Bruges is the loveliest canal town…
A labyrinth of meandering canals, cobbled streets and centuries of history. Nicknamed Venice of the North. UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a fifth of the city’s 105,000 residents. And just hour-and-half by bus from Belgium’s capital. Compelled to witness the aching beauty of Bruges?
Set the mood right with a stroll in the Minnewater Park, the beautiful green lungs of the city. Cross the Lovers Bridge over the Lake of Love to ensure eternal togetherness. Slow down near the 30 white-painted gabled houses built around a central green courtyard dotted with tall trees. That’s the Beguinage, a convent-like shelter established in 1250 for single and widowed women. Benedictine nuns still live here, so technically, you’re an intruder. Careful with those crisp leaves crunching beneath your feet. Shhhh!
A second canal bridge and little gabled houses indicate that the Old Town is near. At the corner of Wijngaardstraatm, the famous Christmas decorations store, Kathe Wohlfahrt greets you with festive flair. The aroma of waffles and Belgian fries floats up from windows counters and pushcarts. People throng outside boutique hotels, fine restaurants, attractive bistros, hip creperies and cafes under green striped awnings. Tables overflow with mussels served in big metal pots and creamy fish stew. Linger over a mouth-watering meal under the warm sun.
Quit the main walkways where you have to avoid stepping onto others’ toes. Head for the cobblestoned alleyways lined with vintage shops and minuscule chapels. Listen to the sound of your footsteps echoing in solitude. Peek into the tiny window-fronts of lace shops showcasing home decor items made of the famed Bruges bobbin lace. Testimony to the history of a painstaking, local skill dating back to the early Renaissance era, when Emperor Charles V decreed that lace-making should be a compulsory skill for all girls in convents and beguinages throughout Flanders.
Wearing lace was a status symbol then and the lace trade reached its peak in the 18th century. Flanders linen was considered most superior in all Europe in the Middle Ages and Bruges was the most important outlet for textile and lace. When the Zwin channel silted up and Bruges lost out as a transportation hub, Bruges lace and cloth industries saved the city from financial ruin. Sadly, today, Belgium’s entire lace weaving industry comprises of just 1,000 weavers who produce everything manually. Some pieces are so intricate that they require the use of over 200 bobbins. Study the delicate reminders of those times…doilies, tablecloths, table napkins, cushion covers, wedding veils, handkerchiefs, using filigree-style ribbons and chains…from affordable machine-made copies and to genuine and expensive vintage articles. Take home an exquisite reminder.
Bruges is nirvana for chocolate lovers, with over 50 expert chocolatiers within 50 square miles. This chocolate capital of Belgium even has its own official chocolate – the Bruges Swan. Think superior ingredients and obsessive adherence to old world manufacturing techniques. At Wollestraat, the city’s chocolate hotspot, shops are packed shoulder to shoulder on both sides. Each enticing display of pralines, figurines and slabs is quicksand of sweet temptation. Delicious variety lines the glass shelves…classic milk to almond praline to pure liqueur filled gourmet delights…countless types from the simple to the intricate… each with their own sophisticated flavours and heavenly textures. Traditional flavours to wildly experimental ones including black olive, tomato, wasabi, fried onion, bacon, curry, basil. Prices for chocolates are generally between 50 cents and 1 euro each and chocolate is sold by weight, starting with 100-grams. Apparently, locals buy fresh chocolate like others pastry or bread. Stock up!
The broad street opens onto the Markt. Enjoy a float, watch jugglers, listen to street musicians and stare at the medieval architecture. The large, ornate, neo-Gothic Provincial Courthouse, (a 19th-century construction), harmonizes perfectly with the older medieval structures. On one side, quintessentially Dutch, gabled red brick buildings cordon off the space. Old stone slabs, which traders would have used to cut and sell meat or cloth, are still preserved. Tiny figures soak in amazing views from the Belfort (Belfry), a 13th century bell tower looming above everything else at 83 meters. You’re inside a postcard…web of canals, little roof terraces and a flat landscape towards distant wind farms.
On another side of the square, restaurants with outdoor tables are filled with hungry patrons enjoying the afternoon sun, sipping Belgian beers, digging into luscious steaks and indulging in that evergreen European pastime…people watching. The hypnotic clops of horses’ hooves and the regular quarterly chimes of the manually operated 47-bell carillon of the square’s belfry is like music to the ears. Detour to explore the tallest structure and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world, the 122 meter high Church of Our Lady, graced with Michelangelo’s famous Madonna and Child…in black.
Picturesque canals shimmer as they flow under arched stone footbridges, white swans skim gracefully over the waterways, flower-draped, quaint cobblestone streets curve past turreted manor houses with gabled roofs and and shops overflow with antique treasures. Romance exudes from every nook and cranny. Eager-eyed tourists take leisurely canal cruises along the Reien, hooked to local anecdotes while gazing at delightful views of Bruges’ weathered facades. Could anyone tire of these historic buildings, bridges and vines draped down to touch the water? While away lazy moments and drink in the tranquil beauty. Bruges has taken centuries in the making…savour every vista with languor.
Canal houses face the water, their stepped gables on steeply pitched roofs capped with slate or stone for easy access. The stunning Flemish brickwork facades blaze in the sunlight. Houses flaunt wooden medieval doors, stone gargoyles, circular and teardrop-shaped windows with diamond-cut traditional crown glass, intricate lace curtains and reliefs on walls showing apprentices at work. Indulge in the medieval fantasy.
As the curtain goes down on a brilliant day in the prettiest town of Belgium, chew on this. Thanks to transportation on these waterways, brewing and textiles had reached their zenith in the 14th-century, laying the foundations for a magnificent city, where agriculture could not be the mainstay. And look now, the canals still run the town…not with textiles and beer, but tourism.
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