Graceful Bruges has drifted down the stream of time with all the self-possession of the swans that cruise its canals. To step into the old town is to be transported back to the Middle Ages, when Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) was among the wealthiest powerbases in Europe. Despite the city’s turbulent past and two world wars fought around it, Bruges and its glorious monumental buildings have remained untouched by the passage of time; it’s so picture-book perfect that in 2000, UNESCO awarded the entire city center World Cultural Heritage status.
Bruges is the capital town of West-Vlaanderen (West Flanders) province, and is the pride and joy of all Flanders. Medieval Gothic architecture is the real deal here, along with a layer of Romanesque; a touch of Renaissance, baroque, and rococo; a dab of neoclassical and neo-Gothic; and a smidgeon of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. But Gothic is what Bruges does best, in quantities that come near to numbing the senses—and likely would do so if it wasn’t for the distraction of the city’s contemporary animation. To what does it owe its Gothic glamor? In the 15th century, Bruges was a center for Hanseatic League trading, and with the growth of its wealth it acquired the rich heritage of civic buildings that you see today: guildhalls, exchanges, warehouses, and the residences of wealthy merchants.
There are three tourist offices in Bruges; the most central is the biggest and it’s at the Historium in Markt. Opening hours are daily 10am to 5pm and it’s always crowded. A second branch is at the Concertgebouw, 't Zand 34, inside the city’s Concert Hall, about midway between the train station and the heart of town; it is open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5pm; Sunday and public holidays 10am to 2pm. The third information center is at the station itself and is open daily 10am to 5pm. Call tel. 050/444-646 or visit www.brugge.be.
The money-saving Musea Brugge Card is available at any one of the 14 participating museums and historical sites, which include the Belfort and Stadhuis (Town Hall) as well as the must-see Groeningemuseum and St. John’s Hospital, which houses several masterpieces by the Flemish primitive artist Hans Memling. The card, valid for three days, costs 28€ for adults and 22 € for ages 18 to 25. It’s worth it if you plan to visit multiple attractions, as individual ticket prices hover around 12€. For more info, go online to the Visit Bruges website www.visitbruges.be.
Bruges is a circular tangle of medieval streets surrounded by canals and moats; the monumental squares of the Markt and the Burg lie fairly centrally, adjoined by a labyrinth of alleyways and dramatic, imposing buildings. The city’s major attractions fan out from there, with many lying to the southwest and another pocket to the northwest.
Outside the canals are the suburban residential neighborhoods—they were formerly separate gemeenten (districts) with their own local government and not part of Bruges at all—where most residents have their homes, although of the 120,000 people who live in the city, around 20,000 actually live and work in the ancient center.
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