Weather in Bruges, Belgium (variously Brugge, Bruge) in early May is iffy: the sun can be out; it can be overcast; or it can be raining. But in all cases, it is wonderful and worth a visit. Each time you turn a corner in the old city, you have a new postcard-perfect picture.
Bruges, founded by Vikings around 840, became a major port in medieval times. About three miles from the sea, merchants used a system of canals to reach their warehouses. Not the center of a kingdom, it was one of the first places where a strong middle class developed. For example, warehouses and a market for the fabric industry were built on the main square near other guild houses. In the eleventh century, a clock tower was built and in each of the next several centuries, another story was added. But by the end of the 16th century, the harbor silted in leaving the city, eight miles from the sea, an economic backwater. At the beginning of the 15th century, Bruges had a population of forty-five thousand people. Paris, the largest city, had only eighty thousand and London had eighteen thousand. Furthermore, Catholic Spain took control and Protestants and Jews fled to the Netherlands. The population dropped to twenty-five thousand.
There was no more money for new construction or remodeling. The locals joke if the economy had not failed, the bell tower would now exceed the Empire State Building (It still has 366 steps.). But the failure had two benefits for us. Stagnation meant we now have a wonderfully preserved medieval town. And, in an effort to supplement their income, the ladies of the town took to sitting on their doorsteps making lace, the foundation of the Belgium lace industry.
Also contributing to the preservation of the city was the fact that Bruges suffered little damage during World Wars One or Two. It did suffer anti-Catholic destruction, however, during the French Revolution.
I don’t know when chocolate and beer came into the picture, but they too are everywhere. Soccer is the second favorite sport in Belgium. Beer drinking is first.
Great squares and little side streets have very nice – but often pricey – restaurants. Every street seems to have a chocolate shop selling a variety of candies. Lace shops crowd one street off the main Market Square, but are found on many other streets as well. And beer contributes about ten percent of Belgium’s GDP. One store has one thousand different bottles on the wall.
Some cultural differences: Most European hotels do not offer washcloths. Ours offered a packaged sponge. Public toilets often charge a fifty cent fee, the pee fee. Bruges has no traffic lights, but it has lots of bike lanes. Cars stop for pedestrian crossings, but one also has to take particular care crossing a bike lane – they seem less inclined to use their breaks.
Still a Catholic community, there are lots of Catholic churches, basilicas and the Cathedral of Sint (San) Salvator. The cathedral is a wonderful light gothic structure with a magnificent altar, a huge organ and elaborately carved pulpit.
The Church of Our Lady has a chapel which features a statue of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, the only piece to be exported from Italy during his lifetime. Originally commissioned for the cathedral in Sienna in 1804-5, it was purchased by the Mouscran family for Brugge.
Also interesting were thirteenth century burial vaults under the choir excavated during the 1970s. The walls of the brick vaults were painted with paintings that demonstrated a shift from depictions of “Christ the triumphant” to “Christ the suffering” under the influence of the Franciscans. The vaults are visible beneath glass behind the elaborate brass tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold.
We visited a lace store as part of a walking and boat tour. The proprietor was fourth generation in the business. He went to school at the age of twelve and his classes lasted for ten years. Handmade “bobbin lace” was created in Bruges. He demonstrated using a “lace pillow” and 32 bobbins which he used the same way a touch typist types without looking and at an incredible speed. He mastered 250 bobbins at a time. But he is the last of an era when he retires in six years. Although he demonstrated that factory made lace does not equal the handmade heritage lace, the economics for making it by hand are no longer there. His daughter and granddaughter, the fifth and sixth generations, can do it, but they just do it as a hobby. Alie liked an antique lace fan, but at fourteen hundred Euros, Ray did not care for it at all.
We enjoyed our meals in Burge and would recommend visitors go to purgatory. Or at least we were told that was the translation of ‘t Vagevuur, one restaurant with simple well-presented meals and excellent service even though it was very busy. But even a small sandwich shop had great bread and delicious pastries.
Brussels is an easy day-trip just an hour and a half away. Not only the country’s capital, it is the seat of the European Union and NATO.
We did not have time to see much, but we did drive by the various international buildings, saw the magnificent central market square with its city hall that dates to 1405, and the city’s symbol, the little pissing boy. We have not really appreciated European chocolate, but the chocolate we got at a small “factory” could not be beat.
In the U.S., we sometimes complain about conflicting government jurisdictions. Belgium, the size of Maryland, has three official Languages: Dutch/Flemish, French and German. There are three provinces including the central Province of Brussels. One is French, one is Flemish and Brussels is bilingual.
Brussels has 19 cities and 19 mayors in that one province. And there are language-based services that cross province lines. Once they went over 400 days without being able to agree to a new government. It is easy to see why.