Every once in a while as you make your way across the UK and Europe you stumble across small cities that missed the train for the 21st century and the 20th before that. It happened in Spain when Toledo no longer was the capital, it happened to the Dutch inland fishing villages as the Zuider Zee was drained, it happened to the Cotswolds in England when they lost their export market for their wool. And in Belgium, it happened to Bruges when it's harbor silted up.
Today tourists marvel at their Old World charm, preserved as they were because their local economies failed. The cities became so poor that no one had the money or drive to tear them down, so there they sat, neglected and becoming sleepy little forgotten towns. guillotine window But now like Rip Van Winkle they are coming awake and enjoying the happy circumstance of being discovered by the tourism industry and enjoying a revitalization of their local prosperity.
Bruges (broozh) in French and English and Brugge (Broo-gha) in Flemish, used to be a trading center of great importance, particularly in the cloth market. By the 14th century, it had a population of 35,000, about on a par with London at that time. By the 16th century, silt clogged the harbor and killed the economy. Now the North Sea is about 20 minutes away by train at Ostende.
Today Bruges is a town of canals straight from a Renoir painting, architecture that seems mostly pointed and gilded and cafes that tempt you to stay a little longer. It has chocolate shops everywhere, mostly family run, with some of the world's best chocolates, according to connoisseurs. The display windows of the chocolate shops are enough to make the coldest heart melt for some chocolate. Speaking of melting, the chocolate shops may close in the heat of midday sun, so if you are a chocoholic, hope that it is a cool day.
In the center of Bruges is the Market Square and on the Market Square is a belfry. This bell tower has stood since 1300 and if you climb the 366 steps you can look over the entire little city. Just below, a few steps down, is the carillon room, which plays short happy little tunes on every quarter hour, the 47 bells are played by a mechanical device, but it also has a manual keyboard for the carillonist to give concerts. It really bangs out the hour on the hour; plan not to be in the tower at that time! Patronize one of the Belgian frite stands in the square before you leave, it's practically customary.
Being essentially Walloon and Catholic in character, there is a plethora of religious sites, relics, paintings, etc. in Bruges. The Basilica of the Holy Blood's claim to fame is its relic of the blood of Christ brought to Bruges after the Second Crusade, circa 1150. The Church of Our Lady has a delicate Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, said to be the only statue of his to leave Italy in his lifetime. The Gruuthuse Museum has a collection of everything medieval from bedpans to a guillotine.
If by now you've had your fill of culture, try to join the tour at the Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry) brewery, where they make the locals' favorite beer. It's a 45-minute fact filled tour conducted in at least four languages. Belgians consider themselves to be Europe's beer experts and they boast of 350 different types of beer. Trappist is the dark home-brew style beer and Dentergems is made with orange peel and coriander.
If you are looking for a picnic, spot the four windmills that are strung out alongside a canal and take your ease in the grassy park with some famous Belgian frites with mayonnaise, a section of a local sausage, washed down with a little beer and followed by a Godiva chocolate (or two) for dessert. Maybe not Omar Khayam's choice of picnic fare, but close enough.