The Market Square, ringed by restaurant terraces, great old
gabled buildings, and the bell tower, marks the city center
today as it did in its medieval heyday. Back then, a canal came
right to this main square. Farmers in the countryside would ship
their wool and flax into Bruges. Before loading it onto outgoing boats, industrious
locals would maximize their profit by dyeing, spinning and weaving it into
finished textiles. The bell tower has stood over Market
Square since 1300. Climb the 366 steps for
a commanding view. The tower houses
a grand carillon. Rather than fingers, the carillon player
uses his fists and feet. Grab a bench in the courtyard to enjoy
one of the regular and free carillon concerts. The opulent square called Burg, Bruges’ historical
birthplace, political center and religious heart, is decorated with six centuries of
fine architecture. The square’s historic highlight is the
Basilica of the Holy Blood. The gleaming gold knights and ladies
on the church’s façade remind us that this church was
built by a crusader in the 12th century to house the drops of Christ’s blood which he
brought back from Jerusalem. Inside the Basilica, the stark decor reeks
of the medieval piety that drove those crusading
European Christians on their Holy War against the Muslims. With
heavy columns and round arches the style is
pure Romanesque. Stairs lead to the brighter Gothic-style upper chapel.
The painting at the altar tells how the Holy Blood actually got here.
Derrick of Alsace helped conquer Muslim-held Jerusalem in the Second Crusade. Here, he kneels before
the grateful Christian patriarch of Jerusalem who rewards him with the relic.
Derrick returns home and kneels before Bruges’ Bishop
to give him the vial of blood. Next door is the Town Hall. 15th century
Bruges was a thriving bastion of capitalism and this building served as a model for
town halls elsewhere, including Brussels. One of Europe’s first representative
governments convened right here. In the adjoining room, old paintings maps
show how little the city has changed over the centuries. This map shows in exquisite detail the
city as it looked in 1562 when a canal connected the North Sea to
the Market Square. A fortified moat
circles the city. Of the town’s 28 windmills,
today. The mills made paper, ground grain and
functioned as the motor of the Middle Ages. My favorite way to explore Bruges
is on two wheels. Just about anywhere in Europe,
where the biking’s good, you’ll find handy and inexpensive bike rentals.
Get lost in the backstreets, away from the shopping
and the tour groups.