Travel to Bruges and discover the most delightful little city of canals and bridges, medieval Flemish architecture and higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets. Often compared to Venice for its canals, Bruges also has a Florentine touch, evident in its Renaissance flamboyance thanks to a prosperous period in the 16th century. The Count of Flanders, one of the richest noblemen in the West, was based in Bruges, and the town was a hub of commerce, with merchants from 34 different countries regularly trading here.
The history of Bruges begins in Roman times, when a settlement grew up on the site of the present-day city. The town was fortified by the Romans and began to prosper through its trade with England and Scandinavia. The Roman fortifications were strengthened in the 9th century amid fears of Viking invasions.
In the 11th century the channel linking Bruges to the sea silted up, hampering trade. However, fortunes were restored by a violent storm in 1134, which resulted in the formation of a deep channel known as the Zwin. This channel re-opened Bruges to the sea and trade boomed once more.
Over the following centuries Bruges became a key trading centre in north-west Europe, exporting Flemish cloth all over the continent. The city expanded rapidly, which necessitated the construction of a new circuit of walls in the early 14th century. The city had grown so big that the new walls were 7km in length.
In 1300 Bruges had been annexed by France and when the inhabitants rebelled against French rule they were put down with force and the newly built city walls were partially demolished. It was probably in the mid 16th century that the first artillery defences were constructed at Bruges.
During the 80 Years War the city rebelled against Spain along with much of the rest of the Netherlands, but it was retaken in 1584. In 1640 Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, attempted to lay siege to the town but the Spanish reinforced it and he decided to abandon the venture. Bruges remained in Spanish hands.
The channel to the sea silted up again in the 16th century and Bruges lost its importance as a trading centre to the city of Antwerp. The lace industry revived in the 17th century and new canals were dug to link the city with the port of Sluis to the north, but Bruges never regained its medieval status.
In 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession Bruges was captured by the French in a surprise attack. A number of French troops pretending to be deserters succeeded in capturing one of the gates and they let in the rest of the French forces.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the city became poorer and was largely forgotten by the world. In 1810 Napoleon made another attempt to reconnect it with the sea by building a new canal through Damme and Sluis to the river Scheldt in the north, but the project was never completed.
Bruges’ earthwork bastions were allowed to decay as the city lost its importance and all that remains of them today are the earthen banks between the flooded ditches that still extend around three-quarters of the city. At one time Bruges was surrounded by a city wall with nine of these city gates, built in the 13th and 14th centuries. The city wall has been replaced with a band of grassy area that runs right inside the canal that surrounds almost the entire city. Out of the nine gates, there are four remaining: Ezelpoort (Donkey’s Gaye), Smedenpoort (Blacksmith’s Gate), Gentpoort (Ghent gate) and Kruispoort. The Ezelpoort was built during the construction of the second ring of ramparts in 1297. It was rebuilt in 1369 to a new design by Jan Slabbaerd and Mathias Saghen, who were also responsible for the construction of the Smedenpoort. The Gentpoort along with the Kruispoort were rebuilt by Jan van Oudenaarde and Maarten van Leuven in the beginning of the 15th century. The Gentpoort houses a small museum.
The first Kruispoort gate was built simultaneously with the second rampart (1297-1304) and already rebuilt in 1366. Philip van Artevelde destroyed the gate when he captured the city with the Ghent militia in 1382. In the beginning of the 15th century the third gate was constructed. Only the two heavy towers with their narrow passage and two octagonal turrets were preserved. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Napoleon and Puffles and Honey all entered Bruges through this gate.
Near Kruispoort, four ancient windmills can be found along the canal path Kruisvest. Originally there were 25 windmills all around the edge of Bruges. The four windmills stand on the remains of the earthwork bastions of the inner fortification line. The northern most windmill, built around 1765, is Koeleweimolen Mill, but was rebuilt here in 1996 and is open to the public. Next is the Nieuwe Papegaai Mill, a rebuilt oil mill placed here in 1970. The St. Janshuismolen windmill is the only one still in it’s original position and still grinding grain, just like Koeleweimolen. The southern most windmill is Bonne Chiere Mill, built in 1888 in Olsene and moved here in 1911. The mills that are open to the public occasionally sell their own flour.
Back in the middle ages, Bruges ranked high as a city of great artists, princely palaces and economic affluence. It traced its connection with the world by the lines of canals which linked it to the sea. Today, the nearby port of Zeebrugge is one of Europe’s popular port visits for major cruise liners whose passengers help to swell the number of visitors constantly to be found thronging its streets throughout the year.
One of the most beautiful cities in Belgium, if not all of Europe, Bruges really is a must-see. The Venice of the North, as it is known, is a well-preserved centre whose entire historic area has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Its attractions include a wide range of museums, churches, historical buildings and canals ans streets that can be explored by boat, foot or clip-clopping horse-drawn carriage. And cherry beer!
Prioritising any specific area becomes a difficult task. Around virtually every corner more magic, more surprises present themselves to the visitor. That said, summer or winter, morning or evening, sun or rain, the canals and their (usually packed) visitor vesels crowd the main canal – Rozenhoedkaai – which is constantly admired and undoubtedly the most photographed part of the city.
Another totally surprising ‘around the corner’ experience is the Princely Begiunage Ten Wijngaarde, a collection of small houses built for the Begiunes, a lay sisterhood of the Roman Catholic Church.
Its whitewashed houses front a hauntingly tranquil convent garden and a small museum. Founded in 1245, it is today still home to members of the Order of St Benedict. In addition, many small and spotless almshouses can be seen in the townscape of Bruges, mostly established in the 14th century by wealthy townspeople or guilds to accommodate poor elderly people or struggling widows.
The opposite of these poor people’s dwellings, the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges dominates the Burg Square from which the surrounding countryside was governed from the late middle ages until 1795. They were then occupied by law courts for nearly 200 years while to the left of the 14th century city hall, the old Court of Justice presents a rare example of Renaissance architecture in Bruges.
A short walk over the cobblestoned square, the Belfry dominated Markt Square is overseen by statues of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, two of the city’s military leaders against French oppression in 1302.
UNESCO has placed 55 belfries in Belgium and northern France on its World Heritage list, recognising their unique contribution to civic and public architecture. The Belfry of Bruges is one of the oldest and most beautiful of all.
Belfries are bell towers. Many people associate them with churches, but originally they were municipal structures. Their primary purpose was as a watchtower, where bells could be used to sound the alarm, but, over the years, they began to serve a wider range of civic purposes. Belfries could contain storage rooms for important charters and documents – the literal meaning of the word is “place of safety or protection” – as well as a conference room, a treasury, or an armory. The Belfry at Bruges formerly housed the city treasury and municipal archives. Similarly, the bells were not used solely in times of danger. They could be rung to inform citizens of the time, notify them of civic activities and help regulate the working day. As a result, most belfries acquired a set of bells – a carillon – that could chime out different melodies. The carillon at Bruges is particularly elaborate, consisting of no fewer than 47 bells.
The 88m high Belfry in Bruges is situated on top of the Hallen (the old Cloth Hall), which dates back to around 1240. The original wooden tower burned down in 1280, after being struck by lightning, and it was rebuilt in brick. An elegant, octagonal lantern tower was added in the 1480s. This was once crowned by a wooden spire but it, too, fell victim to a fire and the burghers of Bruges decided to settle for a stone parapet instead. This affords a breathtaking view over the city and its surroundings for any tourists who feel energetic enough to climb the 366 steps, past the clock mechanism, to the summit. We felt plenty energetic for the stair climb, having recovered from the one in Delft, but unfortunately we run out of time as the Belfry does come with opening hours.
More breathtaking views can be experienced from a hot air balloon flight over Bruges, an experience we also missed out on. I can see an ad for a new royal secretary coming out any moment now!
Equally breathtaking is the unexpected marble Madonna with Child by Michelangelo in the chapel of the Church of Our Lady, the 122m high tower of which is the highest structure in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. The sculpture was twice recovered after being looted by foreign occupiers — French revolutionaries in 1794 and Nazi Germans in 1944. This we did see!
The Church of Our Lady dates mainly from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. In the choir space behind the high altar are the tombs of Charles the Bold, last Valois Duke of Burgundy, and his daughter, the duchess Mary. The gilded bronze effigies of both father and daughter repose at full length on polished slabs of black stone. Both are crowned, and Charles is represented in full armor and wearing the decoration of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
Located next to the Church of Our Lady, there is one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospital buildings, St. John’s Hospital. The first ward of the hospital was built in the 12th century and the hospital continued to be expanded until the 14th century. It was a place where sick pilgrims and travellers were cared for. The site was later expanded with the building of a monastery and convent. In the 19th century, further construction led to a hospital with eight wards around a central building.
St. John’s Hospital is the odd combination of a museum, a 13th century hospital and Baroque church. It is the oldest preserved hospital building in all of Europe and the museum inside gives the visitor a look at this medieval hospital ward in the time it functioned, through the collection of records, original medical instruments and art that depicts the hospital at that time. As the museum display makes clear, medicine of the day was well-intentioned, but very crude. In many ways, this was less a hospital and more a hospice, helping the down-and-out make the transition from this world to the next. The hospital chapel is dedicated to the work of 15th century artist and master of the Flemish primitives, Hans Memling. He created works specifically for the St. John’s Hospital including the famous St. Ursula Shrine.
The Shrine of St. Ursula is a carved and gilded wooden reliquary, looking like a miniature Gothic church, containing oil on panel inserts by Hans Memling made around 1489.
The work was commissioned by the Hospital of St. John. Differently from other works by Memling, such as the Triptych of the Two Saints John or the Florens Triptych, it is neither signed nor dated. It was a container for Saint Ursula’s relics which was shown publicly only in her feast day. The relics were solemnly put in the shrine on 21 November 1489.
The St John Altarpiece (sometimes the Triptych of the two Saints John or the Triptych of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist) is a large oil-on-oak hinged-triptych altarpiece completed around 1479 by Hans Memling. It was commissioned in the mid-1470s in Bruges for the Old St. John’s Hospital during the building of a new apse. It is signed and dated 1479 on the original frame – the date of installation – and remains at the hospital today in the Memling museum.
The altarpiece consists of five individual panel paintings: a central inner panel and two double-sided wings. The paintings on the outside of the shutters are visible when the triptych is closed, and show the hospital donors flanked by their patron saints. The interior has three inner panels. The focus of the central panel is the enthroned Virgin and Child flanked by saints and it is sometimes called the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine; the left-wing features episodes from the life of John the Baptist with emphasis on that of his beheading; the right-wing shows the apocalypse, as recorded by John the Evangelist who is pictured writing on the island of Patmos.
St John Altarpiece is one of Memling’s more ambitious works, and unusual in that it shares near-identical scenes with two other works: the Donne Triptych, held at London’s National Gallery, and the Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Virgin and Child with Maarten van Nieuwenhove diptych by Memling is a rare and beautiful example of an intact 15th-century diptych, known to retain its original frames and hinges. It is also notable that it reveals a new concept in the devotional portrait diptych: Hans Memling depicts the figures in a spatially coherent room, instead of showing them against the dark, featureless background favored by Rogier van der Weyden, who invented the prototype, as can be seen in the Virgin and Child with Philippe de Croÿ.
Diptychs that paired the Virgin and Child with the portrait of a donor have survived in relatively large numbers. The Virgin Mary was immensely popular in the Renaissance as a heavenly intercessor with God the Father, and the Christian faithful directed their prayers to her. The diptych format was ideal for enhancing the relationship between the secular realm of the donor and the sacred personage who was the object of his devotion.
The donor on the right panel, Maarten van Nieuwenhove of Bruges, was born November 11, 1463. He belonged to a patrician family whose members held prominent positions both in the government of Bruges and in the Burgundian court. About five years after this portrait was painted, Maarten became a councilor, then later the captain of the civic guard, and finally the mayor of Bruges (in 1498). He died on August 16, 1500, at the age of 36.
Painted not just an object of private religious devotion but also to advance Van Nieuwenhove’s career, the diptych includes numerous references to the donor’s eminent family and shows the figures richly attired and situated in an elegant interior.
Enough history and art, time for some Belgian favourites…