The festive season is nearly upon us, so time for the annual tradition of a pre-Christmas visit to Brussels. And with a free day while I was there, what could be nicer than a day trip to the charming city of Bruges?
The basics: Bruges is in the north-west of Belgium in the Dutch-speaking area of Flanders. This matters. Brussels might be (in theory) happily bilingual in Dutch and French, but get outside of the capital and it is one or the other. Dutch in the north. French in the south. And my years living in Belgium confirmed that never the twain shall meet. When wandering around the city, you’ll see a few traces of French, but they tend to be few and far between. It’s all very proudly Flemish (the Belgian version of Dutch…I never promised this was easy or straightforward!).
However, as you can see from the pictures, the attraction of Bruges is the fact that the whole place is basically a giant open-air museum. Beautiful old buildings ranging from medieval towers to elegant nineteenth century townhouses. No surprise then that it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.
I really love the picture below. It’s a bakery with what to me is a very traditional Belgian typeface, and rather remarkably (I thought) a rare example of bilingualism in Bruges.
The town might be well-preserved, but it is still very much a bustling commercial city as well, and wandering the streets, you sometimes think it’s just a row of shops. Then just stop, look up, and prepare to be amazed by some stunning architecture. You know, a lot of it really is just too much…but then, hundreds of years ago, this was a way of saying you were rich, seriously rich. The grander the facade, the better you were doing.
My own little theory is that an unususal façade was the ideal way of ensuring that people would be able to find your building. Someone might not have been able to read, or to communicate very well with the locals after travelling for several days on a horse, but they would surely have been able to find the house with the golden façade and a cockerel on top.
Bruges also has a pretty network of canals. On previous visits, I’ve been round them on a barge, but this time, it was a bit too chilly. Waffles and frites were much more appropriate.
Of course, any self-respecting city in the Low Countries has to have an impressive market square. Well, Bruges boasts several. In winter, they’re packed with Christmas markets, skating rinks and people enjoying hot snacks and mulled wine. In summer, the places are filled with cafés to enjoy the wide selection of Belgian beers. I love them (the squares, and the beers!).
With all this history, there are also some charming little nuggets. This little fellow is the Bruges Bear, the original inhabitant of the city, or at least the forest that used to cover where the city now sits.
So, having gotten to the end of these pictures, is Bruges worth visiting? Absolutely. One very charming thing is that Bruges also looks good in all weathers. In bright sunlight, the colours are vibrant. When it is cloudy, the heavy skies loom over the city. When it is raining or misty, the city is very atmospheric. I was lucky to visit on a day where the weather changes from thick fog to clear blue sunny skies.