It’s hard to imagine that the small, sleepy town of Bruges (or Brugge to give it its more appropriate Flemish name) was once a major centre for international trade. Yet by the 14th century it was famous for taking English wool and turning it into some of the finest and most desirable cloth in the world. It was an immensely lucrative business and Bruges grew fabulously wealthy.
Just at it attracts tourists from all corners of the world today, at the height of Bruges’ power in the 15th century, goods from all over Europe passed through its port on the River Zwin. War and competition from other cities, particularly Antwerp, reduced Bruges’ influence and wealth; but its death knell came when the River Zwin silted up and ships could no longer reach the North Sea.
By the 1530s Bruges’ long, slow decline was complete, and something truly extraordinary happened. Bruges was deserted by its people and forgotten by the world. Houses were abandoned, industries closed down, the port was empty, the canals unused. Bruges became a ghost town. Bypassed by history, it slipped into obscurity.
Unimportant politically, economically or militarily, Bruges was saved the ravages of centuries of European conflict, preserving its medieval buildings, cobbled streets and canals until the present. Tourism is its lifeblood today and, bizarrely, it was tourism that saved Bruges from obscurity.
Early 19th century British tourists, on their way to view the battlefield of Waterloo, stumbled upon a medieval town frozen in time and barely touched by modern life. Word spread quickly and Bruges got the nickname of the ‘Venice of the North’. Its fate was sealed. Tourism has been growing ever since, and now a town of fewer than 120,000 people receives over 2 million visitors each year.
Bruges’ Golden Age has bequeathed posterity an historical treasure trove – its medieval centre has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. The best way to see it is to stroll through its narrow streets, preferably with frequent stops to sample some of the extraordinary Belgium beers on offer.
If you’re in Bruges it would be rude not to try the beer. There is said to be a different bar for each night of the year, and at least two of them serve over 500 different types of beer. Faced with so much choice, decision making is very difficult, if not impossible. We headed to the delightful Cafe Red Rose which specialises in Trappist beers (motto “Trappist beer … taste the silence”).
It was here that I sampled the beer considered to be the best in the world, the dark, strong and decidedly tasty Westvleteren XII. At a hefty €15 per bottle it really had to be tasty. It’s not easy to get your hands on a bottle, the monks who make it only produce 126,000 gallons of the stuff a year and demand is high. They refuse to make more simply saying, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford to be monks.”
Westvleteren XII is strong stuff, and we were a bit wobbly on our feet as we left. Back on the streets, we meandered until we came across the Sint-Janshospitaal Museum. This 800-year old hospital has a great permanent collection, including a number of Flemish Primitives, but had a special exhibition called ‘Bruegel’s Witches’. After drinking the Westvleteren, a bit of witchcraft seemed appropriate.
It was a fascinating exhibition (it runs until June 26th), less for the actual exhibits as for the story it told. Although the idea of witches had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until 1565 that the stereotype of a wart-covered ugly old woman with a black cat and cauldron took root in the popular imagination. This image was invented by Bruegel the Elder and is still with us 450-years later.
After that bewitching experience, we set off to sample some more Belgian beers and to indulge in some of Bruges’ fine cuisine before heading to France and the Loire Valley …