When you visit Brugge in the Flemish region of Belgium, you should start your rambling in the evening, some 90 minutes after sundown, when the vintage streetlights cast diffuse shadows over centuries-old buildings in the environs of your four-star hotel at Kastelijnstraat, one of the oldest streets in the city.
Walking down the cobble walkways as the clip-clop of your steps echoes through the quietness of the city, you will be instantly transported to a Medieval age. It is perhaps for this reason that Brugge, or Bruges as it was named by the Dutch, is regarded as the best-maintained Medieval city in Europe.
Popularly known by globetrotters as the Venice of the North, the string of canals and the gabled rooftops of the many well-preserved houses and buildings that line this intricate network of waterways are as picturesque as a postcard. The Gothic brick architecture characteristic of northern Medieval Europe that permeates the city will leave anyone who appreciates beauty in awe.
The city reached its golden age between the 12th and 15th centuries, when its port became a major platform for trade and commerce due to an advantageous tidal inlet. This strategic position transformed Brugge into a stronghold for wool and cloth production.
It was during this time that most of the city’s iconic structural landmarks were built, including the impressive Belfry of Bruges, a breathtaking Medieval bell tower at the centre of Market Square that soars 83 metres upwards. Today, the bell tower is a symbol of the city’s cultural pride, and the city centre neighbourhood has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The historic centre of Brugge is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble. The environs illustrate significant stages in the commercial and cultural fields in medieval Europe. It was these qualities that made the Brugge of the Medieval times acclaimed as a rich mercantile metropolis in the very heart of Europe.
The city reflects a considerable exchange of influences on the development of art and architecture, particularly in buildings commonly identified with the sphere of influence of the Hanseatic League. The excellently preserved architecture that strongly determines the character of the historic city centre is a must-see as you tread the cobblestone walkways of a city that houses around of 120,000 inhabitants.
One of the architectural wonders worth exploring is the Church of our Lady, a Gothic brick structure that dates back to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Its 115-metre tower is the tallest structure in the city, while the steeple is also the second-tallest brickwork tower in the world after St. Martin’s Church in Landshut, Germany. The altarpiece of the large chapel in the southern aisle enshrines the most celebrated art treasure of the church—a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child created by Michelangelo in around 1504.
The masterpiece known as Madonna of Brugge is also notable in that it was the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was bought by Giovanni and Alessandro Moscheroni from a family of wealthy cloth merchants in Brugge, then one of the leading commercial cities in Europe. The sculpture was sold for 4,000 florins.
During the five centuries of its existence, the altar of the sculpture was removed twice from the ornate pedestal. The first was in 1794, after French Revolutionaries had conquered the Austrian Netherlands during the French Revolutionary Wars. The citizens of Bruges were ordered to ship it and several other valuable of artworks to Paris. It was returned after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
The second removal was in 1944, during World War 2. With the retreat of the Wehrmacht, the Madonna of Brugge was smuggled across the border to Germany enveloped in mattresses in a Red Cross truck. The Michelangelo masterpiece was later recovered in the ancient Steinberg salt mine in Altaussee—one of the many underground hiding places used by Hitler and the Nazis to stash masterpieces and beautiful works of art.
Another les must de Brugge is a boat tour along the waterways of the medieval port—an iconic sightsee that gives the city its popular accolade as the Venice of the North. Go aboard at any of the five landing stages for a half-hour trip that allows you to appreciate the most noteworthy delights of the city from a completely different angle. The boat tour will show you places and parks that are otherwise unreachable, as not every canal runs next to a street.
Last, but not least, Brugge is one of the gastronomic centres of Europe and boasts an impressive number of star-rated restaurants. Whether you swear by fish or prefer meat; whether you love beer in your dishes or would rather have a wine-based sauce, the string of restaurants that dot the city’s Market Place have so much to offer that everyone will be able to discover a recipe to his or her taste. Chocolate addicts: feel free to pamper your taste buds in a city famous for its choco-story. The must-see chocolate museum housed in the ornate 16th-century Huis de Crone building on Sint-Jansplein offers tours exploring the history of chocolate, workshops and recipes. A sweet ending to a perfect trip.