The Gruuthuse is my favourite museum in Bruges, a wonderful combination of museum-style "collections" and a wander around a great house of one of the merchant lords of the town. Take advantage of the excellent recorded tour and spend some time here; it’s worth lingering.
The Lords of Gruuthuse made their money from beer. They originally had a monopoly on "gruut", the yeast that begins the brewing process. Considering that beer was the beverage of choice for every man, woman and child in an era where drinking water was unsafe, that must have been like charging people to breathe! By the height of their power in the 15th century the Lords Gruuthuse were as powerful as any European monarch, working and playing with the Medicis, the Popes, the Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of France, England and Scotland. This is fairly obvious from their house, which … even though it’s a shadow of what it was 500 years ago … is clearly closer to palace than residence.
What you see today is not, however, the Gruuthuse as its lords left it. Bruges went through a cataclysmic decline in the 17th century as its ports silted up. The rich left for other places, and the buildings were put to other uses. (The Gruuthuse was a pawn shop!) It was the 19th century "re-discoverers" of Bruges who restored the Gruuthuse and turned it into a city museum, assembling room after room of artefacts that attest to the city’s former greatness.
The collections are sensitively displayed, however, to give you 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 room of coins and commercial artefacts in cases doesn’t take away from the appreciation of the gracious room they occupy or the magnificent views from the windows. A huge collection of culinary artefacts is displayed, of course, in the old kitchen.
You’ll find room after room here of furniture, armour, tapestries, instruments, table ware and decorative items. (For people who like the ghoulish, there’s even a bona fide French guillotine brought here by a quirk of history.) The lavish opulence of the decorative arts here makes it clear just how magnificently rich this place once was. Truly, there could have been few lives better than to be born into a rich merchant family in Bruges around 1425!