If fairytales were real, they would have been set in Bruges. And if they weren’t, they’d come alive after witnessing the beauty of Bruges.
“Since there are so many of you on the boat, I should tell you that Bruges has become very popular with the Indian tourists for the past few years, since a popular Indian movie was shot here. Suddenly there are so many people from India visiting us. I am sure you have seen the movie; during the course of the cruise I will show you some spots featured in it.”
The very good-looking captain of the boat tells us in a cute accent as soon as we start our canal cruise in the quiet Flemish town of Bruges. I see two other Indian families on the boat quietly smiling to themselves at the mere mention of Bollywood. I, however, have no clue about the film; neither do I know about Bruges’ popularity with the Indians.
My trip to Bruges was not planned after watching a film, or because hundreds of countrymen were flocking the town this summer. It happened when I realized that I had five days in Belgium and not much to do. An impromptu train ticket from Brussels Central got me to the quaint railway station in an hour; a bus ride from there took another ten minutes to get to the heart of the town. It was only when I got off the bus and looked around the main square that I realized I had uncovered a gem. Bruges after all is a UNESCO World Heritage City.
The story of Bruges goes back to the prehistoric ages when it was a small coastal settlement. The first fortification of this coastal area happened around 1st century BC, during Julius Caesar’s reign; the Romans were followed by Franks and the Vikings. In the middle ages the town became an important port and center for trade and commerce. Money flowed in, art, craft, music, and culture flourished; painters, musicians, craftsmen and town planners were patronized and Bruges became an important town in northern Belgium region of Flanders. The golden age came to an abrupt halt when the canals, that brought trade into the town, began silting and could no longer be used for transportation. The town resurrected itself soon after, but never found its lost glory, until recently that is.
Today, Bruges, or Brugge, is famous for its network of meandering canals, 18th century houses, cobbled streets, narrow winding lanes, tall towers, open squares and gothic cathedrals. In short, it has everything a fairytale land would have.
Heritage is everywhere in Bruges. In the two squares – the Markt and the Brug – that make the scenic heart of the city, and the horse-drawn carriages that trot around the Markt; in the 83 meters and the 366 steps tall Belfort – with 47 organs played every day; and in the grand old buildings which date back at least a few centuries. While the entire town is surreal, it is the houses that adorn the narrow, tree lined streets, which steal my heart. Identical in nature, tall and narrow, these townhouses with bell shaped roofs, tiny windows, and brick facades stand testimony to a rich, if turbulent, history of the economic capital of Flanders. As if the houses aren’t enough, the pointy gilded architecture, linger-on cafés, vivid art, people on bikes, and meandering canals dotted with swans further add to the dreaminess of Bruges.
But Bruges is not only about history or architecture. It is also home to decadent food, finest beer, crispy fries, and amazing chocolate.
Imagine sitting by the window in a tiny café, dunking gooey chocolate chips in a cup of hot milk, waiting for them to dissolve in the white frothy liquid and sipping it leisurely while watching the world go by. Or hanging out at a brewery, sampling different varieties of fresh beer from the underground pipeline while laughing and backslapping with the locals. If chocolate or beer are not your thing, you could try snorting cocoa at an inconspicuous shop in the middle of the town or sharing a cocktail with a self-proclaimed vampire at a dingy pub.
My favourite activity is strolling along the labyrinth of streets that cris-cross each other at bridges and squares. It gives me an opportunity to stand and stare at the centuries old houses, peep inside cozy stores, watch people go by and imagine how the town would have been a few hundred years ago. And sometimes, it also gets me to meet a good looking captain set out on his last cruise of the day.
“Many tourists who come to Bruges are so impressed with the houses by the canal that they end up buying them and settling here. Only after they start living here do they realize how troublesome it is to hear the constant buzz of the boats and commentary of captains like me.” Our grey-eyed captain is at it again, cracking jokes, telling stories, and entertaining us with his wit and charm while navigating through narrow back waters, dunking under low bridges, and revealing little secrets of his hometown.
As I cruise on the modern boat, listening to a modern man singing songs about the beauty of medieval architecture, narrating stories of medieval times, everything about Bruges starts falling in place. Bollywood or no Bollywood, Bruges is a winner.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Week.