Bruges, and the Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant

We visited Belgium’s most famous ‘fairytale’ medieval town almost exactly two years ago, and I was looking forward to a return visit and the opportunity to sample some of those Belgium beers that are rarely seen outside of the country’s borders. The weather wasn’t as accommodating as the last time we were here. Frequent downpours made wandering around the cobbled streets a bit of a lottery, but it wasn’t the rain that left a lasting impression, it was the visible impact of mass tourism that I can only describe as ‘out of control’.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

That statement requires some context. Bruges, or Brugge if you’re Flemish, is a city of fewer than 120,000 inhabitants. A couple of years ago, official statistics show that it received 7.8 million tourist visits, or to put it another way, for every inhabitant, there were sixty five tourists. It’s no surprise that locals cycle around the city even more aggressively than Amsterdammers. It is surprising that there aren’t more accidents. Cyclists and car drivers aren’t very forgiving, and tourist groups wander aimlessly into roads without looking.

Most of these 7.8 million people visit on day trips, but some 2.2 million overnight stays were recorded as well. That’s nearly twenty times Bruges’ population. On the busiest summer nights 45,000 tourists spend the night in the town. That is a lot of hotel beds, and probably explains why our fairly basic chain hotel was able to charge us over €200 per night. Given the relatively small footprint of the historic centre, that’s a whole lot of people to squeeze in, and the strain is beginning to show.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant, Bruges, Belgium

It’s something of an irony that Bruges is known as the Venice of the North because, like it’s Italian twin, I suspect Bruges will become a case study for what went wrong with tourism in the early 21st century. If it’s this busy in late April, early May, I can’t imagine what it must be like at the peak of the summer tourist season. Bedlam? We had a fun weekend regardless, but it’s a shame that the streets are so packed, and every historic building and attraction had a long queue outside.

Perhaps worse than the sheer number of tourists though, is the disdain sometimes shown towards them. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood – the queue had a couple of hundred people in it when we arrived – the experience was so awful that we nicknamed it the “Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant” in honour of a man who worked there. He single-handedly took it upon himself be the morality monitor of all visitors, walking up and down the queue pushing people while hissing threateningly, “Show some respect”. A truly awful person.

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

I realise that this is painting a grim picture, and Bruges really is a very attractive town. It has good museums, restaurants and (of course) bars stocking many delicious Belgian beers. I’d recommend a visit to the Expo Picasso at the Oud Sint-Jan, it was a real eye-opener. It’s definitely best to get up early and do your exploring before the onset of the tour groups. After 11am the streets just become too packed with large and unwieldy groups of people, not to mention the horse-drawn carriages that career around the streets at top speed.

I’ll leave the last word to the character ‘Harry’, played by Ralph Fiennes, from the film In Bruges (a foul-mouthed comedy about two hitmen hiding in the town). “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f*****g thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f*****g fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”

Perhaps when they are swamped by masses of tourists doing battle with each other and local residents? Although at least they have some talented musicians.

8 thoughts on “Bruges, and the Basilica of the Holy Bloody Pedant

  1. Great views of Brugge, Paul. I see you framed most of them upward to cut off the tourists? 🙂
    La Blanche de Bruges is one of my favourite. (A long time ago)
    It’s not the first instance I hear about “exploding” tourism. Though those cities largely live on tourism. Dubrovnik I hear is a near nightmare. There will probably come a time when one will have to buy a daily ticket to actually enter certain cities… Strange.
    Tot ziens.
    (And the movie is f…g grand!) 😉

    • The crowds were bad, and the accompanying cars and buses. Bruges just isn’t that big. I heard Dubrovnik is essentially unvisitable these days. I’d love to go again, but suspect the town of my memories from the 1980s (still Yugoslavia then) will no longer exist – although I bet the food is better!
      Sometimes the street level ‘noise’ is so unpleasant I cut it out of photos, but there’s also much to be admired above street level in ancient cities.
      Agree about the film, we watched it recently, small but very funny.

      • Travel is just exploding. “Tourist arrivals” are at 1.2 bilions a year! Infrastructure is just blown. Last time I went to the Louvre… couldn’t walk around. Museums will have to open 24/7, and quotas will have to be put. make a reservation to Orsay on April 24, 2021. Frightening.

  2. I think we may have been lucky when we went two years ago, in that we went in December so the numbers of tourists were slightly down. I think you’re right in that there’s going to have to be some solution to the problems that so many visitors are causing, and actually if we go to Belgium again for that type of trip it’s more likely to be to Ghent.

    • I think ‘out of season’ is the only way to visit places like Bruges, but it seems like the ‘season’ is getting ever longer. Ghent is lovely, visited a few years ago and had a great time there.

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