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’.
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.
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.
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.