The historic centre of Bruges was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site — but we Irish still like to think it was Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell who put it back on the map, writes Geoff Power
Gaze up at the Belfort (Belfry tower) and one cannot help but recall Colin Farrell’s insensitive allusion to ‘elephants’ in In Bruges. But he’s right: it is a tight climb.
Make it to the top of all 366 steps and you are rewarded with a view of rust-coloured roof tops and beautifully maintained, medieval squares. No inferior reconstructions or modern carbuncles to be found here. No, central Bruges, an area the size of Longford town, is a feast of preservation.
The modern-day tourist is indeed fortunate that Bruges experienced 400 years of decline; in the early 1500s the city pressed ‘snooze’ and disappeared off the map.
Prior to that, Bruges had established itself as one of the most prosperous cities in Europe, its wealth resulting from its trade in furs, silk, Asian carpets, exotic pets, and the expansion of its canal network. Circa 1500, however, the inlet that had provided a vital arm to the sea began silting and the city fell behind Antwerp as an economic force in the Low Countries.
Thus, fortuitously, Bruges escaped the devastation associated with conflicts in this part of Europe, inclu ding the First and Second World Wars. Furthermore, the industrial revolution had little impact on its basic structure. And so, last century, Bruges re-emerged from its slumber. Restorations of historic monuments, churches, and residential and commercial buildings began in the 1960s, and this generated a surge in economic activity and tourism.
More recently, the historic centre of Bruges was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (citing its ‘remarkable visual coherence’) and it was awarded ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2002. Nevertheless, we Irish prefer to think that it was Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, in 2008, who really put the city back on the map.
So, let’s get back to that Belfort. As a belfry tower, it functioned as a lofty pair of eyes and ears which, for centuries, sounded out the working day, announced religious and social events, and raised the alarm if there was any danger. One can easily imagine the excitement of millers, cobblers, artisans and dignitaries gathering in the market square below when the toll announcing good news rang out. As for danger, well, aside from the occasional fire, there was little of that – invaders with avaricious tendencies chose to bypass it.
In Bruges, the past is all around, particularly if you avoid the busiest tourist months. Take a languorous walk along a canal; enjoy the absence of heavy traffic and chain-stores, use the medieval skyline for orientation, and relish the zangy taste of local beers and eye-popping displays of chocolate.
The oldest bar in Bruges is Café Vlissinghe. Aim for the canal T-junction, at Verversdijk; veer right down a nondescript narrow street and enter an inconspicuous building. The date hovering above the doorway says 1515. The interior is adorned with curiosities and wooden panelling, and it has a quirky, old wood-burning stove. Whatever bar you patronise, try as many of the local brews as possible; there is the pleasure of discovering which distinctive glass goes with which beer.
The city’s artistic roots are well stocked, too. The naturalistic and wonderfully expressive art by ‘Flemish Primitives’, Hans Memling and Jan van Eyck, are must-sees. In the Church of Our Lady you will also find the Madonna and Child, by Michelangelo, the only artwork of his to leave Italy during the artist’s lifetime.
Like Bruges, Ghent maintains a rich medieval heritage which is derived from its days as a semi-autonomous trading centre. But unlike Bruges, Ghent moved with the times. In the early 1800s, it flourished as Belgium’s first industrial city. There is contemporary architecture, a disjointed quality, and more bustle and verve. In other words, it is a living urban space where locals vie with tourists on the streets.
Although Ghent is double the size of Bruges, with a population of nearly 250,000, it remains snug and amenable. And there is purity. Lichen growing along the ramparts in the hugely impressive Castle of the Counts indicates the air is as rich as the city’s heritage.
The Counts of Flanders constructed this remarkable keep in the Middle Ages. Parts of it were reconstructed last century, but today its museum houses a fabulous array of medieval weaponry and torture implements. Because executions took place inside and outside the Castle of the Counts, the lamps on the adjacent Sint-Veerleplein have been connected to the city’s maternity homes. Why, you ask? Each time a child is born the lanterns light up. Artist Alberto Garruti’s work ensures that what was once a place of death has been turned into a beacon of hope, or life.
In the evenings, rays of sunshine settle on the Graslei, and this canal bank becomes a beautiful meeting point for young and old; people lounge by the water’s edge, or sip drinks on the café patios. Our cities could learn from the business approach Ghent has taken, prioritising pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Planners have created Europe’s largest pedestrianized zone, which facilitates easy, safe access to retail outlets and tourist destinations.
Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly directly into Brussels International Airport. A regular, efficient train service at the airport will take you to Bruges in approximately 90 minutes. Stop off in Ghent on the way to Bruges, or on the way back.
Where to sample local beer:
‘t Brugs Beertje: A cosy old Bruges bar that serves up no fewer than 300 beers, including tasty local brands Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrik.
Kemelstraat 5 1.
Hot Club de Gand: When in Ghent, keep your eyes peeled at the Groentenmarkt: the entrance to this intimate jazz bar is down a cramped lane. Upstairs the seating is comfortable, but downstairs is where the small stage is; performances take place Monday to Thursday, after 9pm.
Places to eat (Bruges):
Bistro Bruut: Beautifully located by a pedestrian bridge; we spotted it at midnight, watching one of the chefs feed leftovers to the waiting swans and ducks below. When we tried to book a table for the following night, we discovered there was a two-month reservation period at weekends. Meestraat 9 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 2.
Bistro de Pompe: There is no shortage of restaurants to choose from on this street, which spins away from Markt. The Bistro de Pompe serves up generous meals and salads.
Kleine Sint-Amandstraat 2
Panda: Located behind a health-food shop next to the canal, Panda describes itself as a vegetarian restaurant. However, this is not strictly true. But do avoid meaty options and try the spectacular seitan-curry goulash with fried bananas.
Oudburg 38 2.
Brooderie: A small, tasteful café opposite the Design Museum that serves Middle-Eastern food.
Jan Breydelstraat 8
What to see (Bruges):
Groeningemuseum: This wonderful gallery contains major work from late medieval masters Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Gerard David. There is also a fine collection of Flemish expressionist paintings, including a number of eye-catching pieces by Constant Permeke and Gustave de Smet.
Sint-Janshospitaal and the Memlingmuseum: This site provides a fascinating glimpse of one of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in Europe. There are torturous-looking medical implements and gruesome anatomy drawings. In the chapel hang several of Hans Memling’s most important works. Entry includes access to a beautiful 15th century apothecary and herb garden.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb Ghent is home to this monumental panel painting by the van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan. As well as being one of the most influential artworks of all time, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb has attracted the attention of more thieves than any other painting.
St Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathredaal), Sint-Baafsplein 2.
Design Museum Gent : The antique furniture on display here in this museum takes the punter on a history of the decorative arts, from the domestic elegance of the 17th century to modern times. Watch out for tape decks, toasters and even CD players.
Jan Breydelstraat 5