Judging by the number of tourists visiting Bruges annually, reckoned at 2 million, this Flemish city needs little introduction. If you are looking for classic Belgian attractions – finely gabled buildings, luxurious chocolates, strong beer, indulgent waffles or moules et frites – then satisfaction is guaranteed. Finding solitude, however, might prove more of a challenge. Getting up at the crack of dawn will give you a fighting chance of enjoying the ancient cobbled streets alone. Visiting during January and February will also spare you the usual scrum of camera-totting travellers.
We travelled to Bruges by ferry and car for the annual beer festival, which is held on the first weekend in February in a venue just off ‘t Zand (the market square). It’s a friendly, cosmopolitan affair, with a great mix of locals and beer lovers from the UK, US, France and Germany. The number of beers on offer almost outnumbers the festival goers, so prolific and vibrant is the modern Belgian brewing scene. It matters not whether you are a connoisseur (and I am not), there’s no snobbery here – just people who appreciate good ale. Be warned, the alcohol content of Belgian beer is typically between 8% and 12%; it quickly catches up on you!
Winter reveals Bruges in a different light. When the sun shines the canals sparkle, lighting up the facades of the brick buildings, which mainly date from the 12th-15th centuries. There are not many trees to obscure one’s view of the main sights, although much of the old city is ringed by pleasantly wooded parkland. Tragically the recent gales which swept across the English Channel left more than a few casualties, presumably put out of their misery to avoid damage to historic buildings.
Bruges’ vast mercantile fortunes faded in the 16th century as the channel which linked it to the sea silted up. The city’s population dwindled and time stood still. Had it not been for its relative obscurity, Bruges almost certainly would not have remained as intact as it has. By the beginning of the 20th century the city was emerging from penury; some say it was the world’s first tourist destination, promoting itself to wealthy French and British visitors. The long awaited influx of money must have funded the construction of some fine Art Nouveau houses, such as the one below.
If there are private gardens to visit in Bruges we have yet to discover them. The odd glimpses of canal-side terraces and courtyards reveal a classical formality, replete with clipped hedges and standard trees. Green dominates and romantically rambling climbers soften the architectural framework. The view below is typical of the quiet canals leading out of the city centre, this one called the Groenerei, which translates as Green Bank. One of Bruges’ most famous open spaces can be found in the middle of the Beguinage (top of post), never better than when the ground beneath the trees is peppered with nodding daffodils.
Bruges is a city which has come full circle. The riches that once stemmed from trade have been replaced with a new currency – tourism. Far from being preserved in aspic, Bruges is brimming with new buildings. Many have been designed to blend in with their venerable neighbours; others, such as the imposing rust red concert hall, are unashamedly modern. However one looks at it, Bruges is a city with a bright future. Brave the hoards, or rise with the lark to enjoy the Venice of the North.