DECEMBER 3 — If you are planning a winter vacation to Europe and haven’t yet decided upon a destination — or if you just need a tip for the future — you won’t find a more festive place to visit than Bruges.
Ok, it might not be the most obvious holiday haunt. If you’re travelling all that distance, you’ll probably want to spend your time exploring somewhere more famous like Paris, Amsterdam or London.
But in terms of providing a Christmas atmosphere, a genuine northern European winter wonderland experience, you won’t find a more authentic venue than Bruges, a historic city in the north of Belgium.
For starters, it’s cold. Really cold. And isn’t that the way it should be? If you’re visiting this part of the world at this time of the year, you really should want to pack your hat, coat and gloves — and you will need them in Bruges, where the temperature dipped below freezing this week and is unlikely to climb much higher before February.
But when you get there, you won’t be worried about the weather because the city is quaint beyond words, with a well-preserved medieval centre which more than warrants its status as a Unesco World Heritage site.
The centuries-old age of many of the buildings is pretty unusual in a corner of Europe which was ravaged by the two world wars of the twentieth century, and indeed Bruges was twice occupied by German troops — firstly between 1914 and 1918, and then again between 1940 and 1944 — but on both occasions it was spared the kind of destruction suffered by many other cities. Perhaps even the Nazis were sufficiently moved by Bruges’s prettiness to avoid causing damage.
The most famous landmark is the enormous bell tower in the main market square. Dating back nearly eight hundred years to the 13th century, the tower contains 48 bells which still chime out at regular intervals and — for the energetic — provides a narrow staircase with 366 steps, affording wonderful views of the city at the top.
Even the belfry isn’t the tallest ancient building in Bruges, however: the Catholic Church of Our Lady climbs to 115 metres in height, making it the second tallest brickwork tower in the world.
The impressive architecture scattered throughout the old centre of Bruges is a result of the city’s importance in the Middle Ages, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries, as a key trading base.
Its coastal location (the modern city is a couple of miles inland after the direct sea access dried up), the growing importance of the textile trade in Flanders, the vibrant commercial spirit of local entrepreneurs and the city’s positioning at a crossroads of trading routes allowed Bruges to make a lot of money from buying and selling, and many of the grand buildings in the city’s many squares and boulevards were once occupied by rich merchants.
Bruges also lays claim to a significant historical development with the opening, in 1309, of the Bourse — which is believed to be the very first stock exchange in the world.
Nowadays, Bruges gains much of its wealth from tourism rather than trade, but the city is still just about quiet enough to prevent it from becoming a deadened tourist monument like other historical European cities such as Florence, which has lost any semblance of a living entity and become little more than a giant open-air museum.
The city is also small enough to comfortably walk around but large enough to easily keep visitors occupied for a few days, probably by punctuating warming visits to the city’s many appealing cafes — definitely try the hot chocolate and waffles — with strolls around the squares and paths along the canals which have led to the city, rather ambitiously, being nicknamed “the Venice of the north.”
As you walk the streets, the main language you hear will be Flemish, which is almost the same as Dutch. But you will also hear plenty of French, reflecting the curious cultural mix prevalent throughout Belgium.
Bruges — which is spelt “Brugge” in Flemish — is only 15 kilometres from the Dutch border and just 60 kilometres from France, and the influence of both neighbouring countries is extremely strong over Belgium, which was only founded in 1830 after gaining independence from the Netherlands in a controversial coup by a group of French speakers who subsequently banned the use of Flemish for several decades.
Even now, Belgium remains a precarious blend of peoples with strong individual histories and identities, and there’s a fairly strong movement for Flanders to break away and gain independence, much to the consternation of bureaucrats in the region’s capital Brussels — which also happens, of course, to be the capital of the European Union.
If that all sounds quite complicated good. It should do, because Bruges is located at the centre of a culturally unstable region which somehow manages to be part French, part Dutch, part Flemish and part Belgian at the same time, with the cuisine, architecture and attitudes simultaneously shaped by all those different influences.
All of this variety adds up to make Bruges a beguiling place to visit. It feels like the whole of northern Europe has been crammed into one attractive, historic and walkable city centre, and with the addition of a highly festive Christmas market in the city centre there’s really no better time to visit than right now.
Just don’t forget to pack your thermals.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.