If you tell someone that you are going to Belgium, it is likely that your listener’s response will be to insist that you visit Bruges. Bruges’ charm has received the imprimatur of the United Nations as well as that of the countless tourists who have marveled at the beauty of the Gothic architecture that caused the city to be designated a World Heritage site. From the 12th through the 15th Century, Bruges was the wealthiest city in Northern Europe. The wool trade was the basis for its prosperity. Bruges’s merchants and artisans expressed their civic pride by funding the construction of the City Hall that dominates the Markt, the main plaza. They also commissioned handsome guild halls where they might meet with their professional peers, as well as the inevitable cathedrals.
The oldest remaining churches were Romanesque, now overlaid with Gothic amid even neo-Gothic elements. Gabled brick residences lining the warren of curving streets were back in use as shops and residences, though the defensive wall that sheltered them from envious feudal neighbors has vanished. Bruges was not destroyed in any of the wars that pulverized Flanders’ towns throughout the past few hundred years. From a distance, Bruges’ gabled canal houses, its stone bridges arching over canals, and its towers adorned with a heraldic bestiary appear enchanted, as if a spell had spared the city from the attrition of history. Then you see the tourists thronging the medieval lanes, obscuring the carved house façades and filling the breadth of the cobbled main streets like a parade in disarray.
Chocolatiers, waffle stands, souvenirs and bistros abounded, as well as fast food chain restaurants and apparel shops better suited to suburban malls than restored Gothic workshops and domiciles. The canals that once had extended the traders’ reach beyond the course of Bruges’ River Reie were packed with tour boats, each with every seat filled despite the chilly wind and occasional rain shower. On one street near the Markt, there were five horse-drawn carriages stopped in a line. All had passengers, and all had to wait for a gap in the stream of pedestrians before moving forward.
My original intent had been to see the collection of early Flemish masterworks, particularly those of Van Eyck and Memling, in the Groeninge Museum. As of this month, however, that museum changed its weekday closure from Mondays to Wednesdays. As if that were not enough to cause me dismay, there was a Wednesday fair set up in the Markt and the Burg, the second-largest medieval plaza. Rides and games for children vied for space beside produce and souvenir stands. Sirens blended with the cacophony of voices and recorded amusement sound tracks. The crowd moved through a miasma compounded of sugar and beer, and other effluvia that I did not care to analyze.
That is not to say that you should avoid Bruges. Had the weather been warmer and the wind speed lower, and had I been able to view the Flemish paintings as I had first wished to do, mine would have been a completely different experience. So by now you will have guessed my advice: if you venture to Bruges, avoid doing so on a Wednesday (that is, Mitvoeg in Flemish Dutch, and Mercredi in French).
The walk from the train station into the old city center promoted a sense of serenity.
Then the mob in the restored urban core dispelled that tranquil mood. I waited until most of the other tourists had cleared the street before I attempted to take a picture.
Bruges’ canal houses have waterline entrances for those who arrive by boat.