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About Bruges

The capital of West Flanders is one of Europe's best preserved medieval cities, with a turbulent history that is concealed by the serenity of its present-day appearance. Those who speak of Bruges as the "Venice of the North" or "Belgium's Amsterdam", do little service to a city that is simply unique and happy to be itself. This city is not some pale imitation of another, and needs no such false comparisons to illuminate it. Bruges is the pride and joy of Flanders, and right below the smoothly cosmopolitan surface with which it greets its legions of foreign admirers it is Flemish through and through.

In attempting to describe this canal-fretted ensemble of medieval architecture, it is hard to avoid the word "picturesque". As Arnold Bennett said as long ago as 1896: "The difference between Bruges and other cities is that in the latter, you look about for the picturesque, and don't find it easily, while in Bruges, assailed on every side by the picturesque, you look curiously for the unpicturesque, and don't find it easily."

There's an almost unreal quality to just how stagily pretty Bruges can be, as if in the Middle Ages the city had been a place of universal grace and effortless charm instead of the noisy, smelly sink it probably was. Should Bruges have a weak point this is it. A city that looks and feels like a museum can be hard to get close to, however grateful we might be that it has come down to us through the centuries in this pristine condition. After a while you might even get to miss the kind of gritty urban reality that gives cities like Ghent and Antwerp a more fully developed character. But if this is a criticism, it is hardly an onerous one. Certainly no one from Bruges will blame you for setting competing philosophies of urban existence aside and getting on with the business of enjoying your stay.

One of the most remarkable facets of life in Bruges is the almost unfailing politeness and patience of the population. The natives really are friendly here. Considering that they actually have to go about their everyday business in this open-air museum, tripping over hordes of tourists every day of the year, this could hardly be taken for granted, even taking the commercial benefits they derive from tourists into account.

On a warm and sunny day there is no better or easier way to see the city than from a canal boat. A boat tour offers a good overview of the historic centre, allowing you to return to places or areas that appealed without having to walk your socks off in the search. Yet walk you should, as far and as much as possible, to see Bruges at a human pace and to touch the legacy of a thousand years. There is no shortage of restaurants and bars along the way. Restaurants range from fast- food outlets to some seriously gourmand establishments, with a big mid-range of tasteful places to cater for the many visitors that descend upon this historic town. Sit on a canalside terrace and drink a Flemish beer, such as Bruges' own Straffe Hendrik. Visit some, if not all, of the museums and churches. You can even save yourself a trip to Italy by seeing a genuine Michelangelo sculpture: a Madonna and Child in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (church of Our Lady).

Bruges is a small city which discourages cars, so it is pleasant to walk through its old central district. But it is also interesting to get a feel for Bruges outside the centre, where the lucky inhabitants have a historical treasure all to themselves. They just happen to live in it, and without the necessity to dress it up for the benefit of tourists, although it is picture-book pretty almost everywhere. Bruges rewards aimless wanderers as well as itinerary-followers, so just wander around, with your eyes open to make your own discoveries.


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