The last time we visited Bruges back in 2018, I made myself a promise that it would be the last time I’d venture to this bit of Flanders. The modern blight of mass tourism was overwhelming, and an undeniably beautiful, historic town had become a cautionary tale of the ills of tourism unleashed. It was a bruising experience, and one I didn’t want to repeat any time soon.
That though was before we moved to Belgium. Bruges is no longer an overnight stay in a wildly overpriced hotel, but just over an hour away by train. I hadn’t actually intended to visit, but I’d planned a walk to the historic town of Damme, the start point was Bruges. I skirted around the town at the start of the walk, but after 18km on a hot day I reckoned I’d earned a beer and headed into the town.
Not much had changed in the intervening five years. Bruges historic centre – the Grote Markt, De Burg and Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk – were shockingly busy to someone who had just been walking through quiet countryside. But I’d entered Bruges from the north, arriving into the Sint-Anna neighbourhood. It felt calm and relaxed and, as much as it’s possible in Bruges, non-touristy.
I found a nice, uncrowded cafe next to a canal, ordered a local Brugse Zot beer and that favourite Dutch/Flemish snack, bitterballen, while I planned a couple of hours in Bruges. Named for events in the 15th century, Brugse Zot is a fitting symbol for modern Bruges. After a bit of trouble with Habsburg ruler of the Low Countries, Emperor Maximilian of Austria, the city was banned from holding all festivals and fairs.
The ban came after Bruges’ citizens had taken the Emperor prisoner, and understandably he held a grudge. Still, they didn’t give up and petitioned him to allow annual fairs and to build a zothuis, or madhouse. Maximilian is said to have replied, “Close all the gates of Bruges and you have a madhouse.” The legend has stuck and it seems like a reasonable analogy for the mayhem that modern-day central Bruges has become.
To be fair though, the Sint-Anna and neighbouring Sint-Gillis areas were pleasantly light on mass tourism. There may be none of Bruges’ great sights, but that is compensated for by streets lined with lovely 17th century cottages, some beautiful churches, and a canal-side walk around the former city walls, now a tree-lined park dotted with windmills where tour groups don’t seem to go.
Bruges medieval walls are no more, but the windmills have been recreated. Following the wall route around the city there are also several of the original city gates. Sint-Anna may be less popular, but it still has plenty of sights. The 15th-century Jerusalem Chapel, a replica of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the 13th century Onze-Lieve-Vrouw ter Potterie, a former hospital and home for pilgrims, are just two.
Named for the church, the Potterierei street runs along a canal that flows from the north of the city, through the centre, all the way to the Minnewater, known as Lover’s Lake, and the railway station. I made my way along it, occasionally diving down a side street but always returning to the canal bank. The transition from Sint-Anna, through the centre, to the Minnewater was a journey of contrasts, to say the least.
I’ve been to Bruges a few times now, but not to many of these outer areas. It’s made me reappraise my view of a city I thought a lost cause. So much so, a few weeks later I went back to nose around a bit more. It was May, so not peak tourist season – I won’t be venturing back in summer – but a Bruges that still feels like it belongs to locals and not tour groups and hen parties does exist.
3 thoughts on “Back in the madhouse, Bruges tourist timewarp”
Dankje wel meenheer… Thanks for the trip back to Bruges. We spent only one day. (Driving from and back to Paris) Pouring rain… LOL. But I liked it. A rain a day keeps the tourists away…
All’s well, Brian, thanks. I trust the same for you? In Bruges, heavy rain is probably the only thing that dissuades the tour groups. It’s still a place that you have to visit if you’re in Flanders! though.
I still have it on my list to go back.