.BRUGES, BELGIUM: What do Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Bruges all have in common? At one time or another they have all been referred to as the “Venice of the North.”
It’s not a fair comparison, really, because each of those cities, including Venice itself, is unique in its own way.
Bruges, for example, is Belgium’s jewel box gem which has been a touristic favorite since the last half of the 19th century.
Bruge – rich in history, architecture, and bridges
Likely deriving its name from the Old Dutch word brugge, meaning “bridge” or the modern Dutch bruggehoofd (“bridgehead”) and brug (“bridge”), Bruges thrived between the 12th and 15th centuries thanks to the “Golden Inlet”, a tidal basin that was important for local commerce.
In the first century BC, Julius Caesar conquered the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul, which occupied an area that roughly corresponds to the modern day Belgian coast. Those earliest fortifications were built as protection against pirates.
By the ninth century, Viking invasions forced Count Baldwin I of Flanders to reinforce the old Roman fortifications allowing a trade to quickly resume with England and Scandinavia.
In the early 13th century, thanks to Bruges’ strategic location at the crossroads of the northern and southern Hanseatic League trade routes, the city, already part of the circuit for the Flemish and French cloth fairs, was flourishing economically.
However, when the old system of fairs broke down, the innovative entrepreneurs of Bruges established bold new methods of commerce and revenue.
The “Golden Age” renaissance of Bruges revitalized town life in the 12th century with a prosperous wool weaving industry and cloth market that mushroomed thanks to the refurbished ancient city walls.
Before long, Bruges’ merchants had established economic colonies of England’s and Scotland’s wool-producing areas.
With the development of trade from Genoa, Italy in 1277, Bruges gained access to the Mediterranean, resulting in blossoming spice trades and advances in banking.
Later, when Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy set up court in Bruges in the 15th century, artists, bankers and other prominent personalities throughout Europe flocked to the city, including weavers and spinners who were considered the best in the world.’
Eventually, Bruges became an international center for the production of lace, which continues its reputation as the finest in the world and making it a favorite item for visiting souvenir hunters.
Around 1500, the Zwin channel, (the Golden Inlet) which had given the city its early prosperity, began silting causing the once thriving city to lose most of its access routes for trade.
Following nearly two centuries of economic struggles, the lace industry blossomed during the 17th century, resulting in significant efforts to return Bruges to its former glorious past.
Prior to the surge in the lace industry, the Flemish school of oil-painting techniques captured the imagination of the artistic world. Combined with Bruges’ notable achievement by William Caxton of publishing the first book ever printed in English, the city was beginning to show signs of recovery.
The revival flourished to such an extent that by the end of the 19th century, Bruges became one of the world’s first and most popular tourist destinations, attracting wealthy British and French visitors.
Though not as prolific as Venice, or even Amsterdam for that matter, the old world charm of Bruges’ canals meandering among its medieval architecture and billowing lace adorned buildings give it an ambiance that continues to attract thousands of visitors each year.
German troops occupation in both world wars meant Bruges was largely spared. The town suffering virtually no damage. As such, tourism continued to flourish at a time when much of Europe was rebuilding.
In 2002, Bruges became the “European Capital of Culture” attracting some eight million visitors each year.
Thanks to the German need for a port for their U-boats in World War I, Zeebrugge expansion adding to Bruges’ good fortune by making it one of Europe’s most important and modern ports.
Most of the medieval architecture of Bruges remains intact, making it one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Since 2002, the historic city center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Many medieval buildings are notable, including the Church of Our Lady. The churches brick spire reaches 380 feet making it the world’s second highest brick tower/building. Bruges is a place where its beguiling canals beckon travelers to embrace its charms in a casual atmosphere. Leaving the typical frenzied pace of many other destinations.
The sculpture of Madonna and Child, viewable in the transept of the Church of Our Lady, is the only sculpture by Michelangelo that left Italy within his lifetime.
The town’s most famous landmark, the 13th-century belfry, houses a municipal carillon comprising 47 bells. The city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.
Belgium is a country of beer drinkers, and Bruges has wasted no time in embracing the international craft beer craze.
With picturesque medieval buildings nestled serenely among its lace-lined placid canals, Bruges is captivating. Little wonder its name derives from a word that means “bridge.”
Bruges is, indeed, a bridge that links the past to the future.
Who knows, perhaps one day someone will reverse the old nickname and call Venice the “Bruges of the South.”
Bruges beckons. Experience it and discover why.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Editors Note: Support Bob’s GoFundMe to give him a hand up