Belgium – Bruges (Brugges)
We left the busy central aire in beautiful Ghent quite early, just as the arriving tourist buses were beginning to build up near us. We fought the morning traffic out of the city, finally heading northwest in the direction of our next Belgian city-break target – Bruges. We arrived from the south and reached the wide ring road adjacent to the canal, circling the historic centre. The road was lined with ample parking spaces and we parked up easily and freely on the side of the canal, only a few minutes’ walk away from the centre. We happily mused how this was the simplest and most stress-free parking for a city visit we’d so far found on our travels; an auspicious start.
We walked back along the canal and through the Gentpoort, our nearest city gate, to approach the centre. Bruges was known to us predominantly through the movie In Bruges, a very dark, almost surreal, black comedy with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. We hoped our short time in the city would pan out rather differently than theirs did. There were few people around and we, prematurely, thought Bruges must not be visited much in late October, out of season. How very wrong this first impression was to be. Arriving quite early had drawn us into experiencing a false sense of the town. We had a lovely hour or so of quiet wandering, but by 11am the centre was transformed into a swirling mass of bodies all vying for space on the narrow streets and jostling to take that perfect photograph.
We arrived by way of Koningin Astridpark, a neat park with a simple pond. We reached the main Market square with the sun rising brightly behind the Belfry, lighting up the decorative façades of the surrounding buildings. We made our way into the foyer of the museum at the central tourist office, where we played a while with the interactive touchscreen tables, looking up information about Bruges. We found a small shop nearby and purchased a few postcards and stamps. With no particular plan, we walked away from the main centre, the streets immediately empty, and found solace in the back streets of the residential areas north of the town. It was comprised of a more standard, simple, Dutch-like domestic architecture with canal paths and crow-step gable frontages.
Everything changed in the time we had walked north and returned; the peaceful stillness was shattered. On our arrival back in the central square, we were constantly being passed by large sullen groups being quickly led by guides to the next important site of interest. More tourists rolled past, sat inside open carriages drawn by snorting horses. We stood out of the way, in the corner of the market square, stunned by the sudden influx of people and noise. Nearby, packed boats carried yet more sightseers along the now-busy canals, floating noisily under numerous stone bridges, all passengers with phones in hand. The beautiful, historic town was all but invisible under the cloud of bodies here to see it. We could only imagine what it must be like to visit in the dizzy heights of the summer months.
Leaving the square in search of quieter areas, we walked towards the Concert Hall, along a frenzied shop-lined avenue. From here we cut across small alleys to Oud Sint Jan, a council building, surprised at how each side street was almost entirely empty when the main thoroughfares where jam-packed with visitors. It was like no-one thought to walk anywhere other than where everyone else was, as if being part of the crowd was the only acceptable behaviour. With avoidance futile, we re-joined the masses at the covered market, then under an archway bridge to the square behind. The Burgplatz, close by the main Marktplatz, was the highlight of the centre for us, with its 14th century City Hall dominating the impressively decorated façades. There had been a wedding inside, the bridal party now having to time their group photos between the lines of passing tourists keen to visit the foyer of the City Hall.
We had a brief look inside the City Hall, before crossing the square to visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood, snug in the corner. Climbing the complex statue-heavy staircase, we reached the small gothic chapel and took a seat to relax for a moment. A large gold altarpiece framed with complex painted frescoes behind gave the chapel a glow, and the quality of light from the side stained-glass windows was wonderful. The sermon pulpit was a topless copper globe of the world, with a lid and cross above that made it look like a giant pumpkin. A queue to the right allowed visitors to the chapel the possibility of, by way of a generous donation, touching a phial that purportedly contained some blood extracted from Jesus Christ. Many were willing to queue and each pilgrim was patiently given as much personal time as they wished for their devotional visit, all the while being watched closely by a silent but ever-vigilant priest.
We ate our packed lunch on a bench back in the main market square, overlooking the domineering 83-metre high Belfry tower. The queue to climb the tower starts behind the square, up a flight of steps to the rear of the tower, and yet we could see the tail end of the patiently waiting patrons through the ground level archway. It must have been a long time coming, and a tight squeeze at the top, but on such a clear, blue sky day it may just have been worth the wait. We reflected on the profound difference a multitude of visitors made to the experience, and how circular and selfish was our wish that we could experience Bruges without the crowds; a thought no doubt shared by most of the other visitors. It was undoubtedly beautiful and interesting, but has become a mobbed, defenseless casualty of its own beauty and marketing success.
Perhaps we had made a mistake in visiting Bruges directly after Ghent. We inevitably drew comparisons, and after the wide and plentiful beauty of Ghent, Bruges felt a little small, quaint and twee rather than grandly impressive, and more affected by the success of its rampant tourism. The shops and restaurants, beautiful as they were, appeared to be geared towards separating tourists from their money, rather than serving local commerce. It felt unauthentic as a living, bustling city, more of a Disney version of a perfect medieval town, recreated solely for visitors, not built for local lives. It was still achingly beautiful in many ways, but being overrun by tourists, us included of course, made it lose something intangible, its living spirit or the low eventful buzz of a city fully lived-in by busy, invested residents, not one overrun by snapping day-trippers.