There were few natural resources in this table-flat region, so the inhabitants had to come up with a way to prosper. Bruges was founded, by the first count of Flanders, at the end of a long channel to the sea. During medieval times, trade flourished here and the weavers transformed England’s high quality wool into fine textiles. In the 13th century, traders travelled up the Zwin channel and met at the home of a man named Van de Burse. This was the beginning of formal stock trading, and today, in many languages, a stock exchange is still known as a bourse.
The tradesmen and merchants became fabulously wealthy with ships arriving from all over Europe to trade coal, metals and wool, for fine Flemish cloth. Smaller canals were constructed in order to move goods to the mills and warehouses, and other canals gave access to the stunning homes of the rich.
Tensions began to mount as the wealthy began to resent the high taxes they were required to pay to the count, whose own allegiance was bound up with the French king. When Anglo-French conflicts erupted, the merchants chose to side with the English who supplied them with their raw materials. The French were naturally ‘royally’ annoyed and arrived in 1302 to beat the Flemish into submission.
Another conflict nearly forty years later saw the English king cut off wool exports. As a result many of the weavers crossed the channel in order to work and British families, with the surname Fleming, are descendents of these immigrants.
Editor’s Note: Ian Fleming’s novels about a man named James Bond were my favourites during my college days in Delhi. My friends and I, die-hard 007 fans, waited eagerly for the movies to arrive in India.
The late 14th century saw a resurgence of prosperity in Flanders and the merchants began an ostentatious show of their wealth by building town halls, belfries and elaborate homes. In order to buy favours with God, they also donated land and constructed a series of almshouses for the poor throughout the region. Many have been beautifully preserved and can be visited along with the churches, museums and concert halls.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I have to say I’d never even heard of Bruges until we rented the movie starring Colin Farrell called ‘In Bruges’. The film is more than a little dark, but it certainly highlighted some of the amazing charms of this tiny medieval city. After watching the film, we agreed that we would have to go there ‘someday’. We were both more than a little surprised that the ‘someday’ came so very soon.
The metro was working on Sunday morning and it was a quick trip to the train station, a short queue to purchase our tickets and an almost shorter trip to Bruges. We were in the charming city in less than an hour. The countryside wasn’t particularly attractive as we passed through the urban sprawl of Brussels and then a light industrial area. We’d read that the scenery improves dramatically between Bruges and the sea, only ten minutes further on the train.
Anil found what looked like a charming B&B in Bruges, located in a residential neighbourhood in the north of the city. We were provided with information on how to get there on the local bus, and all went smoothly. We were more than a little surprised when we opened the door using the security code and found that the interior of the ‘newly renovated’ home looked nothing like the artist’s rendering on the website.
Our hostess didn’t hear us enter, but when I knocked on the door to the kitchen she appeared with a warm greeting and a big smile. She showed us up a narrow flight of stairs to a bedroom on the first floor. It was immediately apparent that the rooms were being rented out now that their adult children had married and left home. The room was spacious but no effort had been made to provide what we could consider a charming B&B atmosphere.
A small table near the window did have a kettle and everything needed to make ourselves coffee and tea, but I was shocked to see the small fridge sitting on the floor of the bathroom! The linens on the bed were acceptable, but the towels in the bathroom should have been added to the ragbag years ago. I’ve always been of the opinion that towels should look like they’ve been rarely used, even if they aren’t exactly new.
Anil was beginning to complain that we had been travelling at too fast a pace, and I have to admit that I agreed with him for once. We felt that since the weather was fine, we would probably extend our stay in Bruges and take some time to relax and move at a slower pace. With that in mind, we spent the afternoon in our room, Anil having a nap and me working on my photos and journal.
I’ve always enjoyed the late afternoon light, so we set off shortly after 5:00pm with a hot cup of tea to revive us before our long stroll. We’d read that many travellers have a hard time deciding which town has the more atmospheric canal, Bruges or Ghent, and since we planned on visiting both destinations, we wanted to see as much as we could on foot in order to make a valid comparison.
For this reason, we took our map of Bruges with us, and marked our route as we went along. Over the course of the coming five days, we would make every effort to see as much as possible. We decided we would carry on much like we did in Amsterdam and Brussels, avoiding the indoor museums, but enjoying life along the streets.
I can’t say anything really momentous happened while we were ‘In Bruges’. Certainly nothing like the events in the film, thank goodness, but we enjoyed every moment of our stay in this very romantic city. We moved to the small Hotel Leopold, very near the centre of the city, and couldn’t believe our luck when the only room available happened to be a charming one-bedroom apartment tucked up under the eaves of a centuries old building.
On Wednesday, at the midpoint of our stay in Bruges, we learned that the central square known as ‘Markt’ would be hosting its weekly market day. Now this we couldn’t miss. When we arrived we saw dozens of stalls selling flowers, potted plants, cheeses, sausages and baked goods. When we passed a stall selling waffles, we realized that we hadn’t yet tried a real authentic Belgian waffle.
I was surprised that Anil was as keen as he was to have whipped cream and a sweet sauce added to the waffle. I had read aloud from our guidebook that Belgians prefer their waffles with just a dusting of icing sugar. I did have the presence of mind to whip out my camera and take a video of the chef dressing the waffle and of Anil diving into it. Click here if you want to view the clip: Belgian Waffling.
It was so lovely that we were loath to leave, especially since we had walked almost every street of the town and were more than a little footsore. We had considered the opportunity to join a tour and visit the nearby WWI battlefield sites at Ypres and Passendale, but in the end, we decided they could wait for another visit.
If we were on a two or three week visit to the Lowlands, we probably would have made the effort, but after three nights in Ghent, we are taking the train to Berlin and we want to conserve some energy and enthusiasm for that remarkable city. Suddenly, we found ourselves with plenty of free time and I took the time to upload my photos and write my journal before everything began to blur into one big blob instead of blog.
I’ll leave it to you to look through my photos of Bruges and compare them with those of Ghent, and hope you will let me know which town you find more charming. We leave for Ghent tomorrow; it’s hard to imagine that it can possibly top Bruges. Bring it on. I love exploring a new place for the very first time.
We did have a bit of an adventure on our last day in Bruges. It was a bit frightening to say the least. After breakfast we set out for a stroll through a different part of the city and while we were walking I began to feel a strange sensation. It seemed my balance was more than a little off-kilter, but I hesitated to say anything to Anil at first.
We were walking through a lovely park along a quiet canal and I kept feeling worse and worse. I finally suggested we sit on a bench for a while and we were startled to see chestnuts falling off the trees all around us. I laughed and told him that the nuts could probably do some damage if they hit a person square on the head. We set off walking and my dizziness just kept getting worse.
Suddenly, the whole world spun in one direction, and then just as quickly spun back again. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I told Anil what was happening and secretly hoped I wasn’t having a stroke right then and there. He hung on to me and we started back towards our hotel, keeping an eye out for a taxi if one happened to pass by. The strangest thing was that I didn't worry about me at all, I just kept wondering how Anil was going to cope.
I was having a great deal of trouble walking, but when the nausea hit, I was pretty sure I was just having a severe reaction to the Australian wine we’d had with lunch, 24 hours earlier. We had stopped to have a light meal and Anil picked up a ¼ bottle of wine to have with our pasta. It was opened before we realized that it wasn’t French, and I avoid Australian wine completely because of the high levels of sulphites they contain.
We decided to give it a try because lately I have been able to have most wines without any after effects, and perhaps the Australian wine would be fine now too. Besides, my share would be only half of an already very small amount, no more than a taste really. Well, it seems that was enough to put me out for the day. Luckily, it was the wine that laid me low, and not something more serious.
It does make me think that everyone should avoid Australian wine if they add so many more chemicals. I’d advise anyone who has the option of having a wine from Argentina, Chile, France, Spain or Italy to pick one of these and avoid the high level of sulphites. Surely, they can’t be good for anyone if they make me feel like I’m at death’s door! I’ve added this postscript from Ghent, and I’m happy to report that I’m fine, and having a small glass of French wine as I write.