The Dog Of Bruges
Walking The Old Town Of Bruges
The window of our hotel overlooked one of the many canals which criss-cross this city. I sat on the window seat, watching the tourist barges putter past. Under the autumn sun the water sparkled. When the boats had finished for the afternoon, some swans came to our window, looking for offerings from our afternoon tea.
The heart of Bruges remains a medieval city. In all directions the skyline is broken by zigzagging rooves. (In a city built largely of wood, a stepped roof was essential for escaping fires.) Willows grace the banks of the canals, and foot-bridges arch just high enough over the water to allow the barges through. Across the way, the occasional horse and carriage passed by. On a bend in the canal, the seats under a large tree proved prime spot in a wine bar, and it seemed the whole town promenaded in the sun. Yet by nightfall, the only sound reaching our room was the lap of water against the wall.
Next morning we set off from our hotel to take a barge tour. Like Venice, the canals of Bruge make it impossible to walk in a straight line; the simplest way is to follow a canal. The Groenerei (or Green Canal) is one of the old town’s major waterways, and was only two bridges away from our hotel. As we walked along we were surprised to see a golden retriever pawing at a window of the Côté Canal Hotel. Unseen hands opened the window and spread out a quilt, and the dog made himself quite comfortable lying across the windowsill, soaking up the sun as he watched the world go by. We hadn’t yet heard of the famous Dog of Bruges. Every morning he gets into place as the tourist boats start up for the day. Apart from appearing in the photos of every tourist who passes, he has even starred in both TV commercials and movies (including a two second cameo for In Bruges).
A modern classic in Belgian literature, in 'Bruges-la-Morte' Georges Rodenbach paints a city which becomes an inspiration to future writers and painters.
Belgium's UNESCO World Heritage Town
The Canals of Bruges
Even today, the canals remain the heart of the old city. The original arteries of the town, they are best seen from a boat, for not all of them can be reached by foot.
Towards the end of The Groenerei is the Fish Market (which sells seafood of a morning before becoming a tourist market). A cobbled lane then opens onto the Huidenvettersplein – The Tanners’ Square. Dating from around 1300, the square is now filled with cafes, restaurants, shops and bars. Be wary after a long lunch – not only is the square cobbled, it slopes down towards the canal, where the stones becomes quite slippery on a damp day.
One place to board a tourist boat is from a corner of the Huidenvettersplein (other places are scattered around the town, all offering the same tour). The ride lasts some thirty minutes, complete with a multi-lingual commentary. (I was always amazed hearing shop assistants throughout the town move effortlessly from Flemish to Dutch to German the English to French – the list seemed endless. I never heard them ask a person’s nationality; they always seemed to choose the right language.)
A plethora of medieval buildings can be seen from the water. The boats pass the 12th century St John’s hospital (Sint-Janshospitaal), which continued functioning until 1978. The oldest standing hospital in Europe, it now serves as a museum. Running along the canal is a wing which in the 13th century served as both a chapel and a ward, (for spiritual healing was considered more important than healing of the flesh).
Opposite the hospital is the 13th century Church of Our Lady. Inside is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, the only one of Michelangelo’s statues to leave Italy while the artist was alive.
A little further into the tour, the view from the Rozenhoedkaai, (so named for the roses sold here in the Middle Ages), gives the classic postcard view of Bruges. From here, amongst all the medieval buildings, can be seen the Bascilica of The Holy Blood, the Belfry, the Town Hall and The Church of our Lady.
Some Things To Do In Bruges
With none of the cobbled streets running in a straight line, the Old Town is perfect for wandering and becoming completely lost. At every turn is the charm of moss-covered bridges and medieval buildings, or a delightful restaurant in a centuries-old house.
The Burg is a cobble-stoned square where a castle was built to defend the town from invading Norsemen. Considered the birthplace of the city, the square is filled with horse-drawn carriages. Tourists and locals alike sit under colourful umbrellas outside the many bistros and cafes. To one side of The Burg is The Basilica of The Holy Blood. Its Lower Chapel – Bruges’ oldest building – dates from the 12th century. A relic in the Upper Chapel was brought back from the Second Crusade by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. The crystal phial is believed to contain a relic of Christ’s Blood.
Winding from one corner of The Burg to the Grote Markt (the Big Square) is the cobbled Breidelstraat. Like much of this town, it abounds with cafes, more chocolate shops than can be decently visited, and a quintessential Christmas shop. It is always packed with tourists.
The 13th century Belfry dominates the Grote Markt. Those brave enough to climb the 366 very narrow steps are rewarded with a spectacular view over the centuries-old skyline to the coast. Next to the Belfry is the Provincial Palace. In the 13th century this area was a harbour – a reminder of the important role Bruges once played in Flemish trade.
The chocolate museum is not to be missed – even the website comes complete with recipes. For the devoted (or wishful) there is even a diamond museum. Grass covered mounds, complete with four windmills, are all which remain of the city walls. A short stroll from the windmill of Sint-Janshuismolen is the St Sebastian Archers’ Guild. This guild dates back to Crusades, when members used long bows in The Battle of Golden Spurs in 1302.
The art galleries, especially the Groeningmuseum, should not be missed. There are numerous museums, the Beguinage, parks, and churches. yet although it is The Dog Of Bruges who gave me my most personal memory of the town.
(c) Anne Harrison
© 2013 Anne Harrison
More by this Author
Just to drink the coffee in Italy is reason enough to visit. With the type of coffee drunk often determined by the hour of the day, ordering coffee in an Italian cafe is a ritual in it itself.
Bruges, Brugge, Venice of the North - whatever you call her, Belgium's medieval town Bruges is a delight. Wander the cobblestone streets, visit the art museums, cruise the canals - and eat chocolate!
When in Florence it's all too easy to succumb to cultural overload. Here are a few practical tips for surviving a visit to Florence that can make a trip so much easier—and so much more enjoyable.