JUST 366 MINOR STEPS...
Bruges is one of the jewels of Europe. Today it is a major tourist destination, but its importance dates back to the late Middle Ages, when it was the most important commercial city in the North Atlantic. For this reason, we call Bruges, "the Venice of the North"; not because of its channels (in this, Amsterdam would hold the title), but because of its commercial importance in the area, just as Venice was the capital of trade in the Mediterranean at that moment. The fact of being a market city gave it the privilege of building a watchtower in the main square, which allowed it to stand out in the region as a commercial centre and, at the same time, scan the horizon and thus avoid invasions by land and sea.
This Belfort tower, symbol of the city, offers the brave the possibility of climbing to the top, through 366 medieval steps, if they dare, to have an impressive view of the city from its 83 meters high. You will also be able to appreciate the carillon set of 47 bells. On clear days, even the city of Ghent can be seen from up there!
In the place where today stands the Belfry of Bruges, there was a wooden tower in 1240, as well as a wool market with its warehouses, administrative offices and the archives of the city. A fire destroyed the tower in 1280, together with all the previous archives. A Town Hall was built in a different place (in "Burg" square) and the administration was transferred there. The tower was rebuilt in 1296 with two square bases and a wooden tower spire.
The city´s market was expanded during the XV century and, from 1483 to 1487, the octagonal upper part of white stone was built. It was flanked by four smaller towers and topped by a wooden spire with a statue of Saint Michael.
Another fire, this time caused by lightning, destroyed the top and the bells again in 1493. When it was repaired, a wooden tower adorned with rampant lions was built.
During the XVI century, a gallery was added and the inner courtyard was also remodelled by adding galleries on the first floor.
In 1741, a new fire destroyed the bell tower’s spire, which was repaired in 1753. The tower was rebuilt in its current shape, a neo-Gothic crown, instead of the spire that previously crowned it.
But, wait! Although the Belfry looks straight, it is not. With its height of 83 meters, it has been tilted slightly to the left 1.19 meters for more than four centuries, so be mindful!
A 14º BEER?OUI, OUI, OUI!
Undoubtedly, mussels are the most typical dish, but what if we become real Belgian for a moment and taste one of the typical beers of the country?
Belgian beer dates back to the time of the first crusades, in the XII century, long before Belgium was an independent country (what happened in 1820). Allowed by the Catholic Church, some French and Flemish abbeys started making and distributing beer as a way of self-financing. Low alcohol beer was considered at the time a healthier option than water, which was not always drinkable. In fact, drinking water was quite dangerous, since wells and rivers could be contaminated. During the beer-making process, thanks to alcohol, this danger was eliminated, and for this reason, even children drank beer! although, of course, with a very low alcohol content. The now traditional brewing methods evolved, under the supervision of the abbeys, over the following seven centuries.
The Bruges Brewers Guild was founded in 1308, and there are two typical beers from the city of Bruges: Brugse Zot and Brugge Tripel, which is a high fermentation Belgian beer.
In the XVIII century, monks fleeing the French Revolution occupied the Trappist monasteries that today make beer in Belgium. However, the first Trappist brewery in Belgium, Westmalle, did not begin operating until 10th December 1836, almost 50 years after the Revolution. That beer was for the exclusive consumption of the monks, and is described as "dark and sweet."
There are beers of single fermentation, double fermentation, triple fermentation, white, blonde, toasted, black ... but how can you leave Bruges without having a Tripel? It is a wheat beer of only 8.7º, although there are even 14º beers!
Any brewery or restaurant.
LACE IS BACK…
If there is something truly typical in Bruges, it is lace. Formerly, wealthy families throughout Europe and, of course, all royal families, used to baptize their children in a Christian costume with lace from Bruges. It was not only used for this purpose but also for both men and women clothing, being a symbol of status and distinction, since these lace were manufactured entirely by hand.
The passion that Flemish residents of Bruges showed as early as the Middle Ages for fine and quality clothing led to the development of more than 1,500 different types of lace woven in silver, gold and silk fabrics. Today there are two main lace weaving techniques practiced in Belgium, the "Bobbin Method", also known as the "Brussels Method", and the "Bruges Method", which uses a loom.
Bruges weavers are adept at creating very delicate lace, which takes a long and arduous process of weaving. They do not intend to turn it into a mass product, so, as you will notice, most stores sell low-priced, machine-made, imported lace products. Despite that, we can find real local lace in many shops, of course at a higher price because they are unique handmade pieces. Another curious thing we can find is some brooches with small parts of beautiful old lace, so that this magnificent work can be seen and worn in a more modern way.
Anyway, we cannot leave the city without a small detail of this wonderful product. Don´t forget to buy a brooch with a butterfly, a bookmark for a book ...
They take up little space in the luggage, they are also light, quite cheap (if no handmade) and will always be a good detail to take as a gift to your loved ones.
Most souvenir shops provide these types of souvenirs.
THE BLIND DONKEY OF BRUGES
Perhaps you know that in Bruges there is a beautiful little street called “Blind Donkey Alley” (Blinde Ezelstraat in Flemish), very close to the main square, just a few meters from Burg Square.
In the Middle Ages, Burg Square was a walled fortress that came to occupy almost one hectare, with several entrance gates. Count Arnulfo I (889-965) was the one who made this place the city centre. Burg Square is surrounded by different historical buildings such as the Town Hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood.
The relic of the blood of Christ, believed to have been collected by Joseph of Arimathea, came to the city in 1150 from the hand of Theodoric of Alsace, who brought it from the Holy Land.
The Bruges Town Hall was built from 1376 to 1421 in flamboyant gothic style and is one of the oldest city halls in Belgium.
It is in this square, under the arch joining the beautiful building of the Oude Griffie (old civil registry) and the Town Hall, there is a small alley that leads us to a beautiful place. Look at this image with the alley, the arch, medieval brick buildings, the canal ... Do not miss this unique picturesque corner, it is worth a photo!You may wonder: why does it have this name?
They say that, on the corner of the street, next to the canal that we found when crossing the alley, there was a mill pulled by a donkey whose eyes were covered so that his work would not be that monotonous. The history of the name is not very impressive but, without a doubt, your picture in this beautiful place will be.
Blinde Ezelstraat Street.
Nobody is going to show you because they don´t like groups. Nevertheless, individually or with a few people, you can enter the Begijnhof or Beguinage of Bruges (actually, it is called “Monastery of the Vineyard” or De Wijngaard), which is located nearby from the place where we got off the bus. The Beguinage dates from 1245 and, since 1927, there has been a community of Benedictine nuns living there instead of the Beguines.
This beguinage in Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of a peaceful enclosure bordered by thirty little houses, many of which from the XV century, where the Beguines lived. There is also a small church and a beautiful garden, all surrounded by a wall.
So, who are these Beguines that give this place its name? They were revolutionary women who, at the beginning of the XII century, chose to exist without being wives or religious, and created an urban area where they could live in community, protected by a wall without the need to pronounce vows, neither chastity nor poverty. They dedicated their life to charities, thus saving themselves from being accused of being witches and free from male dominance. This custom spread through France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Hungary, allowing freedom and mutual help between women. At that time, the only options for women were arranged weddings or convents. The fact of being independent was inconceivable, in addition to leaving them unprotected and exposed to be accused of witchcraft by any envious or distrustful neighbour.
The Beguine movement did not end in the Middle Ages, but reached the contemporary era. In fact, the last of them died in Amsterdam at the end of the XX century. Without a doubt, a place where time has stood still in its beauty and that will not leave you unmoved.
Beginhof, next to the Lake of love.
If you notice, in many houses of the city, there are statues of saints and virgins on the corners. It is not modern at all, despite the fact that Belgium is a Catholic country. These kinds of statues are no longer located in buildings and, for sure, no empty niches are left expressly to place sculptures.
The explanation of these statues, takes us back to the Middle Ages and the craftsmen´s guilds. In the past, in sculpture schools and workshops, apprentices had to carve a stone figure to pass the grade. Obviously, impregnated by religious fervour, these statues unfailingly represented saints or virgins, which, in addition to serving as decoration, worked as protection against daily diseases and evils.
If they passed, that is to say, if the master sculptors considered they had enough talent and knowledge, the statue was placed in a building, usually paid for by the sponsor or owner of the house. Most of them were polychrome, even if, with time, they have lost their colour. Luckily, some of them have been restored and recovered its original appearance.
Besides, at a time when there were no numbers in the houses (the numbering of the streets starts in the Napoleonic era, in the XIX century), these statues also served as indicators to give directions: "turn right at the house where Saint Joseph is; the man you are looking for lives 4 houses further away."
They are beautiful and full of history and popular fervour!
Do you dare to be the hunter that gets the most different photos? How many of the painted ones will you get?
CREATING THE STOCK EXCHANGE
Right next to the Church of Our Lady, there is the Gruuthuse Museum (which can also be seen from the Arentshof Garden, where we have made our break). This magnificent palace houses a very interesting collection on the three crucial periods in the rich history of Bruges: the Burgundian boom of the city, the lesser-known XVII and XVIII centuries and the historical "revival” of Bruges in the XIX century.
The curious thing about this building which no one will tell you, is that the concept of a stock exchange was born in Belgium in the XVI century. More specifically in Bruges, and even more specifically in this building, owned by the noble Van der Buërse family, where commercial meetings and gatherings were held in the XIII century...
The Buërse coat of arms, which can still be seen on the facade of the residence, featured three leather bags (the coin purses of the time). The inhabitants of the city began to call the economic activity that was carried out in that house like the surname of the family, Büerse. Over time, they ended calling the place itself Büerse.
That is why, in Latin languages, the words for "stock market" and “stock exchange” come from that linguistic root, which means “bag”. Let’s recall that, in the XIII and XIV centuries, Bruges was an important commercial centre with around 100,000 inhabitants, which was a larger population that London or Paris at that time.
It was in the XVII century when the stock markets began to evolve until they reached what could be considered the first known stock exchange, which, according to many authors, was in Amsterdam. So, every time you turn on the TV and see the stock values, you will feel the satisfaction of having been in the place where everything was born!
Dijver Street, 17.
Bruges is, nowadays, a city focused on tourism. Of course, apart from typical products (chocolates, lace, etc.), there are many brands and shops where you can get lost and renew your wardrobe. Clothes, shoes, accessories… How about taking a walk through one of its little streets, this time without being tempted by the shop windows? Let’s go and find a place to photograph the Bruges skyline. Yes, this medieval city has a beautiful skyline with three towers that form a unique vision: the Belfort tower that we already know, the tower of the St Salvator´s Cathedral and the tower of the Church of Our Lady.
From the Markt square (the square with the Belfort tower) runs a street called Steenstraat. After about 100 meters, it changes its name to Zuidzandstraat. Here you can enjoy some shopping before reaching the Cathedral, the oldest church in Bruges built between the XIII-XIV centuries. First, it was a parish, and later in the early XIX century it became the seat of the diocese of Bruges.
It is dedicated to Christ the Savior and, if you come inside, you will find several jewels such as its organ and some Flemish tapestries from 1700.If you continue to the end of the street, you will arrive at a square called Zand. There, on the left side, you will see a modern brick-colored building: the Concert Hall (Concertgevow). On the top floor, there is a cafeteria with a remarkable viewpoint from where you can take your pictures with the three towers that define the city.
Zand Square, 34.
WITH THE 4 HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
If what we need is to make a stop in our frenetic tourist activity, nothing better than walking to the small garden called Arentshof, next to the Arentshuis museum, about 50 meters from the Church of Our Lady. There, in this idyllic place, we can take a seat surrounded by huge yew trees, contemplate the sculptures of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (by the sculptor Rik Poot), and immerse ourselves in the trip to the past that is the city of Bruges.
It is a place full of peace just a few meters from the main square where you can make the most of your time and sit down to eat some chips. You might wonder why potatoes and not any other snack; Well, because Belgians love French fries. So much that they eat an average of 100 kg of potato per person per year.
Throughout the city, you will find several street stalls (one of them in the Grote Mark itself), offering this beloved Belgian snack. What is special about them? Well, Belgians usually fry the potatoes twice in boiling oil, so that they are crisp, and accompany them with different sauces to suit the consumer. Take your fries cone to this corner and watch life go by. Enjoy that medieval and XXI century mix in the city of Bruges, where futuristic travellers stroll through corners of more than 1000 years.
Arentshof Garden, behind the Church of Our Lady.
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