At the heart of Bruges is the Markt, an airy open space edged on three sides by rows of gabled buildings and with horse-drawn buggies clattering over the cobbles. The burghers of nineteenth-century Bruges were keen to put something suitably civic in the middle of the square and the result was the conspicuous monument to the leaders of the Bruges Matins, Pieter de Coninck, of the guild of weavers, and Jan Breydel, dean of the guild of butchers. Standing close together, they clutch the hilt of the same sword, their faces turned to the south in slightly absurd poses of heroic determination.

The biscuit-tin buildings flanking most of the Markt form a charming architectural chorus, their mellow ruddy-brown brick shaped into a long string of pointed gables, each gable of which is compatible with but slightly different from its neighbour. Most are late nineteenth- or even twentieth-century re-creations – or re-inventions – of older buildings, though the old post office, which hogs the east side of the square, is a thunderous neo-Gothic edifice that refuses to camouflage its modern construction. The Craenenburg Café, on the corner of St Amandsstraat at Markt 16, occupies a modern building too, but it marks the site of the eponymous medieval mansion in which the guildsmen of Bruges imprisoned the Habsburg heir, Archduke Maximilian, for three months in 1488. The reason for their difference of opinion was the archduke’s efforts to limit the city’s privileges, but whatever the justice of their cause, the guildsmen made a big mistake. Maximilian made all sorts of promises to escape their clutches, but a few weeks after his release his father, the Emperor Frederick III, turned up with an army to take imperial revenge. Maximilian became emperor in 1493 and he never forgave Bruges, doing his considerable best to push trade north to its great rival, Antwerp.

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