotel Casselbergh.
A collection of high-ceilinged rooms comprise the ground floor. The mixture of traditional and contemporary elements, the array of muted warm and cool colors, the grand chandeliers, the impeccable cleanliness — all this made us want to settle into some comfy chairs, sip cocktails, chat and relax. Which we did, of course. Bruges calls the visitor to explore the canals, streets and squares, but this hotel beckons with an offered seat.
We learned from hotel staff that a family owns and runs the hotel; it’s not part of a big chain. The owners take very seriously the quality and image of their hotel. The staff member told us that the owners copiously decorate the interiors for the Christmas holiday season. They said we have to come back to see for ourselves. We’ve just added that to our (endless) wish list.
A few more images, just for the beauty of it.
For our first dinner, we chose a meal of local comfort food.
Belgium is famous for its Moules Frites — Mussels and Fries. One of our favorite comfort foods. Our server said that we weren’t in the prime season for local moules, but we ordered them anyway. All very tasty, even if the mussels were a bit small. Some local beer and a beautiful spring day made it all quite fine.
This was our fine-dining choice for our second evening in Bruges. Handsome small restaurant. We could feel the personal touch from the owners. The marinated mackerel was particularly delicious!