As I said before in my Srinagar post, it seems that every city with canals is inevitably compared to Venice. Perhaps, they should be compared to Bruges instead. Simply put, beautiful Bruges is northern Europe’s most enchanting, atmospheric town. A stunning medieval canvas embroidered with lovely canals and cobblestone streets, Bruges is one of those rare, perfectly preserved fairy-tale destinations – which I personally love, love, love! Some, however, will disagree.
Filled with chocolatiers, cafes, horse-drawn carriages, candy shops, pubs and cute little boutique hotels, some will dismiss Bruges as one of those tourist traps artificially maintained to keep visitors happy. Lonely Planet Online goes out of its way to suggest Bruges is part fabrication, reminding us that much of its architecture was redone in the 19th and 20th centuries.
I, on the other hand, want to reach out and pat the Flemish on the back for resisting the all-too-common European tendency to construct a blocky cement and glass-walled monstrosity at the heart of the old town to prove that they are modern. To me, modern means you have the foresight and the restraint to celebrate and preserve your historic treasures. In this way, the Flemish are remarkably modern.
Apparently, UNESCO agrees as they have declared Bruges’ entire historic center a World Heritage Site stating, “Bruges is an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement, which has maintained its historic fabric as this has evolved over the centuries.”
Historic fabric is an understatement. Bruges is a virtual labyrinth of historical greatness. Cobbled lanes wind through a forest of towering cathedrals, belfries, and turrets over ancient stone bridges to secluded courts and gardens. Every tiny gap between buildings reveals a buttressed passage leading to some hidden treasure. Canals flow past monumental squares backed with gingerbread houses to intimate nooks filled with people toasting Bruges’ beauty.
To truely appreciate the city, one of the 30-minute boat tours is essential. Although the tours begin at different points scattered throughout Bruges, all tours are essentially the same and prices are set at an affordable 7.60 Euros. While some may criticize the Disney-esque organization of these boat tours, I WILL NOT. All cities which are as perfect as Bruges must figure out how to deal with the large number of tourists who inevitably visit. Bruges has chosen to respond to these challenges with simple, clear organization and an ethic of affordable accessibility that should be applauded. Venice could learn A LOT from Bruges.
If I sound like a fan, that’s because I am. To be fair, I’m a real sucker for chocolatiers and candy shops. The more the better. (Don’t ask how much chocolate I ate.) And decadent waffles topped with ice cream and mountains of whipped cream are never far. Beyond sweets, Bruges offers an outrageous selection of restaurants, many of which are quite affordable by Belgian standards. Overall, I felt Bruges was marked by an ideal of accessibility which distinguishes it greatly from other tourist-oriented cities. In fact, many of the attractions, including most of the cathedrals as well as the stunning Basilica of the Holy Blood, were free of charge. I LOVE THAT!!!
As if that’s not enough, locals are also extraordinarily welcoming. I was greeted with gentle smiles and helpful advice everywhere. (Seriously, the Flemish could teach “how to” classes on tourism, which many other European destinations desperately need.) As with every town I’ve visited in Flanders, the quirky Flemish humor is quite obvious; notice the large selection of chocolate penises on Katelijnestraat. (Don’t ask what they do with white chocolate!) Humor is clearly something very Flemish. Even Brugse Zot, the only beer still brewed in Bruges, reflects that humor in its name, which means Bruges Fool, and its logo, a dancing court jester.
The city is a blast. And actually, despite the fact that Bruges is Belgium’s most tourist-oriented town and that I was visiting in high season, I never found the number of visitors overwhelming. If you do, simply pick a canal-side lane and walk away from the Grote Markt. There are plenty of empty backstreets to explore. Better yet, wander down to the serene begijnhof (béguinage). All of these communities of béguines, women who dedicated their lives to God without retiring from society, have been cumulatively declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bruges’ active begijnhof is particularly tranquil.
And one final hint for those looking to see Bruges without the crowds: make sure you stay overnight. Most visitors to Bruges are day-trippers, and when the sun sets, the crowds clear. That’s a shame for them and great for you because the city is even more beautiful after dark. As if that weren’t motivation enough, those who stay overnight get a card from their hotel which grants them discounts on certain attractions such as boat trips.