The World’s Marketplace: Bruges

Walk the streets of Bruges, Belgium just at dawn, when all is quiet and no cars, bikes, and tour busses rumble over cobblestone streets. Admire the shops, study the Renaissance buildings and houses, watch the waters of the canals lapping the old channel walls, and imagine what the city was like when all the trade of Northern Europe and much of Northern Italy passed through the great market square. Because for two hundred years and more, Bruges was one of Christendom’s great markets, a place of trade and art and politics, where anything was for sale and where artists created works that move the spirit to this day, where women managed businesses and their own spiritual lives, sometimes at the same time.

Van Eyche’s “Mystic Adoration of the Lamb” or the Ghent Altarpiece. It is larger than life sized, and breath-taking to see.

Bruges started life as, well, a spot in a marsh. The closest older settlement is several kilometers away, so Bruges lacks Roman foundations. Instead it was created by the Vikings in the 7-800s as a port (brygge) on the river Zwin. Not too far away, the local counts had built a small fort, the burg. The town later took over the burg, tore down the castle and built a chapel and municipal hall over it, but the site is still called the burg. Later the city would buy a downstream village on the coast and use that as its deep-sea (so-to-speak) port. The point of Bruges was always trade, first regionally, then internationally.

In the 1100s Bruges became an imperial free city, so it was no longer tied to the Dukes of Burgundy and the local counts, but the port began silting up so ships couldn’t use it. After a major storm in 1134 the locals rallied, improved the port and channelized older streams, creating a network of canals that allowed merchants to move their goods straight into warehouses within the city. In fact, they were so serious that the city built an enormous warehouse and meeting house over the end of one canal, sloping the ground floor to allow goods to unload in a huge covered dock. The building is no more, but you can get an idea of where it was from this:

The Rathaus, Hotel de Ville, city hall is built on the footprint of the former unloading hall. The end of the canal was just left of center.

From 1135-1400 or so Bruges throve. Why 1135? In 1134 one of those horrible North Sea storms hit the coast and ripped the river’s mouth into a nice, wide and deep channel that only needed a little touch-up to become an excellent port. All business passed through Bruges. English wool came to Flanders and was turned into all sorts of cloth, from rough sacking to the finest of brocades and fine, soft crepes.

The seal from the merchants’ lodge near the former main port within the city.

The first stock exchange was here, great artists lived here, goods from Asia, Russia, England, Italy, the entire known world passed through the Bruges kontor of the Hanseatic League. Bruges was business, and business was very, very good to Bruges, until it stopped. But while it lasted…

To give you an idea of what Memling did, the reliquary is only about 30″ long and 18″ high.

The St. John’s Altarpiece by Memling, still near its original location in the former hospital, now Memling museum.

A detail from the central panel.

Bruges is also where a group of women formed a not-quite-convent, called a beguinage, as part of a lay revival and popular religious movement in the 1200s. The women, or beguines, lived in their own little houses inside a walled enclosure, met for group worship, supported themselves through work like lace-making, and could leave to re-marry if they chose. They could also manage secular businesses if they needed to. As you can imagine, not all priests and bishops were excited about this, but it lasted into the early 20th century.

This is the church in the beguinage. It is one of two still intact such institutions in the area, and is now a convent as well as a museum. There are masses of daffodils under the sward and they bloom before the trees leaf out.

Today tourism dominates the economy, followed by beer. Belgian beer outranks German beer, or so I’ve been assured by people who spend a great deal of time sampling all kinds of both. Fruit beers were in season along with asparagus and strawberries while we were there, but be wary, because Belgian beer has a higher alcohol content than most US beers.

Bruges has several excellent museums, a decent interactive-multi-media city museum about Memling and his time that is aimed at teens and 20-somethings (and has a beer-tavern in it), and is quite walkable if you are constantly alert for bicycles and cars. Bicycles take the right-of-way no matter what the law says. If you get away from the burg and market, you can walk much of the walls and the windmill-way that surrounded the city. The entire loop is about ten kilometers, all flat and mostly shaded. There are also walking guides to the old buildings in the city. Very little medieval remains because of fires and fears of fires, so the Renaissance dominates in terms of residential architecture.

From one windmill to the next. The large wooden beam on the left of the windmill is how you rotate it into the wind. The hill is man-made, about 50′ high.

There are also other museums tucked away here and there, modern art, daily life, medieval city architecture, and so on.

The cathedral, shooting back from the former hospital, now the Memling Museum.

Oh, and there’s chocolate. Bruges has more good, really, really good chocolate shops per block than anywhere else I can think of. Really good.

The Easter season had just ended the week we got to Bruges. Yes, that display is all chocolate.

I stayed at Den Witten Leeuw, the White Lion, a very nice B&B on the edge of the old city. The area had originally been water-meadows, wetlands, and the horse market, so it is lower than the rest of the old city. That means you have to walk uphill to get to the town. But you walk downhill to reach bed.

The language in Bruges is Flemish, a dialect of Dutch and German. I had very little trouble reading things so long as I sounded them out. And a lot of people have enough English so you can get along easily. Point to chocolate box and hold out Euros also works very well as a mode of communication.


2 thoughts on “The World’s Marketplace: Bruges

    • Thank you! The decline began for a couple of reasons, including some trade problems and a fight over taxes and trade rights with the Hanseatic League. The port began silting up as well, so a better channel was dug to Sluis, the coastal town. The real trouble began when the city won a fight with Emperor Maximilian Habsburg, but lost the war. He moved a lot of things to Antwerp, then Amsterdam. The merchants and artists followed, and then the focus of trade moved from the North Sea-Baltic to the Atlantic, and the Dutch, Spanish, and Brits took over from the north German traders. Bruges was left to fade away, a bit like a city in amber.

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