travel guide

A Medieval European Treasure and the Venice of the North

Bruges is one of the most beautiful medieval towns of Europe, distinguished by its canals, cobbled streets and beautiful medieval buildings. Bruges became a port in the 19th century when a channel was made to the sea in Zeebrugge ( Bruges by the Sea).  Today, Zeebrugge is still an economically important centre for European trade and also fishing. The wealth of the city further increased due to the manufacturing of several goods but still today Bruges is famous for its famous lace production as well as its famous breweries.  Several beers are named after the city but only two, Brugse Zot and Brugse Straffe hendrik are actually brewed in the city itself – at the De Halve Maan Brewery. 

Bruges today though depends mainly from tourism due to it having one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.  Indeed, since 2000, the ‘Historic Centre of Bruges’ has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  A one time harbour, it is now visited for its picturesque buildings is dreamy canals. Over 50 bridges span the city’s canals and it is a real treat to see them open for ships to pass.  An excellent way to see some of the beautiful buildings is to take a ride on one of the many horse-drawn carriages for hire which will take you around the most important sites.  In Burg Square you can visit the 14th century Stadhuis (City Hall) and marvel at its ornate ceiling, the nearby Markt Square features the most famous landmark, the 13th century Belfry of Bruges with a 47-bell carillon and its 83m tower allows you some marvellous, panoramic views. The city still employs a full-time carillonneur  giving free concerts on a regular basis.  The Belfry has a separate UNESCO award – being included on the world heritage sites of belfries of Belgium and France. Equally, a visit to the Gothic Notre Dame Church houses the sculpture, Madonna and Child.  This is believed to be the only Michelangelo sculpture to have left Italy within the artist’s lifetime and you can see it in the transept. The church also has the second highest brick spire in the world, reaching an impressive 115.6 metres.

 In addition to the ‘Historic Centre of Bruges’ and the tower included in the ‘Belfries of Belgium and France’, Bruges is also home to a third UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Ten Wijngaerde Beguinage. The Beguinage of Bruge was built in 1245 and is included in the World Heritage site of ‘Flemish Beguinages’.  A beguinage is an architectural complex which was created to house beguines – these are lay religious women who lived in the community without taking vows or retiring from the world.  Nowadays there are no longer any beguines living there and the beautiful building and its grounds are now resided in by Sisters of the religious St. Benedict Order.  This is a beautiful, tranquil place to visit especially in the springtime when the daffodils are in bloom. 

 St. John’s Hospital, dating from the mid-12th century, is one of the oldest hospitals in Europe. It is located next to the Notre Dame Church and was a place where sick travellers and pilgrims could be cared for.  The site was expanded to include also a monastery and a convent.  During the 19th century it was further expanded and the building consisted of eight wards around a central building.  It continued as a hospital right up until 1977 when it was moved to a new modern building on the outskirts of the city.  The building was taken over by the city to house a complex of museums.  these include the medieval wards, the church and chapel and a fascinating collection of hospital records and medical instruments.  Also, part of the building is dedicated to the German painter, Hans Memling who lived and worked in Bruges.  the Hans Memling museum displays seven works of his including the famous Ursula Shrine and triptychs. As well as the St. John’s Hospital museum the city houses many interesting museums, such as the Groeninge Museum and the Arents House which have artistic works dating from the 15th century to the modern day. Historical museums abound and are too numerous to mention but you will always find that there is something for everyone to enjoy and wonder at. A particularly enjoyable visit can be had in the quaint St. Anna Quarter of the city. Whilst here visit the fascinating Folklore Museum. It has a marvellous collection of different medieval shops and room interiors all displayed in a row of 17th century alms houses. Here too, you can see two medieval windmills that still function. If you are interested in literary works, the Guido Gazelle Museum houses one of the most important literary collections in Flanders.