“Somewhere within the dingy casing lay the ancient city,” wrote Graham Greene of BRUGES, “like a notorious jewel, too stared at, talked of, and trafficked over”. And it’s true that Bruges’s reputation as one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in western Europe has made it the most popular tourist destination in Belgium, packed with visitors throughout the season. Inevitably, the crowds tend to overwhelm the city, but you’d be mad to come to Flanders and miss the place: its museums hold some of the country’s finest collections of Flemish art, and its intimate, winding streets, woven around a skein of narrow canals and lined with gorgeous ancient buildings, live up to even the most inflated tourist hype. See it out of season, or in the early morning before the hordes have descended, and it can be memorable – though not so much on Mondays, when many of the sights are closed.
The obvious place to start an exploration of the city is in the two principal squares: the Markt, overlooked by the mighty belfry, and the Burg, flanked by the city’s most impressive architectural ensemble. Almost within shouting distance, along the Dijver, are the three main museums, among which the Groeninge offers a wonderful sample of early Flemish art. Another short hop brings you to St Janshospitaal and the important paintings of the fifteenth-century artist Hans Memling, as well as Bruges’s most impressive churches, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk and St-Salvatorskathedraal.
Further afield, the gentle canals and maze-like cobbled streets of eastern Bruges – stretching out from Jan van Eyckplein – are extraordinarily pretty. The most characteristic architectural feature is the crow-step gable, popular from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century and revived by the restorers of the 1880s and later, but there are also expansive Georgian-style mansions and humble, homely cottages. There are one or two obvious targets here, principally the Kantcentrum (Lace Centre), where you can buy locally made lace and watch its manufacture, and the city’s most unusual church, the adjacent Jeruzalemkerk. Above all, however, eastern Bruges excels in the detail, surprising the eye again and again with its sober and subtle variety, featuring everything from intimate arched doorways and bendy tiled roofs to wonky chimneys and a bevy of discrete shrines and miniature statues.
Bruges started out as a ninth-century fortress built by the warlike first count of Flanders, Baldwin Iron Arm, who was intent on defending the Flemish coast from Viking attack. The settlement prospered, and by the fourteenth century it shared effective control of the cloth trade with its two great rivals, Ghent and Ypres (now Ieper), turning high-quality English wool into clothing that was exported all over the known world. An immensely profitable business, it made the city a focus of international trade, and at its peak the town was a key member of – and showcase for the products of – the Hanseatic League, the most powerful economic alliance in medieval Europe. Through the harbours and docks of Bruges, Flemish cloth and Hansa goods were exchanged for hogs from Denmark, spices from Venice, hides from Ireland, wax from Russia, gold and silver from Poland and furs from Bulgaria. The business of these foreign traders was protected by no fewer than 21 consulates, and the city developed a wide range of support services, including banking, money-changing, maritime insurance and an elementary shipping code, known as the Roles de Damme.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this lucrative state of affairs, Bruges was dogged by war. Its weavers and merchants were dependent on the goodwill of the kings of England for the proper functioning of the wool trade, but their feudal overlords, the counts of Flanders, and their successors, the dukes of Burgundy (from 1384), were vassals of the rival king of France. Although some of the dukes and counts were strong enough to defy their king, most felt obliged to obey his orders and thus take his side against the English when the two countries were at war. This conflict of interests was compounded by the designs the French monarchy had on the independence of Bruges itself. Time and again, the French sought to assert control over the cities of West Flanders, but more often than not they encountered armed rebellion. In Bruges, Philip the Fair precipitated the most famous insurrection at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Philip and his wife, Joanna of Navarre, had held a grand reception in Bruges, but it had only served to feed their envy. In the face of the city’s splendour, Joanna moaned, “I thought that I alone was Queen, but here in this place I have six hundred rivals”. The opportunity to flex royal muscles came shortly afterwards when the city’s guildsmen flatly refused to pay a new round of taxes. Enraged, Philip dispatched an army to restore order and garrison the town, but at dawn on Friday May 18, 1302, a rebellious force of Flemings crept into the city and massacred Philip’s sleepy army – an occasion later known as the Bruges Matins: anyone who couldn’t correctly pronounce the Flemish shibboleth schild en vriend (“shield and friend”) was put to the sword. There is a statue celebrating the leaders of the insurrection – Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck – in the Markt.
The Habsburgs, who inherited Flanders – as well as the rest of present-day Belgium and Holland in 1482 – whittled away at the power of the Flemish cities, no one more so than Charles V, the ruler of a vast kingdom that included the Low Countries and Spain. As part of his policy, Charles favoured Antwerp at the expense of Flanders, and to make matters worse, the Flemish cloth industry began its long decline in the 1480s. Bruges was especially badly hit and, as a sign of its decline, failed to dredge the silted-up River Zwin, the town’s trading lifeline to the North Sea. By the 1510s, the stretch of water between Sluis and Damme was only navigable by smaller ships, and by the 1530s the city’s sea trade had collapsed completely. Bruges simply withered away, its houses deserted, its canals empty and its money spirited north with the merchants.
Some four centuries later, Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte alerted well-heeled Europeans to the town’s aged, quiet charms, and Bruges – frozen in time – escaped damage in both world wars to emerge as the perfect tourist attraction.