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Notes on the Geography of Belgium: Historic Bruges

For most of its residents it's Brugge, but English speakers know it by the French name. In the early 15th century, it had 40,000 people. At that time it ranked with Venice as a top European commercial center, and it was a major force in the European wool trade.  It gradually lost out to Antwerp and went into a long decline, turning around only after after the Battle of Waterloo, when the English discovered the place.

Wrote Wordsworth in 1820: Bruges had "a deeper peace than is in deserts found." The tourist flood began after 1892, when Georges Rodenbach published Bruges the Dead, which described a medieval city frozen in time.  It was the English--particularly James Weale, Keeper of London's National Art Library in the 1890s--who persuaded the people of Bruges to retain their city's medieval character.  Now some two million visitors come yearly.  That's almost 20 times the population of the city, which--suburbs included--has 120,000 people.  Within the historic core, the population has returned to the 40,000 people of six centuries ago.  

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Belgium: Historic Bruges picture 1

We're out on the northern periphery of the historic center, where broad canals encircle what once was a walled city almost five miles in circumference.   A left turn behind the camera puts you on a straight shot to Zeebrugge, seven miles away on the North Sea.  The barges tied up along the canal aren't quite what they seem: they've been converted to party boats.

Belgium: Historic Bruges picture 2

About 1850, the city's walls were demolished, but several gates survive, thanks to Weale.  This is the Holy Cross Gate (Kruispoort), built about 1400.

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Stroll inside on the city's north end--away from the railway station and the more tourist-oriented south side--and you'll find quiet residential streets.

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You'll also find many buildings with stepped gables.  This is the Porter's Lodge at Van Eyckplein.  These porters were traders, not people who handled luggage, and this was their club.  Today it's the state archive.  Van Eyckplein is a reminder that Bruges, as much as any other place, is where realistic portraiture was invented.  It was a commercial metropolis, after all, and it had plenty of egos with deep pockets.

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The city is roughly trisected by narrower internal canals, whose presence explains Bruges' reputation as "the Venice of the North." 

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Most of the city's many bridges are fixed, but not all.

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Baedeker in 1905 has a nice description of the city's economic importance in the 13th and 14th centuries:  "Factories, or privileged trading companies, from seventeen different kingdoms, had settled in Bruges; twenty foreign consuls resided within its walls; and inhabitants of remote districts, of which the very names were almost unknown, visited the renowned city every year."  Here's an example, so modified that its original purpose is hard to see.

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Come around to the other side of the building, however, and above the entrance to what is now a hotel you find a double-eagle, the emblem of the Oosterlingenhuis ("House of the Orientals").  This was the warehouse of the German Hanse. Until 1553, when it moved to Antwerp, German merchants used this station to collect eastbound cloth and leather.  West-bound commodities came here, too. Drawn from places like Novgorod and Bergen, the products included wine and beer, fish, salt, spices, and honey.

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A Best Western hotel marks the Eiermarkt, where during the 16th century merchants from Navarre supplied wool to local weavers.  It was an industry already in decline. 

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Nearby, at Sint-Jorisstraat 15, is the house and warehouse built in 1562 by Johannes del Rio, a Spanish merchant.

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Across the street, at Sint Jorisstraat 15, is House de Helm, where Jacques de Countre in the 16th century imported diamonds from Goa.

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Here, on Sint-Annakerkstraat, a house remembers the needleworkers who once made Bruges famous for lace.

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It was hard work.

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On the south side of the city is the entrance to the Beguinage, or Begijnhof, established in 1245. It's often described as a city in the city, a self-contained, self-sufficient community of women.

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As late as 1900, there were 20 beguinages in Belgium; the one in Ghent was the biggest, with a thousand woman.  Since 1180, when beguinages were established by Lambert Le Begue, from whom the name comes, unmarried women could spend their lives in these places.  The Beguines were not nuns and could leave, though few did.  Instead, they attended prayers at least twice daily, devoted themselves to charitable works such as nursing and teaching, and supported themselves--earned the money to pay the required annual fee--by crafts, particularly sewing and needlework. Additional income came from women who did not become sisters in the beguinage but stayed there in exchange for rent. The beguines had a good reputation--good enough that the beguinages were spared by the many upheavals, including the French Revolution, that destroyed so many other institutions.

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The "silence" is forbidding, but the window over the door is nice.  The buildings themselves date from the 16th century; until 1900, when the Victorians decided to lighten the mood, the buildings were bare brick.

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The chapel of the Beguinage.

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Bruges was wealthy enough to have some monumental buildings, too.  Here's one, the Church of Our Lady, mirrored in Steenhouwers Dijk.

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The brick tower is 400 feet high; inside the church is a Michelangelo pieta.

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On one side of the Grande Place, or Markt, is a former cloth market, Les Halles, with the city's iconic belfry.  It's ungainly, "an unnatural long-necked animal, like a giraffe," said Chesterton in Tremendous Trifles. The belfry was built in three stages from 1296 to 1486 and at one time was even taller, with a wooden spire that burned, was replaced in 1493, but burned again in 1741.  Since then, the belfry has been like this.

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There are stairs inside.

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From the top and looking east, over the roof of the Government Palace, you can make out the periphery of the historic center, as well as the straight canal linking the city to the North Sea.

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Looking east over the Stadthuis and the canal that once served it, as well as Les Halles.

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The Stadthuis (1371-1421) is covered with kings and biblical characters, but they're modern, replaced after the originals were destroyed by the sansculottes.

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Though Bruges would never regain its key position in the European economy, Belgium did build a modest empire late in the 19th century.  On the wall of this Bruges pharmacy there's a reminder of it.

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Dr. Dryepondt founded the first hospital at Leopoldville.

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