Bruges – Long Read

Three million visitors a year can’t change Bruges

Bruges – Long Read

Three million visitors a year can’t change Bruges

Hello Bruges, once the most prosperous city in Europe but left high and dry in the 15th-century after its harbor silted up until it reinvented itself as a major tourist destination. Now this tiny Belgian town welcomes more than three million visitors a year, who walk its cobbled streets, photograph its medieval houses and canals, and enjoy its beer, “French fries” and chocolate.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

“Even if you came here with no intention at all to buy chocolate, it would beat you into submission,” says an Englishwoman sitting near me at breakfast. I am not sure if that is a complaint or a justification for succumbing to the temptation of a near-endless array of chocolate shops. But welcome to Bruges, where tourists are spoilt for choice on every corner.

The links with cocoa go back to the late Middle Ages when the beans first arrived from the Americas. At that time, the city was perhaps the most prosperous in the world, having taken advantage of its position on the North Sea and near the Rhine – rivers being the motorways of the age – to establish extensive trading links throughout Europe and into Scandinavia. The resulting wealth left a rich legacy of architecture, churches and art treasures – and shops – that draws tourists to this day.

“We get three million visitors a year,” says Patric, who drives one of the canal tour boats with a flamboyant air that matches his long locks and handsome wind-burnished profile. “Less than a million stay overnight. I don’t understand that: there is so much to see.” For a major city, three million visitors might not be a lot but when they descend on a small town center in Flanders it brings to mind the classic Punch cartoon of two sophisticates at a crowded club saying: “No wonder no one comes here: it’s too crowded!”

The first crowds to arrive in Bruges were pilgrims – the tourists of their day – who flocked to see a vial of the Holy Blood of Christ, brought back from the Crusades in the late 12th century. The Basilica that houses it is relatively empty of modern visitors when I visit, with its dark Romanesque lower level and the gilt-heavy Gothic upper chamber that holds the Holy Blood itself.

A rare event apart from a solemn annual procession

I am lucky enough to find it actually on display, a rare event apart from a solemn annual procession, so I join a shuffling queue to take my turn to stare at the vial, its nondescript contents obscured by the antique rock crystal. An ancient verger sits behind it, handing over a multilingual prayer leaflet, and watching with a wise smile playing at the corner of her mouth as I wait for some deep emotion to take hold of me. None does. The chapel itself is magnificent, however, a tribute to the craft of its builders and the wealth of its patrons, and the faith of both.

Later pilgrims came to see another treasure now at the Memling Museum, inside the 11th- century St John’s Hospital. Hans Memling was recognized as one of the leading artists of Europe well before his death in Bruges in 1494 and six of his works are on display here. The most famous is the Shrine of St Ursula (1489) which pilgrims would walk around to follow her life and martyrdom, told in sequence on each panel with postcard views of Cologne, Basel and Rome.

“Faith was central to life in Europe in the Middle Ages,” says art historian Emily Pegues. “This concern for their spiritual life carried on beyond death and a lot of the art people now come to see in Bruges reflects this investment in their salvation. One of the greatest surviving works is The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck in 1436. Van der Paele, the donor, is shown in perpetual prayer.”

On show in the very city they were first created for

As I study the painting in the Groeningemuseum I see Van Eyck’s genius in details such as the reflections in St George’s armor, the feathers of a green parrot held by the infant Jesus and a worn crease in an oriental carpet as it breaks over the stairs. The depiction of the various textiles and metals is an artistic tour de force. “The exotic parrot shows the position of Bruges as a world market and the sumptuous fabrics also reflect its wealth,” says Emily. “Van Eyck is often wrongly said to have invented oil painting but it is true to say he perfected it. His influence can be seen in many later painters, including Memling, whose St John Altarpiece in the St John’s Hospital owes its composition to this painting.”

One extraordinary thing about these works of art is that they are on show in the very city they were first created for. To stand in front of them is to be transported back in time.

The canal tour I take with Patric gives an over-view of the commerce that paid for such art. I cruise down Spiegelrei to the swan-dotted Minnewater, a manmade lake that controlled the level of water in the canal system. Surrounded by a tree-lined park and a few picturesque buildings, it is one of the prettiest spots in the center. It is hard to imagine it used to be a bustling harbor for barges plying to and from Ghent. A 12-mile-long canal was eventually dug to maintain the connection between Bruges and the North Sea, a link vital to the import of wool for the lucrative Flemish cloth.

At the other end of the 30-minute cruise we pass the Jan Van Eyckplein, dominated by a sturdy statue of the painter. It also houses the Poorters Loge, identified by an elegant tower, once a meeting place for merchants from as far as Venice and Norway. Bruges has been called the cradle of capitalism and it had the world’s first stock exchange. “The word ‘bourse’ comes from the town’s van de Bruys family,” says Patric. “They ran an inn used by Italian traders that grew in the 15th century into a meeting place for trading in bills and exchange.”

Bruges saw its trade go first to Antwerp and then Amsterdam

Today, visitors from even further afield line the many picturesque bridges as I pass underneath, their cameras clicking. “In summer, the tours are non-stop, like a factory,” says Patric. “I have three daughters to keep, so I have no choice, but in winter it is much better: I have time to talk.”

Around 1480, the harbor silted up for good and Bruges went into a slow decline that saw its trade go first to Antwerp and then Amsterdam. Then came a new flowering of visitors when the British started touring the nearby site of the Battle of Waterloo which was fought in 1815. Englishman James Weale wrote an early guide to Bruges in 1862 but it was a book published in 1893 that really drove the city’s new status.

Bruges-la-Mort – written in French – is the story of a widower who comes to Bruges to lament his late wife, finding brief consolation in a woman who is her exact double. However, the real heroine of the book is the city itself and its starring role set off the explosion in tourism that continues to this day. The novel was the first ever with photographs, shadowy images devoid of people that showed off the medieval architecture, canals and cobbled streets described in the text. Taken more than a century ago, the pictures of quaint houses reflected in the canals seem little changed from today’s tourist images.

The accumulation of centuries of prayer

The illusion of an medieval city that the population has just stepped out of persists. When I walk into the Begijnhof early one morning I have it all to myself and it seems unchanged since it was first built in 1245. Although now inhabited by nuns, the original cottages were built for single women who were expected to support themselves by working and living in the community.

The same quietness applies when I walk away from the center to visit some of the lesser known of Bruges’s many churches. A stooped elder man lights a candle in the baroque Carmelites’ Church of 1691, then leaves me to enjoy its soaring magnificence in glorious isolation. I wander around to admire the ornate carving on the pulpit and confessional, then sit in silence to absorb that atmosphere given to any ancient place of worship by the accumulation of centuries of prayer.

Such peace is less easy to find in some of Bruges’s more famous churches, such as the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) whose 122-meter spire is still the second tallest brick tower in the world. Despite the crowds, it is well worth a visit just to see the only work by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime, a Carrara marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child donated by a wealthy merchant in 1506. The ornate tomb of the 25-year-old Mary of Burgundy, who died in 1482 after falling from her horse, stands beside that of her father, Charles the Bold. Glass panels nearby show a glimpse of the decorated vaults underneath.

“Bruges has many layers that you have to peel away to fully discover – it is not obvious,” says Sonia Papili, an Italian geologist whose hobby is the history of Bruges. Married to a Belgian, she has also fallen heavily for the city and gives tours of its secrets. “I really love the history and the culture,” she says. She explains why there is so much religious art in places such as the St John Hospital. “With the medical techniques of the time, they could not do much for the body. But they could look after your soul.”

Strolling around Bruges is the thing visitors appreciate most

Behind the hospital, we walk down a narrow alley to discover a hidden courtyard surrounded by neat little cottages. “These almshouses – called ‘godshuizen’ in Dutch – were built by wealthy benefactors so as to have a place in paradise,” says Sonia. “Look up and you can see the names of the people who paid for them. There is a chapel and everyone who lived here had to pray twice a day for the donor. That was a way to make sure you went to heaven, to have people praying continually for you.”

We continue down a series of alleyways that I return to later, enchanting by how quickly I can leave the bustle of a major street for a deserted vista, each as picturesque as the next.

“Strolling around and discovering Bruges is the thing visitors appreciate most, just feeling the atmosphere,” says Bruno Janssens of the local visitor bureau. “Of course, we encourage people to stay longer to discover more, such as the cultural heritage of the Flemish Primitives.”

However, while he recognizes the historic contribution made by Bruges-la-Mort, he sees it as very dated. “The novel has no resemblance to today’s Bruges. The city has changed a lot, even in the last 20 or 30 years. It is more alive. It is no longer just a medieval city that has been preserved because it has been bypassed by economic development. It is doing well. Tourism is very important but it is our second economic driver after the harbor and metal industry.”

There is a wait of 15 minutes for others to leave

Bruno tells me that about one million visitors year do a boat trip around the canals like the one I enjoyed with Patric, while the Belfort (Belfry Tower) on the vast Markt (Market Square) is the most visited attraction. Fitness is an essential to climb its 366 steps but first I need patience. There is a wait of 15 minutes for others to leave, as only 70 people are allowed up at once. It is a steep climb up the narrow steps, their centers worn by the feet of centuries, while those coming down stand aside to let me pass. A wind howls around the top, discouraging me from lingering, but the view of the red tiles, squares and canals repays the exertion. Then it is time to return to earth, standing aside in my turn for those ascending in their own private purgatory of flushed faces and labored breathing.

The Belfort plays a vital role in a work of art more recent than Bruges-la-Mort but one that also deals with death: In Bruges, the expletive- strewn 2008 film about two Irish hit-men hiding out after a job gone wrong. One, played by Colin Farrell, hates “f-ing Bruges” while his friend, played by Brendan Gleeson, falls in love with the “fairyland”. While Farrell’s character has other things on his mind, it is also the idea of being a tourist that annoys him. “It’s called sightseeing,” says his older friend in response to a complaint about “going around in a boat, looking at stuff”.

“Sometimes you have to be a tourist, not a traveler,” says one of a trio of cool young Dutch people beside me in a cafe. Their sentiment is echoed by a young American I meet in a cozy bar, student Anne Stevens. “It is impossible to come to Bruges and not be a tourist,” she says over one of the famous Belgian beers. “I can think of no other city where that is true. In Venice, Hong Kong or London, you always think you might stumble on a hidden corner no outsider has found before. Bruges is so compact, and has been a tourist attraction for so long, that feels impossible here. All you can do is allow yourself to be swept along.”

An animatronic van der Paele and a very racy scene in a bathhouse

Resistance might be useless but that does not stop people from trying. In the visitor book at the Gruuthuse Museum is a comment in French: “Impossible to understand for the majority of visitors who are not Dutch. Euro 8 without even a translation is theft!” It is not the only moan by visitors who think an exhibition of priceless manuscripts in an elaborate palace is not worth the small extra charge for a multilingual audio guide.

Finding a balance between old and new must be a perpetual battle for those charged with caring for the past and ensuring the future of Bruges. One attempt to provide a more entertaining view is at the Historium which sits on a prime location in the Markt. Here, Van Eyck’s painting of the Virgin and  is the centerpiece of a multimedia experience that brings alive the smells and sounds of the 15th century city, as well as recreating many of its vanished buildings.

An animatronic van der Paele and a very racy scene in a bathhouse (Bruges had 140 brothels in 1369) are among the guilty pleasures I experience. The green parrot escapes and leads one of Van Eyck’s apprentices on a merry dance through the city, but all ends well – spoiler alert – when the handsome young man marries the Madonna model.

“The Historium is a compromise between the past and the future,” says Rene Tolenaars, who handles its marketing. “Bruges needed something new as it has not changed much in the last few decades. We wanted to highlight the coastal as well as the historical heritage of Bruges in medieval times.”

A very different, younger city at night

The multi-million Euro computer simulations in this film are impressive, although the almost complete absence of people onscreen spurs thoughts about my own attitude to the presence of so many other tourists “spoiling” my appreciation of the city. We all come to see the architecture and the museums but it was, of course, the people who made Bruges what it was. And who still work away in the background, like the “cast members” in their Disneyland tunnels, keeping the street spotlessly clear of litter and the canals free of crumbling bricks and weed. The presence of the College of Europe and a university college, Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen, also means that visitors who only experience Bruges during the day miss a very different, younger city at night, when it comes alive to cater for around 10,000 students.

“The Historium is an attraction, not a museum,” says Bruno. “It is a good idea to show how Bruges used to be, and it is an all-weather attraction for those visitors who might not able to walk around, elderly people for example. We also have the concert hall, a nice program of classical music, and are working on other projects to bring new life into the city. We are also close to Flanders Fields, so have two exciting programs remembering the Great War, which influenced daily life here heavily.”

My own walk around ends in a cozy chocolate shop where I order a hot chocolate. It comes as a large bowl of steaming hot milk and a chocolate casing full of beans. I stir the whole into the milk and enjoy one of the best versions of this sinful concoction I have ever tasted.

As I sit enjoying it, I reflect that Bruges has indeed beaten me into submission. Not that I am complaining.