by Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
Anne and I have been traveling to Europe together since 1988. It has been an awesome adventure of one great place after another. Europe is fascinating to see how much diversity can be packed into such a relatively small area. Initially, her favorite city was Paris. While still a favorite, after visiting Brugge, she changed to favor this really cool city of sights and food. Picturesque canals that look like they came from paintings, ornate buildings gilded with gold, great art works, a famous bell tower, lace, chocolate, mussels and pomme frites (French fries) so good folks wait in lines to buy them without any complaints. Somehow it is busy yet peaceful—walk a block or two away from the main squares and it is so charming you will stop and enjoy! Here are a couple of pictures to introduce this unique Northern European town:
Brugge (Flemish) and Bruges (French and English) may combine the best of all of Europe in a compact yet fascinating mix of old and new. In the 1400’s it was a great city, made rich from the cloth trade. It is said the population was around 35,000—about the same size as London at that time. For about 100 years or so it flourished and grew wealthy from trade, built elaborate public buildings and was a center for the arts. But its harbor silted up and the great economic times were over. It once was a walled city (a couple of the gates remain today) but the relatively compact city was so poor it just could not replace the older buildings, so most of the important medieval structures were preserved. What is left today is a tourist delight—great sites, great food and beer, and one of the best walkable cities in all Europe.
Brugge is one of 49 cities that we have written destination guides about. Our Brugge guide is 2 typewritten pages anyone can easily slip in a pocket or a purse. These are a great way to not miss the important sights and provide practical tips to enhance your trip. It covers many of the sights I have written about in this blog. If you would like a guide to Brugge or any other European major city destination, please send me an e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
Let’s explore together! The best place to start is the two squares—Market Square and Burg Square. Markt (Flemish) or Market Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the well preserved medieval buildings and famous belfry. You can climb the 366 or so stairs for awesome views of the city but we prefer to listen to the bells from the ground of the square. Here are some photos:
Markt Square Brugge
Bell Tower Markt Square
Burg Square houses the city hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood (built by a Crusader to store drops of the blood of Jesus he brought back from Jerusalem). You can easily see the wealth of this city at one time by studying the opulent, gilded buildings. The city hall is a Gothic structure that was built in the late 1300s, making it the oldest town hall in Belgium. Don’t miss the upstairs Gotische Zaal (Gothic Room) with its ornate decor and wall murals depicting highlights from Bruges’s history. Most spectacular of all is the vaulted oak ceiling, dating from 1402, which features scenes from the New Testament. Here is a photo of Burg Square:
Basilica of the Holy Blood
Art is important here, with painters such as Jan van Eyck and a small Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child (it is said this is the only statue of his to leave Italy and made even more famous recently by the movie Monument Men) as two prime example of the great art on display in Brugge. The Groeninge Museum has one of the best collection of early Flemish art including works by van Eyck, Gerard David, Rogier van der Weyden, and others. Most of the paintings displayed here are by artists who lived in Brugge during its glory days. In the Church of our Lady, the Michelangelo Madonna Carrara marble statue is displayed as part of an ornate Baroque niche that at first made it hard for me to find. It is an exceptional piece of work and well worth the minimal admission price. The church is impressive also–it took 2 centuries (13th-15th) to build this church, whose soaring 122m (400-ft.) spire can be seen for miles around Bruges.
Niche with Madonna (center)
Michelangelos Madonna & Child
To learn a little more about life in medieval and see Hans Memling’s paintings, a visit to the Memling museum is another look at life and art in the late 1400’s. The building served as a hospital and along with the various medical instruments, Memling’s paintings were designed to provide comfort to the sick and dying. Another good museum is the Gruuthuse Museum. The Flemish nobleman and herb merchant Lodewijk Van Gruuthuse, who was a counselor to the dukes of Burgundy in the 1400s, lived in this ornate Gothic mansion. Among the 2,500 numbered antiquities in the house are paintings, sculptures, tapestries, lace, weapons, glassware, and richly carved furniture.
Around where the old city walls used to stand, you can find a park dotted with windmills and some of the surviving city gates. Here are a few pictures:
An Old Gate that remains from the time Brugge was a walled city
Food is really good here. Our favorites: lobster, shrimp, mussels (moules), frites, and carbonnade (my favorite—it is a rich beef stew flavored with onions and beer). It stands to reason that seafood would be a specialty—Brugge is so near to the sea. The old fish market is still in use, so you can be assured your seafood will be fresh. There are other good restaurants, to include a good Italian restaurant, and almost every other type of cuisine you could desire. Here are some photos:
Shopping is even fun, even for a guy like me who is not a shopper. Lace, chocolate shops and beer are local special items. But, guys, beware—we found a great diamond store—Anne proudly wears two rings from here—all I can say is I was proud to give her 2 gifts that mean so much to her! Here is a picture of a cute little lace shop:
Our favorite place to stay is the Martin’s Relais (there are 2 Martins in Brugge, both are good but we prefer the one a short walk from Markt Square). Our favorite placeis near van Eyck square, the old customs house and on one of the canals. Great place to stay, an awesome brunch. We even have a favorite room and the friendly staff always helps us find new places to explore. We actually wave to the many canal boat tours once and a while—pretty cool to say the least. Here are some photos:
van Eyck Square taken from our room
A canal boat outside our room
Sights near our room–the bear is the symbol of Brugge
Our Favorite Room
Brugge is exceptional. You should visit—it is a true gem of great places in Europe. We often go for a few days after a river cruise and will visit this year after our Christmas River Cruise—the Enchanting Rhine from 14-21 December. We can’t wait—it just feels like home to us! We also hope this will inspire you to visit Brugge–we will be glad to help. Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at email@example.com so we can help you Savor life . . .make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!