It's a fairytale town, isn't it? How's a fairytale town not somebody's fucking thing?
-Harry, In Bruges movie (2008)
When I arrived in Brussels, Belgium, my host kindly provided quirky-looking maps for Bruges (Brugge), Ghent, and Brussels. These Use It maps, currently available only in Europe, are beautifully decorated creations by locals and designed to point out tourist (and local) favorites. Not having GPS on my phone most of the time, I’m getting much better at reading maps and stumbling across local gems, by accident or not, so these maps are coming in handy for squeezing every possible sight of a destination. Here are some highlights of my day trip to Bruges using the map, which provide most of the information I have included.
Although Bruges is packed with tourists, it's hard to resist visiting this perfectly-preserved Middle Age town of romantic canals, charming cobblestone streets, and ornate medieval architecture. Bruges's history began in the late 1200s when the town's harbour greeted its first arrival from Italy, thus cementing its place in history as an important link to the Mediterranean Sea. The city grew over time and is now the cultural capital of Europe. A few other notes or highlights to check out while in Bruges:
- Drinking in public places is legal in Belgium
- Groeninge Museum, a museum with the world's largest collection of 15th/16th century Flemish primitive paintings for which the town is known
- Church of Our Lady, where Michelangelo's Madonna is on display (tickets were available at 2 in the afternoon the Sunday I visited)
- Lace Centre, held in the old lace school of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and home to a small museum on Bruges' rich history of lace dating to the 18th century (closed on Sundays in the off-season)
For less than $9 and about half an hour, the canal ride is a fun way to see the city from a different perspective. As for all of the swans, it has something to do with lore of an executed counselor to the emperor in 1488 whose family seal (Lanchals) featured a whites swan, and swans were a form of punishment. (Well, that's some punishment I can get behind, because swans are gorgeous.)
Bruges' city center, full of ornate medieval buildings from the 1300s, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so. Like UNESCO states, the town is an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement that has maintained its historic fabric as this has evolved over the centuries, and where original Gothic constructions form part of the town's identity. Bruges is one of the commercial and cultural capitals of Europe, and it's a tourist hot spot as well.
Old St. John's Hospital is said to be one of Europe's oldest surviving hospital buildings at more than 900 years old. The hospital grew during the Middle Ages and was a place where sick pilgrims and travelers were cared for. The site was later expanded with the building of a monastery and convent (source). This 11th century building is located next to the Church of Our Lady, and it contains historic artifacts, medical instruments, and works of art. Don't forget to visit the old pharmacy exhibit around the corner!
Feminism in Flanders started in the 1200s and many women followed a more "mystical" form of religion, much to the dismay of the Catholic church. In response to the church's attempted suppression, many of these women ("beguines") formed their own communities all across Flanders, and thus became tolerated as women helping the poor. Today, 26 beguinages exist in Flanders and resemble the one here. Also today, there are no more beguines (only 8 Benidictine nuns) and beguinages are still female-only places with male visitors banned once the gates close at 6:30 PM.