University of Europe Bruges
Bruges – quaint cobbled streets, cosy canal-side bars and the epitome of romance? Or an overpriced, overcrowded city full of tourist tat? Probably a bit of both. But is it too busy or too beautiful? Here’s my verdict.
In the beginning
In the 13th Century, Bruges was one of Europe’s most important cities with a population greater than London’s. Cloth, lace and spices were traded and a lot of people made a lot of money. Up sprung gorgeous houses, churches and waterways.
But then disaster struck – the city lost its access to the North Sea when the Zwin silted up and, useless as a centre of international trade, its residents scarpered to nearby Antwerp (read my view of Antwerp here).
21st Century Bruges
Fast-forward 800 years, and not a lot has changed – despite being Belgium’s 6th biggest city, with a population of 120, 000, there are few residents in the centre. One thing that has changed is the visitors – rather than attracting international merchants, Bruges has become one of the world’s most popular tourist cities.
Some stay in Bruges itself, some come from cruise-ships calling at Zeebrugge and some come on daytrips from elsewhere in Benelux. One thing they have in common is that they only spend time in the centre of Bruges which is tiny anyway – the city is operating at, or even beyond, its capacity.
The one thing I wanted to do in Bruges was to climb the belfry in the main square, Markt. This featured prominently in one of my favourite films, In Bruges. You can climb 366 steps to the top of this gothic belltower and enjoy panoramic views of the city.
We had a look on Friday afternoon but the queue was massive. With better things to do than wait in a line for two hours, we said we’d come back again in the morning.
When we got there the next day, the queue was almost twice as long as the previous afternoon. We admitted defeat and resigned ourselves to admiring the view from the terrace of a bar in Markt. To paraphrase Colin Farrell in the film, why climb for the view when you can see it from a bar?
Colin is right. You can’t enjoy the belfry if you can’t see it. Plonk yourself down at a bar in Markt, and enjoy the view with a glass of Duvel.
Horse drawn carriage
These pick-up in the middle of Markt – look out for the taxi rank-style queue of affluent tourists. Half-hour guided rides around the cobbled streets of the medieval centre cost €39.
There seems to be a continuous one-in, one-out stream from morning until night, although the poor-old horses are given a ten minute rest on every trip.
Canal boat cruise
If you don’t fancy paying €39, for €7 you can take a half-hour cruise around the canals. We paid for our trip at a kiosk by the bridge on Wollestraat, and then queued for twenty minutes to board.