Bruges - a reawakened medieval city

Bruges, the capital of West Flanders, is now Belgium's most popular tourist destination, so book early. The harmonious appearance of the architecture, tranquil canals, your footsteps ringing on the cobblestones while church bells chime and horse's hoofs echo from a nearby street, charm the visitors.

Bruges - a reawakened medieval city

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

The tide of commercial success ebbed from Bruges when the Zwin silted up. The city drifted into a slumber for centuries. Its discovery by international tourism in the 20th century reawakened it. Run down but with its medieval heritage of Flemish wealth, commercial success, and awesome architecture intact, tourism turned out to be a new source of wealth for the 'Venice of the North'.

Ornate guild houses still line ancient streets and canals. Street markets flourish as in previous centuries. Canals empty of commercial shipping now echo to the chatter of tourists taking a pleasure cruise along canals.

Bruges, the capital of West Flanders, is now Belgium's most popular tourist destination, so book early. The harmonious appearance of the architecture, tranquil canals, your footsteps ringing on the cobblestones while church bells chime and horse's hoofs echo from a nearby street, charm the visitors.

Of course, not every building in Bruges comes straight from the Middle Ages. The 19th century neo-gothic style is also present. Because of these renovations, some critics have put Bruges down as a 'fake' medieval city. The combination of old, not so old, and new fascinates everyone who sets foot in Bruges. ${QuickSuggestions} Allow at least three days to explore Bruges in a reasonable thorough way. Also check up on the opening times of museums. Often they open only on certain days of the week, so an investigation at the Tourist Office placed in the Burg Square.

The weather is much the same as in England so come prepared for wet days. We were lucky and escaped without a single shower, although we visited in October. It was very cold though.

According to my guidebook tipping is not a problem. The bill usually includes service charges. Where this was not the case, as in canal cruising or buggy rides, they weren't reticent in announcing that a tip would be appreciated.

Hotel ratings, I was advised, have little relationship to the quality of the rooms. It is better to inspect rooms first before taking accommodation, if possible. ${BestWay} Bruges's prosperity rested on its transportation system-- water transport. Today it still has excellent trnsportation. An hour's train ride from Brussels will get you there. Brussels itself being the main administrative centre for the European Union has fast air and railway links.

It is also possible to take the sea route. A train or bus ride from Ostend will get you there in about 20 minutes.

The best way to see historical Bruges is on foot. A boat trip will add variety. Whether the version of historical events given by the boatman is entirely accurate might be open to doubt. It is, however, usually entertaining. Pretty much the same holds for a horse-and-buggy ride.

Like many towns that have no hills, Bruges has bicycles everywhere. Hiring one is a travel alternative for the cycling enthusiast.

Hotel De Pauw

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

Nestling in a quiet street with a canal a short distance one way and the St Gilleskirk just behind sits the Hotel De Pauw. It is an unimposing building and is similar to the other houses in the street. Despite its pretensions, it is a bed-and-breakfast establishment.

We arrived about midday. Pushing the bell button eventually produced a response – from the cleaner. The owners are only there in the morning. After the formality of filling my details in on the obligatory form, I lugged our case up the stair to Room 2. A large bed took up most of the space, leaving just enough space to squeeze past the end. Along one wall, a double wardrobe offered generous space. Also provided were two comfortable chairs, a small table, a shelf, and a suitcase stand. Fixed in a high corner position, a TV looked blankly down at us. It proved to have umpteen channels, including UK ones. The room, though a bit gloomy, had electric lights placed at strategic points.

The bathroom was not user-friendly. It had one of those concertina-ing rubberised doors - fine when they work! This one required a strong arm and much jiggling about. The room contained a powerful shower in a roomy cabinet, a wash hand basin, a toilet, and a hair dryer. People wide in the beam would have difficulty in maneuvering in the available space.

When we booked in, we had been told the owners also ran an old Flemish inn called the Oud Handbogenhof Restaurant at the corner of the block. We went down in the evening and introduced ourselves to the woman serving - the co-owner of the hotel. She proved to be chatty and friendly. Her husband coped with the cooking. Between them, they ran an efficient operation. Even when the Inn had all of its 17 tables fully occupied, she coped with only the help of one assistant. Mussel casserole proved to be the house speciality. I believe in trying whatever appears to be a national dish, so I placed an order. It was daunting to have a pot full of mussels appear in front of me. Slightly wary of so much seafood, I tentatively dug one little morsel out of its shell. Eventually tiring of digging away with a knife and fork, I resorted to hands-on. Surprisingly quickly, I had worked myself to the bottom of the pot. A huge heap of discarded shells bore testimony to my efforts. I had a restless night, but no regrets.

At breakfast next morning, our cheerful host appeared still smiling brightly. On offer at breakfast were sliced meat and cheese, rolls, fruit juice, a boiled egg, and tea or coffee.

On leaving, it proved tricky carrying a heavy suitcase down the narrow staircase. At 64 euros for the room per night, we thought the accommodation represented good value, especially as it is positioned only a few minutes' walk from the centre of Bruges.

Hotel De Pauw
Sint Gilliskerkhof 8-8000 Bruge
Bruges, Belgium
33 71 18/33 41 11

The Burg Square - showcase of civic pride

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

A stroll down Breidelstraat in the southwest corner of the 'Markt', Bruges largest town square, leads to the 'Burg' square--administrative heart of the city and a showcase of European architectural styles. It was here in the mid-9th century; the Franks had built a palisade surrounded by a moat to protect it against Viking and Norman marauders. This building has long gone together with St. Donation's cathedral, which dated from the mid-10th century. Around the cobbled square now stands an array of monumental buildings spanning the centuries from the 12th to the 19th, with styles from Romanesque to post-modern.

The square's stunning gothic town hall (1376) is the oldest in Belgium. Its front facade has six gothic windows and the Coats of Arms of the cities and villages under administrative rule from Bruges. Statues on the façade are replacements for the original statues of biblical figures and counts of Flanders.

In the entrance hall, a large staircase leads to the Gothic Hall (1386-1401). The small balcony near the door allowed the town pipers and other musicians to perform from an elevated platform. This Hall witnessed the first meeting of the States General established by the Dukes of Burgundy to regulate donations to the treasury.

The vaulted oak ceiling (begun in 1385 and finished in 1402) has long pendant keystones at the junction of the arches richly decorated in tones of brown, black, maroon, and gold, surrounding painted scenes from the New Testament. This hall decorated with neo-gothic murals by the De Vriende brothers in 1905 show important events in the city's history.

Next to the town hall stands the Old Civil Registry (1534-1537) in Renaissance style--since 1883 used as the Peace Court. The sinuously curved and scrolled gables contrast with the older, linear step gables of most of the buildings in Bruges. The decorative bronze statues represent Justice, Moses and Aaron.

On its left side the former Court of Justice in neo-classicist style dates from 1722-1727. Inside is the celebrated chimney of the 'Brugse Vrije'. Built between 1528 and 1581 in wood, alabaster, and marble, it commemorates the victory of Emperor Charles V in Pavia over King François I of France. The carving cover the entire wall, joining the ceiling with carved tendrils and caskets. A statue of Charles in full armour, wearing the emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece stands in the centre. Forty-six coats of arms and ribbons also appear on it. Part of the Old Court of Justice building now houses the Bruges Tourist Information Centre.

On the left side of the square is the Deanery (1662), the former house of the Deans of the St. Donatius church. Later it became part of the palace of the Bishop of Bruges. Its parapet is lined with urns and topped with a female personification of justice armed with sword and scales.

The Burg Square
Near Market Place
Bruges, Belgium

The Burg Square - Holy Relics and Beyond

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

The main religious building in the city was the St. Donatius Church placed right in the heart of Bruges, opposite the town hall. At the end of the 18th-century French invaders cast out the bishop of Bruges and demolished his bishopric seat, St. Donatius Church. A miniature stone replica of the vanished cathedral stands on the square. The Deanery the former house of the Deans of the St. Donatius church stills stands in the square.

The religious significance of the square is now harder to find. However, tucked away in the corner of Burg square, next to the town hall, is the Basilius church and the Chapel of the Holy Blood. Its three-arched façade date from 1534. Its ornate stone carvings and gilded statues of angels, knights with their ladies stand below two closely adjoining and Islamic-looking towers. The lower part, the Basilius chapel, is in Romanesque style from the 12th-13th century. It gloomy, shadowy interior has stark uncompromising Romanesque pillars and little decoration except for a relief carving over an interior doorway depicting the baptism of St Basil. On the left side of the choir is the former chapel of the clerks of the civil registry (1503) and on the right side a statue of the Virgin from around 1300. The Tympanum a sculptured stone in half relief decorates the passage between the main nave and the side chapel probably representing the baptism of St. Basilius.

Behind a strikingly decorated façade a staircase leads to the first floor containing the Holy Blood. This room floods with light. The ceiling rather bizarrely looks like an upturned boat. The church built in Romanesque style like the Basilius church on the ground floor changed to gothic style during its history. Mural decorations in the church date from this renovation. Copies replacing the original stained-glass windows date from the 19th century.

In a small side chapel you'll find the holy relic. The phial remains in a handsomely decorated ornate silver tabernacle during the week. Viewing is possible every Friday and every day from the 3rd to the 17th of May.

Outside the chapel is the Holy Blood museum containing the shrine for the Holy Blood and other treasures belonging to the chapel. According to recent investigations, the bottle of rock crystal, containing the blood only dates from the 11th or 12th century. Certainly there is no mention in the bible about the saving of any of Christ's blood.

Some good views can be had of the squares and canal by strolling down Blinde Ezelstraat (Blind Donkey Street) between the Town Hall and the Civic Registry. At the end of the square turn right into Rozenhoedkaai (Rosary Quay). From here you get lovely view of the canal, waterside houses and Belfry.

If you go back through Huidenvettersplein and continue along the waterfront, across the canal you can see a part of the original 16th-century Palace of the Liberty of Bruges in the Burg.

The Burg Square
Near Market Place
Bruges, Belgium

The Grote Markt - the great market square

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

The Belfort-Hallen (Bell Tower and Covered Market) dominates the Grote Markt (Market Square). Although not the tower of Pisa, the 83-metre Belfry leans one metre- -disconcerting for those climbing on aching legs its 366 steps. The breathtaking view of makes the climb worth the effort.

The original Belfort-Hallen dates from 1240 though it has undergone rebuilding. Like other Belgium cities the belfry tower preserved the city's important documents. Inside hung bells, each bell having a distinct sound and role (for example: bells for danger, bells for important announcements and bells to announce the time). Nowadays, the Belfry tower charms the visitor with the pleasant music of a carillon, which consists of 47 bells.

The covered market and courtyard would have been crammed with traders shouting orders, the air heavy with the smell of spices. Originally a canal below the covered market allowed direct shipment into the market.

In the centre of the Market stands the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck--local heroes. They took part in the Flemish 1302 uprising against the occupation by the French king--known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs. This battle was also the central theme of the book 'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' (the lion of Flanders) written by Hendrik Conscience in 1838. He romanticized the Flemish uprising and it became a symbol of the Flemish movement, which fought for recognition of the Dutch language, and Flemish culture in the French-language dominated Belgium of the 19th century.

On the Northern side of the Market is the Provincial Hof. It stands on the site were the medieval cloth halls used to stand. This was a covered hall where ships could unload their cargos for storage in the halls or for sale on the market next door. The Provincial Hof is the best example of Bruges’ renovation in neo-gothic style. After demolishing the cloth halls in 1787 houses in classicist style replaced them. In 1850 the provincial government bought the complex, enlarged it, and made it the seat of the provincial government. Members of the catholic and traditionalist political parties demanded more suitable building 'for the beautiful gothic Bruges'. In 1878 a fire conveniently destroyed the building. Different groups took their chance to have it rebuilt in neo-gothic style, the 'house'-style of the catholic party.

On the left side of the Provincial Hof is now the house of the Governor of the Province of West-Flanders. The red-brick building on the right side is the Post Office of Bruges.

Restaurants occupy the other sides of the market and shops located in former private houses as well as in guild houses.

Finally, on the Southern side of the Market stand several medieval-looking houses. Many are modern reconstructions of the medieval styles.

Now stroll down Breidelstraat in the southwest corner of the Markt to the 'Burg' square--administrative heart of the city and a showcase of European architectural styles.

The Markt (Market Square)
City Center
Bruges, Belgium, 8000

The Minnewater and canals

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

'The Venice of the North' is an inapt descriptor for Bruges, just as it is for the many other cities similarly labelled. Venice stands on islands in a lagoon of the Adriatic Sea. Bruges lies inland, although in the last five centuries B.C. the coastline lay closer. When the seas retreated, a sea-arm called the Zwin still connected Bruges with the North Sea. In the Middle Ages enlargement of the waterways to Bruges allowed trading ships to reach the city.

Inside the city conversion of the Reie River into a network of canals allowed traders to bring their goods to the large Water Halls at the Market. Selling and storage of goods took place there. In the place of the Water Halls now stands the neo-gothic Provincial Hof. The canals needed to be kept to a constant depth of water. Minnewater an existing lake proved ideal as a reservoir for the purpose.

It is unusual for something industrialised to have romantic connotations, but such is the case with Minnewater. With its idyllic surroundings it is easy to imagine courting couples strolling by the lake. The Dutch word 'Minne' means 'love' and Minnewater becomes 'the lake of Love'. Swans on the lake add to the romance--one of the symbols of Bruges is the swan.

Ships, after they passed Damme, the medieval outer harbour of Bruges (now with two Dutch style windmills standing on its bank), entered Bruges where the Dampoort-complex sits--a former city gate. On the way to the city centre the sailors followed the canals Langerei, Potterierei (with its shipyards), Spiegelrei, and Spinolarei.

On the Spinolarei, the 'Poortersloge' with its high bell tower stands--the then meeting place for the rich and important members of the Bruges society. In a niche at the end of the wall stands a statue of a bear carrying a shield with Masonic symbols, a badge of the city.

Often concerts, festivities, and banquets took place in this building. In front of it is the 'Jan van Eyck' square, with the statue of the illustrious Flemish painter who lived and died in Bruges (+ 1444). Finally, on their way to the Market, the ships passed the great 'Crane', a medieval crane that used to unload the goods from the ships. A small replica of such a crane now stands in 'Jan van Eyck' square. People walking in two treadmills provided the lifting power.

Nowadays no commercial ships sail on the Bruges canals. The canals belong to the tourist trade. There are five families allowed to organize tourist excursions by open boats on the canals. It is doubtful if anything larger could squeeze under the bridges. Each family has four boats and these provide a relaxing way to view the city while listening to the boatman's version of events. Perhaps jokes don't come naturally to the Belgiums. Our boatman's idea of a joke is 'This brewery takes its water from the canal--its beer is only for Export.'

Minnewater and the Begijnhof
Bruges, Belgium

Our Lady's Church and famed Madonna

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

The slim brick tower of Our Lady's Church becomes visible long before the huddle of houses when approaching Bruges. It is the highest tower in the city and the world's highest brick tower. More visible than the Belfry in the Markt, it provides a useful navigation point when walking around the city.

The church's medieval character and its important works of art attract many visitors. Among these are the Madonna by Michelangelo and the magnificent tombstones of Mary of Burgundy and her father Charles the Bold.

Architecturally, the outside is a slightly forbidding hodgepodge of different styles. Already two centuries old when first mentioned in written records in 1089, overtime extensions and renovations have changed the character of the building. Each period has its concept of good architecture and the importance of preserving previous designs. The 18th century saw transformation into the period style, but around 1900 renovators tried to revert to the original medieval design. Today's architecture varies from late Romanesque over Scheldt-Gothic to French Gothic.

The most important and eye-catching part of the church is the tower. Building the tower started in the mid-13th century. Reaching a height of 122 meters, only the cathedral of Antwerp is higher--by one metre. The enormous mass of bricks speaks of permanence.

In the sacrament chapel in the right wing of the church stands the famed Madonna by Michelangelo. This stunning marble sculpture is the only sculpture by the great Italian artist present in the Low Countries. Made for the cathedral of Sienna (it couldn't afford to pay for it), two merchants from Bruges (Jan and Alexander Moscroen) brought it to Bruges after a business trip to Italy in 1506.

There are outstanding paintings by Pieter Poubus (Last Supper and Adoration of the Shepherds) and Gerard David (Transfigeration) but after the Michelangelo it is the choir area that holds most interest.

In the choir of the church, are the magnificent tombstones of Mary of Burgundy and her father Charles the Bold. Duchess Mary reigned over the Low Countries in the last part of the 15th century and died in Bruges in 1482 at 25 years old, after falling from her horse during a hunting trip in the surroundings of Bruges.

Charles the Bold died in 1477 in Nancy, France, during a battle. Brought back to Bruges in 1550, his remains lie next to those of his daughter. Mary's sarcophagus, made from black marble surmounting by a reclining image of her in bronze is an example of late gothic style. Charles tomb also has a reclining image of the diseased in bronze. Only completed in the mid-16th century it has the later early renaissance style. In front of both tombs is a triptych by Barend van Orley.

Elsewhere you'll find the funerary chapel of Pieter Lanchals containing frescoed tombs in maroon and black as well as Van Dyck's starkly atmospheric painting of Christ on the cross.

Church of our Lady
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerkhof Zuid
Bruges, Belgium

St. Salvator Cathedral -; an English Folly?

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Drever on November 8, 2003

The beautifully preserved city of Bruges charms its visitors by its medieval character and canals. However, over several centuries, the buildings have undergone changes and renovations. New buildings have appeared and others vanished. The main religious building in the city was the St. Donatius Church, placed right in the heart of Bruges, opposite the town hall. At the end of the 18th century, French invaders cast out the bishop of Bruges and demolished his bishopric seat, St. Donatius Church.

In 1834, after Belgian independence in 1830, a new bishop took over. An immediate problem arose in that there was no longer a bishopric seat. Covetous eyes fell on the parish church of St. Salvator, which was originally founded in the 10th century, and parts of the existing building date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Promoted to the status of cathedral, it became the seat of the bishop.

The building itself was not cathedral-like. It was smaller and less impressive than the nearby church of Our Lady. St. Salvator's clearly needed remodeling with a higher, more impressive tower to fit its new status. Urgency was created by a fire, which in 1839 destroyed the roof of the church. William Chantrell, an English architect known for neo-Gothic restorations of English churches, undertook the major task of restoration. He made the 12th-century tower higher so the new cathedral would not be too overshadowed by the tower of the Our Lady's Church. Instead of adding a neo-Gothic part to the tower, Chantrell however chose a personal Romanesque design. His own glory evidently came before the wishes of the bishop or blending with the existing building. The new tower met with a great deal of criticism. The Royal Commission for Monuments even had (without Chantrell's consent) the tower crowned with a little spire.

The Gothic interior of the church is frugal and unfocused in design and comes as a bit of a surprise after seeing the church of Our Lady.

The choir contains the original wooden choir stalls from the 16th century. On these are the coats of arms of the Knights of the Golden Fleece who attended the 13th chapter of the Golden Fleece held on April the 30th in 1478. Other notable features are a baroque root-screen surmounted by the sculpture God the Father (1682) by Artus Quellin the Younger, and an elaborate pulpit.

The St. Salvator's Cathedral owns many works of art that came from its demolished predecessor, the St. Donatius church. Among the most eye-catching are the attractive wall tapestries woven in the Brussels weaving factory Van der Borcht in 1730. The cathedral also owns the original cartoons for the wall tapestries, which is a combination that exists almost nowhere else.

The Cathedral Museum found off the right transept houses, among other items, Flemish paintings, including work by Dirk Bouts and Pieter Pourbus; also an early-16th-century portrait of Charles V credited to Jan van Orley. The Cathedral treasury contains gold and silver vessels, reliquaries, and episcopal vestments.

St. Salvator Cathedral
Bruges, Belgium
Bruges, Belgium

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