Imagine living or working in a museum; imagine a town in which the buildings and neighbourhoods are frozen in the 15th Century, yet the town is bustling with activity like any modern-day metropolis — that's Bruges for you; a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was one of the key centres of economic prosperity in the 1400s.
Unfortunately, with the shifting of the economic centre to Antwerp, the city went into a slumber for over 400 years, only to emerge in the 19th Century, rediscovered and preserved. Much against conventional practice, we decided to stay overnight in Bruges.
The weather played truant on the first day; so, we opted to take in the museums and cathedrals first. After a cup of steaming coffee and chocolate served in copious amounts by our hospitable host at the B&B, we stepped out into a light drizzle.
Bruges is a walker's dream, and can be covered entirely on foot. Our walk to the central square — the Markt — took us over cobblestone streets, past timber or stone houses, embellished with distinctive gable designs, canals spanned by quaint brides, piazzas surrounded by cafes — each turn opening up a new vista or ambience. The Markt is dominated by pedestrians and cafes, and is a starting point for horse-drawn carriages.
The 83-mt Belfry occupies pride of place in the Markt; you can climb the 366 steps to the top for a postcard view of the town. The adjacent Burg is much smaller, and surrounded by a cluster of the most beautiful buildings in Bruges — the Town Hall, the Museum of Holy Blood, and the Renaissance Hall.
Belgians turn chocolate making into a fine art, and the chocolatiers are like fashion stores. We drooled over the displays, and were treated to generous samples by the owners. Neuhaus and Galler are popular brands. Anyone approaching Bruges, coming from the station or within the town itself cannot miss the towering spire of the Church of Our Lady. The 122-mt spire makes it the tallest church in Bruges.
Madonna and Child
The 14th Century church is built in French Gothic style. But, its claim to fame is the statue of Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, the only sculpture outside Italy by the Great Master. The cloak is draped very naturally on baby Jesus who hugs a young Mary's lap, imparting to the piece a lot of tenderness and life.
With the Sun making its appearance the next day, we decided to take the carriage tour from the Markt.
This is best done in twilight — when the setting sun and the clip-clop of the horses hooves on the cobblestones take on a more romantic note. But we could not risk the weather again; besides, managing the excitement of our six-and three-year-olds is easier in broad daylight.
One of the stops on the carriage tour is the Beijinhof or residences of the Begijnen — an order of unmarried and widowed women dedicated to the service of society. The cluster of houses surrounding a large garden and protected by a compound wall exudes a sense of serenity, and is well worth a stroll, even if it is overrun by tourists. The vistas of the Belfry and the cathedral spire from the cobblestone bridge leading to the Beijinhof are classic.
Bruges has its share of its museums, though not as impressive as her Belgian or European neighbours. Time permitting, the Memling museum or the Groeninge museum, housing works of the Flemish Masters — Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Weyden and Gerard David — are worth a visit. The Kantcentrum is an ideal place to watch ladies making laces, which originated in Belgium, with Bruges as one of the centres of Bobinn lace making. These laces make for a great souvenir or gift, although one local did warn us that some of them come from Taiwan, China or nearby France, as they are cheaper and easier to sell to tourists.
While in Bruges, the boat ride is a must-do. It may be clichéd, but we have to admit, the town is beautiful by boat. The stone-arched bridges sweeping low over the Spiegelrei, the medieval skyline framed by tree-lined canals, the houses with timber and stone facades rising sheer at the edge of the canals — all justify the choice and time spent.
We were travelling on to the more conventional locations of Belgium and Netherlands, but the unique museum-like character of Bruges prompted us to tell ourselves and the others who come after: “Don't touch the artefacts”.