Casting a medieval spell
Even in the mid day sun, there was something dark and forbidding about the narrow, cobbled streets. The cobblestones had become dark and worn, the walls of the houses a leathery brown and even the trees nearby had turned dark with age.
Suddenly, the sun seemed to struggle to break through the dark clouds, which appeared fleetingly. Any moment, I expected a column of knights on their dark steeds to come galloping down the street. I had done a time travel to the 14th century with a visit to Bruges – the best preserved of the medieval cities in Europe.
The Flanders region of Belgium has several well preserved medieval cities, but none better than Bruges, also known as “Venice of the North,” which has the best authentic medieval core among all cities in Europe, making it a living museum.
In 1990, UNESCO declared the Old Town of Bruges a world heritage site. Both Bruges and neighboring Ghent were thriving centres of trade and art during the medieval times before falling into decline in the 17th century. These cities have stunning medieval architecture, beautiful, winding canals, narrow, cobbled streets and in the case of Ghent, a huge, forbidding castle right in the city centre.
Medieval town squares
All medieval town squares in Europe have several common features: a town hall, a church , a belfry and guild houses. Each of these entities was important functionally as well as symbolically. The town hall was the seat of government, with the mayor having his office there. More importantly, it served as the law court and, in some cases, the prison as well as the torture chamber, torture being an integral part of medieval justice. Medieval justice being quick and harsh, the town square was usually the place where executions were held on a daily basis.
The church was another important institution, serving both a spiritual as well as a more practical function: the floor was made up of tombs of, at least, the rich and influential, who were ready to pay a premium to be buried next to the Lord. Another attraction was that the church was the only building to be lit at night, offering a sense of protection to the populace who were scared of the dark.
The belfry tower served two important functions – the first as a watch tower to guard against any invaders, and the second, as the town's treasury and storehouse of important documents. Usually, the height of the belfry was an indicator of the town's prosperity and wealth.
Bruges is only an hour away from Brussels by train and if you want to see one authentic medieval city, it is this. Bruges received its city charter 1128 and being strategically located on the Hanseatic trade route, the city quickly flourished.
Wool and lace were the main commodities traded. The counts of Flanders, the rulers, encouraged business and trade and constructed a walled city to offer protection to the merchants from armed brands who roamed the medieval landscape. The first bourse or stock exchange in Europe was established in Bruges in the year 1309 and the city, along with Ghent became the centre of commerce in the Flanders region.
The city walls and gates, dating back seven hundred years are still well preserved and offer a glimpse of the glory days gone by. The town square is only a 10-minute walk from the Bruges station. The walk is sign posted and the towering belfry in the distance serves as a good indicator too.
The Grote Markt, or market square, is ringed in by authentic medieval buildings, the most prominent being the 85-metre belfry. The 366-step belfry, dating back to the 13th century, is a must visit to enjoy the stunning panoramic views of Bruges and beyond, as well as to see the ancient bell up close. The climb is a good workout since the steps are very narrow and steep; and there is no turning back once you start. Upon descending and catching your breath, reward yourself with a pack of the famous Belgian frites or fries, from the frites stand located right beneath the belfry.
Standing next to the belfry is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a most interesting church. There are actually two churches in the building - an ancient Roman church in the basement, which literally takes you back a thousand years, but still remarkably well preserved.
The main church or basilica is world famous for the vial, said to contain the “Holy Blood of Christ,” and believed to have been brought back from Jerusalem in the 1200s during the crusades. The vial is taken out for veneration every morning at 11am; watching this ritual is a very moving experience to watch this ritual.
The interior of the basilica is stunningly beautiful, with stained glass windows and intricate carvings. We were lucky enough to be there right in time for the veneration of the “Holy Blood,” a very solemn ceremony. We could touch the vial, which is an unfathomable feeling, even if you are not a believer, though I could not help feeling that commercialism has crept into even the holiest of the holy rituals – a “donation” is mandatory to attend the ritual!
Bruges is THE capital of Belgian chocolates and the best place to sample authentic, handmade, exquisite chocolates directly from small, family-owned chocolatiers, compared to the predominantly industrial brands one gets in Brussels. The best among the small chocolatiers is Dumon, which has an iconic shop right behind the Grote Markt and whose family has been in the confectionery business for over 400 years.
Run by a mother–daughter duo, the prices are very reasonable, about eight euros for a 100-gm assortment. You can also do some free tasting before finalizing your selection. The other chocolatiers worth mentioning are Chocolate Line and Chocolate House, which are also small family-owned businesses. Of course, all the giant Belgian brands including Godiva, Neuhaus, and Leonidas are present in full strength, but Bruges has always been a stronghold of the smaller, family-owned brands.
The other major product for which Bruges has been famous for over 800 years is lace, the commodity which built Bruges through the Middle Ages. Now, however, most of the shops sell lace made in China, a sign of the times. For the handmade variety, which is the real deal, head over to the lace centre at Peperstraat, where you can get to see exquisite designs and quality, and a variety on offer.
We then crossed over to the most photographed spot in Bruges, the Rozenhoedkaai , or the Quay of the Rosary, where the Djiver and Gronerei canals meet. This spot is unbelievably beautiful and romantic, with the medieval buildings rising from the canals and the belfry towering above them.
On the other side rises the magnificent steeple of the Church of Our Lady of Bruges, reaching a height of 122 metres, and thus making it one of the tallest brick buildings in the world. Rozenhoedkaai consistently gets ranked among the five most romantic locations in the world and is a very popular place for marriage proposals, most of which should get accepted, given the enchanting location.
The Church of Our Lady of Bruges has, besides its architecture, another claim to fame: Michaelangelo's famous sculpture, “Madonna and Child” is displayed here. This is the only sculpture by Michaelangelo which left Italy during his lifetime. Very near the church of Our Lady of Bruges is the oldest hospital in the world, Sint Jaans hospital, which dates back to the 11th century. There is still a functioning pharmacy here, but the rest of the building has been converted into a museum. A visit to Sint Jaans Hospital is a real eye opener on the medical practices in the middle ages.
Across Sint Jaans Hospital is the very interesting Beguinage, an institution unique to the Low Countries - Belgium and Netherlands. During the Middle Ages, women who renounced material life and chose a life of prayer moved to the Beguinages, which provided them shelter. These Beguinages were supported by charity and often by wealthy private sponsors and survive even to this day The Beguinage in Bruges is probably the most famous of all and the beautiful white washed buildings, gardens and the tranquil atmosphere has a very calming effect. Ponder a moment on the lives of generations of women who have lived and died here after living a life of piety in this compound.
Known as the "Venice of the North," the canals of Bruges rival that of Venice for sheer beauty. The canals run around the city and one of the most pleasant activities you can undertake is to take a boat tour of the canals, which gives you a very good overview of the city. A good route on foot is to walk along the Gronerei canal and then along the Langerei to the ancient Kruispoort, one of four medieval city gates still standing, a distance of about three kilometres. All along you will see authentic medieval houses, most of them marked as heritage sites and protected by law.
A small detour from the Langerei will bring you to the most authentic medieval district in Bruges, but remarkably free from the tourists, who are massed around the Grote Markt and the Rozenhoedkaai. The Sint Anna district is eerily deserted even during day time and the dark, narrow, cobbled streets with zigzag turns and sudden dead ends transport you back to the age of chivalry when knights in their gleaming armor galloped along these streets on their way to the crusades.
The two medieval churches in this district are a study in contrast – while the Sint Annakerk is neo-gothic and exudes spirituality, the Jeruzalemkerk is macabre and unlike any church in the world. The walls are adorned with skulls and other terrifying imagery. Built in 1428 by the Adornes family on their return from the crusades, it is supposed to be modelled after a similar church in Jerusalem. The dark crypt houses an eerily lifelike body, encased in a tomb, supposed to represent Christ. The dark interiors and the stark colours all add to the somber mood. The Jeruzalemkerk is off the tourist beaten path, but a must visit since it is unique – spirituality can also be quite disturbing !
Bruges is an easy day trip from Brussels and one of the most beautiful and captivating locations in Europe, with its canals and authentic medieval architecture. Add to that the opportunity to sample the best chocolates and frites in the world makes it a must visit destination.
Indeed, Bruges opens the door for a trip planner’s guide to adventure holidays filled with the arts and culture.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
A Dubai based Marketing Professional with a passion for travel and travel writing. Mr Satish Vallabhan loves experiencing new cultures and places around the world. Favorite destinations so far : New York, Paris, San Francisco, Bruges. My travel style is to move off the beaten path and get to the real soul of a place.