by Roy Stevenson
Plan on spending a long day in Europe’s other canal city, Bruges. Some say it’s prettier than Amsterdam. Start early on the train from Brussels; they leave every hour or so from Brussels Central Station. Walk from the Bruges Train Station across the river onto the narrow cobblestoned streets, and you’ll soon get a strong impression of what it was like in a medieval town hundreds of years ago. Preserved perfectly in the best Disney fashion, Bruges is the real thing, not a fantasy wonderland.
The Markt is lined with gabled medieval Flemish houses with square or triangular façades from the 13th Century. Towering over the cobblestone Markt is the 83-meter-high Belfort tower. Climb up the tower for a great view of Bruges and the town square.
Have your lunch in any of the dozen or so outdoor restaurants and cafés that line the Markt. Everything they say about Belgian steamed mussels is true. They come in large tin pots with a sauce an inch or two deep at the bottom. Try them in white wine or garlic cream sauce. Drink the sauce after you finish the mussels for the complete experience. Wash it down with a glass of powerful trappist beer.
Three minutes’ walk from the Markt, the Chapel of the Precious Blood features the Heilig Bloed Basiliek, which contains a sacred brass phial with a piece of cloth inside. The cloth was used to clean Christ’s body after the crucifixion and is said to contain his blood. At certain times of the day, you can walk up on the small platform, touch the phial, and receive a benediction from a priest. Lines of tourists do this, Catholic or not.
Next to the Bloed Basiliek is the turreted sandstone façade of the town hall, built between 1376 and 1420. Don’t miss a tour of the Gothic Hall inside. Its ornately built ceiling and walls decorated with paintings of historical scenes will capture your attention. The paintings are explained as you listen to the audio guide. Philip the Good hosted meetings of the leaders of the ancient Low Countries here.
Strolling alongside the town hall through the narrow Blind Donkey Alley, under an old enclosed wooden skywalk, you’ll cross a bridge over one of the ever-present canals. The green canal waters churn with tourist-laden boats chugging up and down, the guides informing and amusing the tourists with their canned patter. Across the bridge is the old fish market, around a large stone square. Locals still buy fish and tourists browse for souvenirs at the carved waist-high stalls where fish have been sold for centuries.
Ten minutes’ walk across town and you’re inside the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, the massive Church of Our Lady featuring a Michelangelo sculpture of Madonna and Child at the end of the southern aisle. And if you know your Flemish masters, you’ll see a painting by Pieter Pourbus. Pay another euro or two to walk into the archeological museum behind the altar to see some of the ancient foundations of the original church. The ancient crypt excavations have surprisingly bright red, black, yellow and white colored wall paintings of angels from over a thousand years ago.
Not far from the Vrouwekerk are some major attractions for art historians. Bruges packs more punch for art lovers and art historians than (dare I say it?) Paris. You’ll need a full afternoon to view the Flemish masters’ paintings in the Hans Memling Museum, Gruuthuse Museum, and Groeninge Museum. The centerpiece of the Groeninge Museum is Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child. Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Luke Drawing the Virgin’s Portrait and Memling’s Tryptych of Willem Moreel are also captivating works, and there are dozens more famous works that art museums like the Louvre would give their eyes and teeth for.
If you’re not exhausted after seeing these captivating sights, stop for some chocolate sampling in the multitude of chocolate shops sprinkled around Bruges. You don’t have to look for them—they’re everywhere. The sweet fragrant smell of freshly made chocolate will have you turning into the shop before you realize what you’re doing. And it wouldn’t be right to miss eating a Belgian waffle for a pick-me-up before heading home. You can sleep on the 45-minute train trip back to Brussels.
For Bruges’ official website, visit: http://www.brugge.be/internet/en/index.htm.
Roy Stevenson is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington. He writes on Travel and Culture, Military History, History, Fitness and Health, Sports and Film Festival Reviews.
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