Wednesday, May 6, 2009 by Bryan Smith
I started off my tour season this year in Bruges, Belgium, a town I don't get to nearly as often as I would like. While Brussels scores much higher in name recognition, it lacks the medieval charm and small town ambiance that you'll find in Bruges.
Though in English (and French) the city is called Bruges (BREW-jsh), this is the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, where it’s known as Brugge (BREW-gah). Often referred to as the Venice of the North because of its canals and well-preserved medieval character, Bruges has existed since at least Roman times. Overtaken and settled by Germanic tribes towards the end of the Roman period, the name may derive from the Old Norse word Bryggja for port or landing area.
Over the years, Bruges' natural port silted up, but in the early 12th century a violent storm surge created the Zwin canal, reconnecting Bruges to the sea. The town's Golden Age begins about this time, with the granting of a city charter in 1128. In effect, this meant that the citizens of Bruges were recognized as 'free' burghers, subject only to the king and God. Unlike a serf, who belonged to a fief, a burgher had the right to own property and to practice a trade.
During the Middle Ages, Flemish wool became synonymous with high quality, and Bruges was at the center of it all. Their business brought them into contact with the wool producers of Scotland, and England; with merchants from the Hanseatic towns of Germany and Scandinavia; and with grain and wine merchants from France. The city was already a booming trade center when the first trade vessels from Genoa appeared in the harbor in 1277. At this time, the population of the city was more than 40,000, twice the current population of the historic core. Banking, from both home-grown and Italian firms established by families like the Medici, spured economic growth.
Flemish in culture and language, Bruges chaffed under the reins of the French monarchy. Early in the 14th century an uprising known as the Bruges Matins expanded into a general battle for Flemish indpendence. The pivotal battle, known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs on July 11, 1302 forced out the French. Two major figures in the Bruges Matins, Jan Breydal (a butcher) and Pieter de Coninck (a weaver), are commerated with statues are on the Markt square. The end of the 14th century brought plague, famine and hard times to Flanders, leading to a union of Flemish territory with the Dukes of Burgundy (at the time an independent and very powerful duchy bordering France). Early in the 15th century Phillip III (the Good), duke of Burgundy, made Bruges one of the seats of his court (along with Brussels, Lille and Dijon). It was under his partonage that Burgundy reached it’s greatest artistic achievements, with artists like Jan van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden, and Hugo van der Goes.
The town’s good fortune came to a screeching halt, though, when Burgundy’s last duke died in battle in 1477. After a brief tumult with the Holy Roman Empire, France took control of the Burgundian territories, and Bruges was once again a subject of France. In the 16th century the Zwin channel silted up, cutting off the city's port access and effectively dooming it to a slow, steady decline. By 1850 Bruges was the poorest city in Belgium, so destitute it could not even afford to modernize its buildings or pave over the rough cobblestone streets. Relief and prosperity came again in the form of tourism, when the city was discovered by Romantic painters and writers, enchanted by its well-preserved medieval character.
If you'd like more information about Bruges, visit www.brugge.be, or contact Hand Crafted Travel for help in planning your own trip.