Two words sum up my thoughts on Bruges—”Postcard City.” What I mean is that most everywhere you go in Bruges looks like a pristine picture-perfect scene ready to be captured by a camera and printed onto a postcard—or in 2018, posted on your Instagram with some sort of thoughtful quote. While beautiful and pristine, Bruges can be eerily quiet at night, like staying overnight in a dark closed museum. This isn’t as much a living breathing town as it is a city designed to attract tourists and temporary residents. In fact, during the peak tourist months, tourists actually outnumber Bruges’ residents. The first thing Bryan and I did upon checking into our hostel, we grabbed a free USE-IT map of the city. These maps show more than the most popular tourist attractions. They are put together by locals with unique tips for things to do, see, eat, and drink. With 4 days to kill in Bruges, we picked some of our favorites from the map, and booked a free walking tour with Legends of Bruges the next morning to get acquainted with the city.
Our tour was one of our favorites yet. Led by a local Flemish guide passionate about his city, Bryan and I enjoyed hearing stories of the successes and downfalls of the city. I’ll provide some of those in the picture captions below. I think the most prominent piece of information that stuck with us though was the beer pipeline running through the city. The pipeline allows beer from De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) Brewery to travel 2 miles to the brewery’s bottling factory outside of the city center and has the capacity to fill 12,00 bottles an hour. It is said if you find a bar with the Bruges Zot beer on tap, that bar has a direct connection into the pipeline. Bryan and I found this to be genius. As engineers we have designed water, sanitary, and storm pipelines, but beer? I couldn’t help but imagine getting a monthly bill for our beer consumption like other utilities.
That particular beer, Bruges Zot, translates into “Bruges Fool,” a nod to a tumultuous time in Bruges’ history. The then ruler of medieval Netherlands (of which Bruges was a part of at the time), Mary of Burgundy suddenly died in 1482. Her husband, Maximilian of Austria took over her reign and severely increased taxes to fund his military. The people of Bruges in turn became hostile towards their new ruler, and upon his visit in 1488 to the city, they imprisoned Maximilian and his adviser, Pieter Lanckhals. Maximilian was imprisoned for about 4 months, during which he imposed a prohibition for Bruges to organize festivities and fairs. The people of Bruges decided this was too much, and organized a celebration to honor him and finally release him. After this celebration, they simply asked for permission to build a new mental hospital. Maximilian advised them to simply close the gates of Bruges because the town was already filled with fools.
During our walking tour we saw a protected area by the canal that was filled with tons of swans. We learned that this was due to a decree by Maximilian of Austria made upon his release. The decree stated that “until the end of time, the city should be required at its own expense to keep swans on all its lakes and canals” to honor his adviser Pieter who had been executed by Bruges during his imprisonment. Why swans? Lanckhals is the Dutch word for ‘long neck,’ and Maximilian decided the long-necked swan would honor his close adviser.
After our tour we decided to do some shopping. I was in the search of some good Belgian chocolate. You see, Bruges itself is a tourist trap filled with countless chocolate shops that don’t even sell chocolate from Belgium! The map had advised visitors to stop at a particular chocolate shop for some guaranteed delicious chocolate treats. This is when we ran into an issue. The chocolate shop I had my heart set on was closed. This started to become our theme for Bruges. I had marked some lunch places I wanted to visit, so we decided to stop at one. Closed for summer vacation. “Okay, no worries,” I thought, “We’ll just go to my backup.” A 20-minute walk to the backup lunch place led to another shop that was closed permanently. We finally just went into a sandwich shop and ended up eating some delicious vegan sandwiches. The next day, I was determined to get my chocolate. It was closed again! The day after? Closed. It wasn’t until the last day I finally got some of the recommended authentic Belgian chocolate. Was it worth it? Yup! But this is coming from a die-hard chocolate lover (point in case: My Chocolate Binge in Costa Rica) I think the only reason Bryan went along with this daily trip to the closed chocolate shop was he found it hilarious how dedicated I was to this particular shop that kept letting me down. This was to become a trend of our next 2 months in Europe—business owners taking month-long vacations at the same time leaving big cities with half of their shops open. Learn from our mistake: skip Belgium in July!
One thing I loved about Bruges was the adorable homes along the narrow, winding, cobble-stoned streets outside the heart of the city. We enjoyed seeing how people decorated their front doors and stoop. One afternoon, Bryan and I just wandered the streets trying to find the cutest house. We came across one house that had been abandoned. In front of the boarded windows and worn out facade were numerous potted plants decorating and covering the disheveled home. We read on our USE-IT map that neighbors decorated this house frontage to reclaim the once garbage-ridden space. Apparently you can pick any herbs or vegetables in the pots as long as you leave more for others or add a new plant.
Another day, Bryan and I decided to take some time to journal and read. We walked to Koningin Astridpark and leaned up against a tree and spent some peaceful hours. The picturesque park is perfect for picnics and some quiet time away from the crowds. It was this idle time in the park that led us to realize that we were tired of gothic cathedrals and statues and art museums. We had visited city after city in Europe, and they started to blend together. We talked about a change of plan. We were ready for some nature—and not just a park with some trees and deer that are kept in zoos. We both felt frustrated with the city life we had unexpectedly planned on a trip we had been dreaming about for years. That’s when we decided that our next planned destinations would be different, and we would make an effort to apply for work exchanges outside of big cities and plan hikes as much as possible. I think that day in Bruges led us to the conclusion that we needed to break up the big cities in our future plans.
So, if you were to ask me about suggestions for places to visit would Bruges be on my list? Yes, but for a short visit. While on the surface this city can seem like a tourist trap filled with overly priced knock-off Belgian waffles and chocolates, after some searching you will find the charm in Bruges. Let me leave you with this story of our last night in Bruges. Bryan and I sat for an hour drinking a Bruges Zot at a bar located next to the most photographed spot in the city. We watched hoards of tourists continue to walk past that spot and take the same picture. Sometimes they would ask people outside the bar to take their picture. On our walk back to our hostel, I was thinking how excited and re-energized I was for the future trips outside of the crowded touristy cities. It was then we heard what sounded like a David Bowie rock concert from a plaza we had not explored yet. We followed the singing and the guitars and drums got louder as we approached. Then we saw blue and purple spotlights dancing over a crowd. A pop-up beer and food stand was set up in the alleyway that poured into the plaza. There, in the middle of touristy Bruges, was a local band playing classic rock hits to a crowd of locals bobbing up and down to the music and catching up with their friends and neighbors. Bryan and I stayed for a bit, danced and sang along, enjoying this change of pace from the Bruges we had experienced in the last 4 days.