In Bruges

I was fully prepared to fall in love. Bruges seemed like a city I was bound to adore: Stuffed full of the characterful gothic architecture and bizarre small carvings that always intrigue me; Criss-crossed with picturesque canals and quaint, winding cobblestone streets. Sublime chocolate. What more could a girl want?

The truth is, I had also long wanted to visit Bruges because it is the location of several of my favorite historical novels, The House of Niccolo series by Scottish author Dorothy Dunnett. I was childishly thrilled by the notion of walking the same streets, visiting the same places as Nicholas and the other characters, real and fictional, in Dunnett’s astonishingly well researched books.

The Ezelpoort, or Donkey Gate, is one of four remaining original gates into the city.

Alas, the romance was blighted. I blame the scorching hot weather. With normal summer temperatures topping out in the low to mid 70s (F), air conditioners are rare in Belgium. Some shops had portable units that tempered the 90-degree scorchers I encountered in August, but almost no homes have AC. My house swap just outside one of the ancient city gates was no exception. Windows closed at night meant hellacious temperatures. Windows open meant spending the wee hours swatting mosquitoes and scratching.

Part of a monumental 16th-century fireplace surround in the Bruges Vrije or law courts. It was built to honor Charles V, the first Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor.

I was miserable. And I don’t think I was the only one. Thanks to COVID, there weren’t the usual hordes of tourists pouring in on day trips from cruise ships docked at nearby Zeebruges. But the mostly European tourists who did visit looked a bit bedraggled. Some tour guides, shopkeepers and waiters seemed somewhat testy — on edge, if not from the heat, then from the disastrous loss of business this summer. One waiter told me it was illegal to serve tap water at restaurants in Bruges, though other restaurants were happy to do so. If I wanted water with my meal there, I needed to pony up three euros for the bottled version. The woman on duty at the ticket and entry desk at the 16th-century Bruge Vrije refused me entrance, saying my museum pass was not valid except at the “private” museums. No matter that the brochure on her desk clearly depicted and listed both that building and the neighboring Stadhuis, or city hall. I had to trudge back to the tourist office and enlist their help in getting her to let me in.

Perhaps most disappointing: After spending two hours learning how to temper chocolate, make ganache and fill a dozen or so perfect little pralines (what we call simply “chocolates” in the U.S.), my little stash of goodies melted before I could get them back to my lodging. Fortunately, though no longer pretty, they tasted great!

Still, Bruges is in many ways a fairy tale city; its centuries-old architecture and original street plan, frozen in time. Weather and literature played a big role in that story too.

Part of the original medieval wall and tower

Although Bruges had always had access to the North Sea through a tidal inlet called the Zinn, it wasn’t until a storm in 1134 widened and lengthened the channel that the small medieval settlement started to blossom. Poised at the nexus between the Hanseatic trade routes on the Baltic and North Seas and the Mediterranean trade bringing silks, spices, dyes and more to London and other northern European ports, Bruges was well located to become a key commercial center.

Hans Memling’s Madonna and Child. Odd how they got the child’s head and body proportions all wrong!

Innkeepers started offering the foreign traders, along with accommodation, their services as brokers and agents. They quickly adopted the financial and banking innovations brought to Bruges by Genoese and Venetian merchants, and by 1330, what was arguably the world’s first stock market was operating in the square outside the Van de Beurse family inn in the center of Bruges. With all that wealth accumulating in the city, patronage of the arts also flourished. The city’s rich burghers, as well as the Duke of Burgundy himself, commissioned numerous works from Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. Bruges became the cradle of Flemish Primitives.

One of the many Bruges bridges

But by the 1480s, Bruges was headed into a downward spiral. The Zinn was silting up, impeding ship traffic. And the city’s leaders were rebelling against Maximilian, son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick and the widower of Margaret of Burgundy, who had ruled following the death of her father. Trade moved first to Antwerp and later to Amsterdam. Bruges dwindled from a population of about 200,000 in its heyday to only about 50,000. By the mid 1800s, it was reputedly the poorest city in Belgium.

Ironically, it was partially Bruges’ poverty that saved it. In the mid 1800s, as many other European cities were undergoing wholesale destruction of old neighborhoods and rebuilding, Bruges was too broke to do so. As a result, the city’s Gothic churches and cloisters, Sint Jan’s hospital and most of the medieval and Renaissance commercial and residential buildings of the city center fell into disrepair, but survived. So did the original medieval layout of the city. Today, the entire historic center of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the city experienced a rebirth, and it was literature that midwifed it. Bruges-la-Morte, by little-known Belgian author George Rodenbach, was published in 1892. It’s a tragic story of a grief-stricken widower who becomes obsessed with a dancer who resembles his late wife. As a symbolist novel, it was considered by critics to be quite good. But what really set it apart were the 35 black-and-white photographs used as illustrations — a first for a work fiction. The evocative photos of the city made Bruges itself almost a character in the novel and, among well-off Brits and other Europeans, sparked broad interest in visiting the city. Tourism became and remains Bruges’ most important economic engine.

More than a century later, history repeated itself, with the release of the popular British-American movie, In Bruges. A dark comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen hiding out in the city, the film’s atmospheric setting inspired another round of tourism. Now, along with the medieval buildings, tour guides point out which hotel the stars stayed in.