Most cities in Europe date back hundreds, if not thousands of years, making them quite picturesque and a sightseer’s paradise, especially to tourists from North America. One of my favourite cities in Europe, probably in the world, is the small Belgian town of Brugge (Bruges, if you are French).
Nestled about 20 km. from the ocean, in the North West corner of Belgium, Brugge is about an hours drive by car or train from Belgium's capital of Brussels. The French capital of Paris is three hours to the south and Amsterdam is about two and a half hours north, making this hidden gem easily accessible by train or car.
The old city of Brugge, with a population of 20,000, is about twice the size of Port Perry (430 hectares) and was first settled approximately 2,000 years ago during the reign of Julius Caesar. Tourism is its main trade and consequently the city fathers go to great lengths to ensure the city is clean and safe.
Brugge is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the north’ or 'Little Amsterdam' because the city is made up of dozens of canals. In fact, boat traffic is the most common form of transportation. At one time Brugge was considered the economic capital of the world. The tourist part (the old city) is quite a ways from the sea, however, the actual limits of the entire city reaches to the ocean. With an overall population of 170,000 it is still a valuable asset to the Belgian economy.
Over the years silt buildup caused Brugge to lose its linkage to the sea, however, in the twelfth century a giant storm opened up the area and a connection was once again established. Most of the canals in the city date back to this era, as do the majority of houses. It is not uncommon to stroll into a shop, located in a building that is over 800 years old.
The main tourist product for which Brugge is known is crochet work. From small doilies to tablecloths, the intricate, handmade craftsmanship is second to none. Many shops specialize in selling the locally made artistries and dozens of others have designated 'linen' sections within their store.
If you are driving, parking is available on the outskirts of the old city and be prepared to walk, for every corner you take will present a new postcard view. Of course boats are the preferred way of travel, but sidewalks are abundant so good combinations of both will make up your visit.
Brugge, like many small, picturesque villages, can be seen in a day. Two is nice if you are an avid shopper or photographer, but ideally a two night stay, arriving on the first day, sightseeing on the second and departing on the third is my recommendation.
I have been three times and twice have stayed in the town. The hotels tend to be tiny and archaic, but clean and quaint. Modern amenities like Wi-Fi and satellite television are not the reason one visits Brugge. Breakfasts, usually included with the room, are filling and often eliminate the need for lunch. Walking around for several hours though brings out an ice cream appetite in me, which will normally see me through to dinner. There is no shortage of quaint restaurants to choose from, all offering the finest in Dutch and Belgian beers and of course a vast selection of French and German wines.
The word Brugge is derived from the Dutch word for Bridge. The official language is Flemish, but Dutch and French are spoken equally. Of course, as in so many countries now, English is understood by everyone.
Flemish painting became all the rage in the fifteen hundreds and artists such as van Eyck and Memling made Brugge their home. King Richard III and Edward II of England fled there in exile and King Charles the second made Brugge home for himself and his court, also while in exile from England. The wool makers and weavers were considered the finest in the world and the lace embroiderers created products that were sought after from Italy to Scandinavia. Brugge's entrepreneurial enterprise created new markets in a vastly changing world and the city was the site for the very first English book ever printed.
In 2002 Brugge was voted the European capital of culture, enticing more than two million visitors a year. The most famous attraction in the city is the thirteenth century belfry which houses 48 bells. The city still employs a full time carillonneur who gives numerous concerts throughout the day.
Brugge is the perfect city to visit if you are doing Europe at leisure. A day or two in Brussels or the south of Holland is a good starting point. The train will take you from Brugge to Paris in a comfortable, reliable fashion and you will have fond memories of one of the prettiest towns our world has to offer.