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What to do in Bruges

Updated on October 2, 2016

My flight arrived to Charleroi airport with no problems, and then I went to catch a bus to the nearest train station. We arrived to the train station just in time for me to catch the train to Brussels. On the train to Brussels, I asked where to change trains for Bruges, and the person I asked started a conversation with me. He gave me some tips on exploring Bruges, and apparently he had family (who have moved now) in San Jose. When I told him I worked in tech, he was like “Cisco Systems?”. It was such an odd moment! In any case, he was really friendly and he helped point me to the right direction to go to Bruges when we got to the Brussels train station. I got to Bruges a bit later than expected though because the train was delayed half an hour. I still had enough time to explore it all though.
When I arrived, I checked into the hostel and then left for food! I went to grab fries at where the hostel counter guy said are the best, and they were quite good! They’re different than the fries we get in America; they’re cut differently and the outside is much crunchier but the inside is still super soft and potatoey. It was quite delicious!
The next food I ate of course was a Belgian waffle at Chez Albert. It was amazing, every bite was heaven. I got it with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. The whipped cream was thick so it didn’t melt too quickly, the strawberries were sweet, and the waffle itself was so crunchy on the outside and soft inside. So delicious.
I then went to where I thought a walking tour would start, but I guess I had the wrong information. I went to the information center nearby to ask about free walking tours and turns out I missed it by half an hour. But good news, there would be another one in two hours.
So, I went to eat an actual lunch of waterzooi. It’s a thick creamy fish soup, and the place I had it gave such big portions I couldn’t finish it myself. I’m sure two or three people can split it! So much food but so delicious.
Having a full stomach, I walked around the city a bit, first going down to the Beguinage. It was really green and pretty inside; the hostel person said its the oldest convent in Bruges.
Then I walked around Minnewater Lake, also known as the lake of love. It was really pretty!
I then walked back to the city center in time for the walking tour, which basically took us through the path I had just walked (but with explanations of course).
We had a quick rundown of the history of Bruges, starting back in the 9th century. At that time, Bruges was a swampland, and the people who lived there did farming, fishing, and such. They got raided by the Vikings a lot since they were right next to the water, and so eventually they figured out to build a wall around the city.
Because Bruges is right near the water, it became the center of trade. People from all over Europe went there to trade, and more and more trade meant more and more wealth. So, as Bruges’ economy grew, so did its city. They built the belfry on top of church to show their wealth and power.
This was all fine and dandy until the French wanted to impose taxes on Bruges. Bruges refused of course, which made the French king very mad. So, he sent soldiers over to Bruges to make them pay. When Bruges heard about this, they thought well, they’re just common folk and won’t be able to fend against an army. So they hid in the swamps and attacked there instead. The horses would get stuck, and the soldiers would fall off their horses. Because the soldiers were too heavily armed, they weren’t able to get back on their horses. So, Bruges won this battle.
At some point in time, Maximilian of Austria, part of the Hapsburg family, came to rule Bruges. Bruges managed to capture Maximilian they put him in the belfry tower overlooking the square. They also captured his best friend Longneck and tortured him, eventually decapitating him, in that square. A few months? Later, they offered Maximilian a deal: if he doesn’t try to punish Bruges, they’ll let him go. Of course he promised but didn’t keep up his promise; he made Bruges keep swans in their canals for eternity (and killed some people etc etc). This is why Bruges is the only city in Belgium that has swans in its city center!
At the Beguinage, the tour guide explained that beguins, poor women who had lost their husbands, used lived there. It was a self-sustaining space with its own laws, it’s own farms, church, stores, etc etc, and during the day, the beguins would go out into the city and volunteer, making the city better. It was only for women though, a safe place for them. Nuns live there now.
We walked through the Beguinage, my second time that day. We then got to Minnewater Lake, where the tour guide told us the story about it. There was a solider and a girl named Minne in love, but the solider had to go to war. During the war, Minne missed him so much that she ran away from home looking for him. When he got back, he was told she went out to find him, so of course he went out to find her. He found her near what is Minnewater Lake today, and she was almost dying. He picked her up and was carrying her back when she died in his arms. He buried her body right next to the lake, and dedicated the lake to her.
We also passed one of the oldest hospitals in Bruges, and it’s no longer used today but became a museum. There’s now a new hospital outside the city center. Also near it, there’s a harp player who performs three times each day, five days a week, for free for half an hour. I wasn’t able to go listen to him, but the tour guide said he’s one of the best harp players in the world.
We passed by the house Gruuthuse that used to brew their own beer. A member of this household got invited to be in the Order of the Golden Fleece, symbolized by a necklace with a ram on the bottom. The Order of the Golden Fleece is a very prestigious honor since it’s by invite only. The people in this order cannot be tried by a regular trial, only by other members of the Order. The order is still alive today, and Queen Elizabeth II is in the order (as was Henry the 8th).
We passed the smallest bridge in Bruges, and because it was near a cemetery that got moved, some of the broken cemetery headstones were used to build the bridge. Wow! It was here also that we could see the two smallest Baroque windows in Bruges (possibly in the world?). It’s at the back of the Church of the Holy Blood, and it was built to watch over the traders who would come to the city via the river next to it. The location on the river was where traders would have to pay their taxes, so the window gave insight into that.
The Church of the Holy Blood has a vial of supposedly Jesus Christ’s blood, and every year, there is a holiday to celebrate this. One year, Ghent decided to attack Bruges on that day, and to show their victory, they stole the dragon that was on the top of the belfry. To bring it back, they put it on a donkey, but the donkey refused to go further than the gate surrounding Bruges. The Ghents decided to burn its eyes, and not knowing where it was going, the donkey carried the dragon back to Ghent. There’s a street dedicated to this donkey!
We walked back along the street to Burg Square, the place where all the political decisions are made. The town hall is there, and in the square, there are buildings of every architecture style: Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, etc etc.
Here we ended the walking tour, and the tour guide handed out a bunch of coupons, one of which was a coupon for a waffle place, a cart just in that square. Of course I had to go get a waffle then, so I did and got it with chocolate. It was really good but way too much chocolate!
I then walked back to the hostel to rest a bit, and then headed out for the night walking tour! The tour guide gave again a quick rundown of the history, and then we were on our way.
Bruges used to be all built in wood, but because this was too prone to fire burning down the buildings, in 1661, a law was passed that buildings can no longer be built using wood. So, the new buildings got built with stone. We saw the two remaining wooden buildings, and they were both slightly slanted forward. This was to keep the rain off the lower parts, and also because buildings’ costs were calculated per square meter. By leaning the building forward, they would get a bit more space without having to pay for it.
We passed by a square that used to be surrounded by tradehouses, and one of the tradehouses decided to invite everyone to have a drink and chat at night. But, people had more than one beer and as they were drunk, they devised a new way to exchange money – and thus the stock market exchange was born here. Apparently Amsterdam claims that the first stock market exchange was born there, but the tour guide told us that the word for stock market is very clearly named after the house we saw, Bourse.
We then walked along the canals, which were so pretty at night! The tour guide told us a legend about a golden eel. Because Bruges was quite religious, there was a rule for fisherman that they couldn’t catch eels in the water, since the eels were believed just to be snakes in water. Snakes were bad luck, supposedly. One day, someone from out of town decided to catch some of the eels, so he put his net into the water and returned later in the day. As he looked down into his net, he saw a golden eel. Surprised, he leaned closer to get a better look, and a golden hand raised up from his net and pulled him into the canal. Funnily enough, a marine biologist identified that there are albino eels, which appear gold in color. So it might’ve been one of those!
Our next stop was the painter Jan van Eyck Square, dedicated to the most famous painter in Bruges. The king, a good friend of Eyck’s, was supposed to marry a girl from Lisbon, but never having seen her, he asked Eyck to go over and paint a picture of her to bring back for him. He did so, painting one to mail back and painting another to hand-carry back. The girl was bald, but I guess the king didn’t really care, as he ended up marrying her anyway!
We walked past the Jerusalem church, the only privately owned church in the city. There’s a tombstone inside and apparently it’s cracked because every time they ordered a tombstone from Jerusalem for authenticity, it would crack. Eventually, they went over to Jerusalem to figure out what’s wrong, and the tombstone there cracked as well. So, the people returned and just decided to use their own cracked tombstone.
We made it out all the way to the windmills! There used to be about thirty-five of them, but now there are only four left. They’re nonfunctional now. The windmills are built on man-made hills because being right next to the city wall, the wind would have been blocked by the wall.
Our last stop was the stone gate, which was originally part of the wall surrounding the city. It’s used as a fencing space now, and it has been for some years.
The walking tour ended here, and I walked back to the hostel and went to bed.
The next morning, I left the hostel and hopped on a train to Brussels!

Verdict:
Bruges is a true fairytale land. The buildings are all medieval looking, and the area is just really nice. I really like Bruges. Not to mention its in Belgium, which means Belgium waffles!!! I could see myself spending a bit of time here, but the city is so small that there’s not too much to do. The canals make everything really pretty, and the people here seem pretty friendly as well!

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