Bruges and I have a long history. Years ago, when I was still in college, I found an article on Bruges lace while going through my back issues of Victoria Magazine. It had the most beautiful pictures of this place I’d never heard of before (Victoria’s photography was one of my main influences in becoming a photographer) and then and there Bruges ended up on my “Must See” travel list.
When my UK plans changed unexpectedly earlier this month, I was able to get another HelpX position in Belgium, and it meant I finally got to visit this city I’d long loved from afar.
While definitely touristy, Bruges lives up to the hype of one of the most picturesque places in Europe: romantic canals, cobblestone streets, horse drawn carriages, and a magnificent town square, not to mention the dozens of chocolate shops, lace shops, and canal-side restaurants scattered throughout this small medieval city. One of the most prestigious ports in Europe during the 16th century, Bruges retains it’s historic charm.
The other lovely thing about Bruges is you don’t have to spend a lot to get a rich experience. From the belfry tower (8 euros to climb) you’re treated with gorgeous views of the city and the countryside beyond. Walking from the Markt square, you can find delicious, reasonably priced ice cream at DaVinci Gelateria or Belgian waffles (price goes up as you add toppings) at Oyya. Pay 8 euros for a 30 minute canal cruise, or just wander the streets at your whim.
While there are museums to visit, I chose not to. Museums hold little interest for me when there’s so much to do and see on the street. My first night there (arriving by bus directly from London) happened to be at the end of a festival, and the crowds were even bigger than normal. The loud rock music from the concert was kind of destroying my romantic illusions, so I took a road leading away from the center, and found the quiet romance of Bruges where swans swam in the canals, lazy dogs watched from house windows, street musicians performed classical music (much more suitable for my mood), and residents rode their bicycles home for the evening.
Bicycling is a popular mode of transportation in Bruges: the landscape is flat and the streets are often too narrow or crowded to make cars practical. There’s something about all the bicyclists that just adds to the character of the town (and Belgium in general)! For tourists who’d like to explore the countryside a bit, or just get around the town more quickly, bikes are available to rent.
While I have said that Bruges itself is the main attraction, the one sight that definitely was a “must see” on a my list was Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and Child at The Church of Our Lady. I went on a Sunday afternoon (admission to the church is free but it’s a few euros to see the sculpture) and was absolutely blow away by the beauty of this piece. The Madonna was the only work of Michelangelo’s to leave Italy during his lifetime, and is one of the pieces of art stolen by the Nazi’s in WWII and later recovered by the Monuments Men. It is one of the few works of art that has literally moved me to tears.
I do wonder if the charm of cobblestone streets, great art works, sidewalk cafes, gentle canals and rivers, and historical architecture will get old eventually, but even after a few trips to Europe, I haven’t hit that point yet.