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