Have you ever visited a place that completely turned your preconceived notions of it on their ear? My husband and I experienced this repeatedly during a visit to Bruges.
We expected canals, old buildings, church spires and waffles. While Bruges offers all that, there’s another side to this European city that you have to see to believe.
We assumed that two days in Bruges would be plenty. After all, it’s not a large city population-wise (approximately 119,000). But what we saw in those two days made us realize that this compact city offers up a number of unexpected surprises, despite its size.
Day One – Blood and Tears
We weren’t in Bruges for more than five minutes before realizing we’d arrived in time for some kind of festival. On the bus ride to our hotel, we passed bleachers and chairs lined up along barricaded streets.
When we got to our hotel, we asked the desk clerk what was happening that day. It turns out, we had arrived just in time to witness a once-a-year festival – the Procession of the Holy Blood (Heilig Bloedprocessie in Dutch).
Well, we couldn’t miss something that only happens once a year! So we followed the crowds and chose a spot along the procession route to watch the spectacle. The procession is still the most unusual celebration we’ve experienced to date.
I’ve already written a more detailed blog post about the Procession of the Holy Blood which you can read about here.
But essentially, the procession is a mix of Bible stories, jugglers, parade floats, livestock, musical acts and promenading politicians. This celebratory cornucopia dating to the Middle Ages culminates in the local clergy displaying a relic, said to hold a piece of cloth with drops of Christ’s blood on it.
As an outsider, this was a fascinating, almost voyeuristic scene to descend upon. We were eyewitnesses to the faith and reverence of thousands of people who truly believed they were in the presence of Christ’s blood.
We stood behind the barricade for several hours, until the very last costumed participant was well out of eye line and the crowds began dispersing.
Something about the procession being our first experience with Bruges left an indelible mark on the rest of our visit. We now saw this small city from a completely different perspective.
After the procession, we decided to take a boat tour. This was a great vantage point to see the city and its architecture.
That’s Jan van Eyckplein square in the distance below. It was once the old harbour. The building with the tower may appear to be a church, but this is actually the Poortersloge, or the Burghers’ Lodge. It was built at the end of the 14th Century. Since this was the old commercial district at the time, international trade and other important meetings took place here.
The church spire in the background belongs to the Church of Our Lady. The church houses many priceless works of art, most notably Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child sculpture.
This church took two centuries to complete. The 115.5-meter brick tower makes it the tallest structure in Bruges, and the second-tallest brick building in the world. Here’s a better photo of the tower from land:
Many of the buildings and houses in Bruges date from the Middle Ages. I particularly liked the crooked lines of this old wooden structure jutting out over the canal:
Take note of the swans around Bruges, especially in and around the canals and in Minnewater Lake. Ironically, the swans aren’t exactly a sign of peace and tranquility. They’re actually the result of an alleged curse.
In 1482, Maximilian I of Habsburg, Archduke of Austria became governor of Belgium after his wife, Mary of Burgundy, died in a horse-riding accident. He placed heavy taxes on the city of Bruges, through his advisor and town administrator, Pieter Lanchals (or Long Neck). The burghers captured and imprisoned Maximilian and Pieter during a visit to Bruges. Pieter was beheaded by guillotine while Maximilian watched from his prison.
After his release from captivity, Maximilian wrote a degree stating “the city should keep the swans on all its lakes and canals at its own expense until the end of time”. Whether the tale is true or not, isn’t entirely clear, since swans have been here since early Medieval times. But it certainly made us see the swans in a different light.
Minnewater Lake, on the south end of Bruges, also carries a sad tale. Legend has it that a young woman named Minna fell in love with a warrior named Stromberg. Her father, however, wanted her to marry someone of his own choosing. In deperation, she ran off into the forest to avoid the forced marriage. When Stromberg returned from battle he discovered Minna was missing. He searched for her in the woods, and eventually found her. However, he was too late; Minna died of exhaustion in Stromberg’s arms. Stromberg buried her where the brick tower now stands.
After the boat tour, my husband and I went for a stroll past our hotel. Beyond the crowded, touristy areas, we discovered a lovely quiet area along the ramparts, lined with windmills. At one time, Bruges had as many as 23-25 windmills, but now only 4 remain. The closest windmill in the photo is Sint-Janshuis Mill, built in 1770. It’s the only windmill still occupying its original location, and is still used for grinding flour. It’s also the only windmill open for visitors.
Not that it comes as any surprise, but the streets of Bruges are just as pretty at night as they are in the daytime:
Day 2 – Basilicas and Beer
Of course, you can’t visit Belgium and not have a waffle or two! We started our second day in Bruges with a breakfast waffle, topped with fresh strawberries and a generous dollop of whipped cream.
While eating our warm, sweet waffles, we walked by several chocolate shop windows. The artistry and creativity is incredible. Check out these edible chocolate boxes!
After we inhaled our hearty waffles, we decided we’d better try another local product that Belgium does right – beer! It’s always 5 o’clock somewhere, after all. so we headed for De Halve Maan brewery.
De Halve Maan brewery (Dutch for Half Moon) opened in 1856. The brewery gives daily tours, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Below is a display of ingredients used in brewing:
As part of the tour, we got to climb the stairs to the rooftop of the brewery. The views of Bruges from here were stunning:
In the 15th Century, Bruges had at least 54 breweries, but today there are only three in the city. De Halve Maan brews a handful of different beers, but their award-winning Brugse Zot is definitely one to try:
Once we had a little tipple, we decided to visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where the relic of the Holy Blood typically resides. But as we walked toward our next destination, we stumbled on row upon row of….DeLoreans???
Apparently, the DeLorean Club Belgium was hosting their car show in Burg square, right in front of the Basilica! (The Basilica of the Holy Blood is behind the DeLoreans.)
Well, this distracted us from our intended destination for a little while.
Note the autographs on the visor on this DeLorean!
Mark and I poked around the car show for a bit, then headed to the Basilica. The church consists of an upper and lower chapel. The 12th Century Romanesque lower chapel is dedicated to St. Basil the Great. The upper chapel is neo-Gothic in style, and is the section of the church where the relic containing the Holy Blood is displayed each Friday, before and after mass.
Note the fresco behind the altar. The top section depicts The Mystery of the Cross, while the bottom section tells the story of Thierry of Alsace bringing the relic to Bruges.
This white marble and silver tabernacle protects the Holy Blood relic:
Next, Mark and I headed to Markt Square to climb the Belfry. This beautiful Medieval tower was originally built around 1240. Three separate fires heavily damaged the tower over the centuries and it was rebuilt each time. The belfry was originally a treasury and the municipal archives. The city also used it as an observation tower for spotting fires.
If you have the stamina, you can climb to the top of the tower – all 366 steps worth. It takes some time and effort, but I recommend it (And oh look, it’s the DeLorean car show down below):
Directional signs around the tower help to orient you:
The belfry added a carillon in the 16th Century, operated by a hand keyboard. The carillon has 47 bells, 26 of which date between 1742 and 1748. The additional 21 bells date to 2010. Together the bells weigh an astonishing 27 tons!
This rotating drum plays songs on the carillon. It’s the largest brass drum in the world, weighing around 9 tons. The drum plays a tune every 15 minutes:
In the evening during a leisurely walk, we came upon a small carnival! There were rides, games of chance, and of course, fast food stalls.
A bright, loud, exciting carnival seemed like the perfect way to conclude two full days in Bruges.
We got to experience so much more variety in terms of history, culture, food and festivals than we ever anticipated. Even though we didn’t get to see everything we wanted to, I think that a third day would have ruined the magic. But we can definitely agree that Bruges is anything but boring!
This blog post is now available on GPSmyCity here: Surprises Around Every Corner in Bruges, Belgium