Cruising through history
Bruges in Belgium is a scenic port from Middle Ages which has kept alive its old-world charm
Kalpana Sunder

A boat tour through the meandering canals of Bruges is the best way to see the cityWeeping willows overhang and ducks frolic. The Quay of the Rosary used to be the salt port of the Middle Ages when salt was imported from France and Germany to preserve perishable goods. It's name originates from the stalls that lined it, selling amber and ivory rosaries — today it’s a photogenic spot from where you can take a boat tour through the meandering canals, looking at palaces, churches, houses with gables covered with ivy and 'spy windows'. The tour passes under many of the city's 50 plus mossy bridges, past St John's Hospital that now houses a museum, having served as a hospital from the time of the Crusades. Many picturesque houses have no windows or have covered panes, and our guide tells us the reason: a 'window tax' once imposed on the town's people...

Anne de Meerleer of the local Tourism Board talks about how film-makers have always loved Bruges, in the Flanders region of Belgium. From the BBC series 'White Queen' to the thriller 'In Bruges' Bruges has looked spectacular on celluloid... "The latest Bollywood film by Rajkumar Hirani Peekay with Aamir Khan was shot in Bruges," adds Anne.

Tourists walk toting cameras, horse carriages clip-clop on cobblestone, and bells of soaring belfries provide the romantic soundtrack…. The waft of freshly made chocolate, exquisite woven delicate laces and chocolates that beckon from artful shop windows….Bruges reminds one of a sepia page out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. In medieval times, Bruges was one of Europe's economic powerhouses, and the centre of a lucrative cloth trade. Under the Dukes of Burgundy, paintings, lace making and tapestries flourished and Bruges became the meeting place and inspiration for many artists. Canals acted as super highways for the wool and flax and finished goods. When the river connecting the town to the North Sea, silted up, the city became a sleepy backwater, till its revival many centuries later as a tourist town.

The best place to start exploring Bruges is at its epicenter- the picture postcard Grote Markt, dominated by the Belfry. The lofty Belfry used to be the look-out in case of war and intruders. For the best perspective of the city's architecture, climb the vertiginous 366 steps to get a panoramic view. Against the backdrop of medieval guild houses, tourists sit in open air cafes and feast on mussels in large pots. The town, like all other towns in Belgium, is a beer drinker's paradise with more than four hundred beers which originated in the Middle ages when it was safe to drink ale than water! Lunch is at De Florentijnen, a restaurant housed in a historic building which used to be occupied by merchants from Florence. The highlight of the afternoon is the 15th century room on the top floor, with a medieval wooden beamed ceiling.

History has left its imprint everywhere… not surprisingly the first English book was printed in Bruges by William Caxton in 1473. When you see graceful swans in the canals, the story emerges that when Pieter Lanchals , a councillor in the court of Maximillian of Austria, whose name meant 'long neck' was executed in the market square- the King punished the town to keep long necked swans on their canals for eternity! Blind Donkey Street — a narrow street near the Town hall was so named because the donkey which used to service the mill here was blindfolded so that it would not be able to look at the same route everyday and feel the ennui! Even the town's special beer called Brugse Zot has a special tale about locals who paraded as fools and jesters in front Maximilian of Austria. The town is dotted with many simple whitewashed Alms houses also called Godshuizen that locals call 'Charity frozen in stone' - houses made by charitable institutions, rich merchants and churches as a safe refuge for widowers and spinsters. Today these are private residences.

The town abounds in oddities: the smallest Gothic window as small as a port hole, a fountain shaped like a horse's mouth where the coachmen fill water in buckets for the horses. For a quirky experience visit the 'only museum in the world' devoted to potatoes and French fries housed in a historic building. It traces the path of the potato from Peru to Europe and Belgium, the country where the fries were born. Piety follows food as we head to the Beguinage which used to be a sanctuary for women, whose husbands were fighting in the Crusades and who devoted their lives to prayers and spinning lace. It's a good spot today to spend some meditative moments away from the tourist charms and catch glimpses of the nuns in their black robes.

Don't miss the Burg, another lively square, flanked by the Renaissance law court and the Gothic city hall, a sandstone fantasy of statues, crests and heraldry. On the first floor of the city hall is a cavernous room, ablaze with colorful wall murals offering a quick history lesson. Today, it's the venue of local marriage ceremonies and political meetings. The double-chapel basilica of the Holy Blood, was built by a crusader in the 12th century, and houses a most revered religious relic - a vial which contains a piece of cloth soaked with the blood of Jesus. For art lovers, Bruges has its own Madonna at the Our Lady's Cathedral, Michelangelo's 'Madonna and child' in white Carrara marble graces the inside, behind a glass screen.It's had a chequered past where it has survived being stolen during French rule and and even been smuggled by German soldiers enveloped in mattresses in a Red Cross lorry! Come nightfall, the medieval buildings get a golden glow, the arched bridges are wispy reflections in the glassy canals and romance lurks at the alleyways like the canvas of a Flemish masterpiece. Beyond clichés, Bruges remains a fairytale….

(Clockwise) The Gothic City hall; A panoramic view of the Bruges city; The narrow Blind Donkey alley near the Town hall. Photos by the writer


How to get there: Major Indian metros have direct flights to Brussels. From there Bruges is a one hour drive.

Where to stay: Luxurious Hotel Navarra, housed in a 17th century mansion in the heart of the city. Three-star Martin's Brugge, a short walk from Grote market with simple but comfortable rooms.

What to see: Watch a chocolate demonstration at Sukerbuyc, visit Chocolate Museum, t French fries Museum. Catch a demonstration of lace making plus usual tourist sights.

Eat/Drink: Flemish specialties like mussels, eels, and lobsters. Also try waffles and frites, and lLocal beers and gin.

Buy: Tapestry, lace, bottles of the local gin, Belgian chocolates. 














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