Bruges by John Vijlbrief

Walking through the winding streets of Bruges, Belgium

September 9, 2020, Sunday morning.
Awakened by the sun that gives my hotel room an almost golden yellow glow, I jump out of bed and dive into the shower. Less than half an hour later I walk outside. Obviously with the camera hanging by my side.

An Angel with an iPhone?
Not far from my hotel, in front of Bakery Smid, a line of people is already forming. It smells so delicious here of freshly baked bread that I join the queue for some croissants, those nice and warm ones! Looking around me, my eye catches a meter-high mural on which I see an angel with an iPhone. She ran into Steve Jobs…?

Jobs Angel by John Vijlbrief

City gates
With a bag full of warm croissants I walk through the Smedenpoort, one of the entrance gates to the city, towards the historic centre. The city gates are considered to be one of the most characteristic works of military architecture of the 14th century. On the way I pass a coffee bar where I order a cappuccino to have my breakfast a little further on, on the large square with that striking modern concert hall. I can’t find that red box of blocks beautiful. The architectural style does not suit Bruges. Although the interior is special.

In the background, fading softly, I hear the sound of church bells. There are many churches here. A little further on is the imposing St. Salvator’s Cathedral, built between the 12th and 15th centuries. Take a look up and see how beautifully designed this cathedral is. Most churches are open to the public.

Historicizing new constructions
The weather forecast indicates that it will be a warm and summery autumn day. I walk on, towards the Grote Markt. Bruges is a city that is still being worked on, painted and polished every day to give the buildings that special look. The sun is still behind the Belfry Tower, which stands out as a silhouette against a steel-blue sky with some clouds here and there. The terraces are prepared for the reception of the guests. The horses on the Market are impatiently kicking, some with their heads in the feedbag. Soon they run their rounds through the streets of Bruges. The car full of guests, couples in love or busy photographers.

A city full of bridges
Bruges, also called the “Venice of the North”, is a city full of splendour. With impressive canals (called “Reien”) where many tour boats sail. Lots of bridges, one more romantic than the other. 

From the tour boat, you have a good view of this mix of medieval buildings and more recent ones. Richly decorated. Bruges survived the two World Wars relatively unscathed, much was spared. Some buildings look like new. They are. You think you are visiting a city from the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. In the 19th and 20th century there was talk of “historicizing” new construction here. That is a bit of a swallow. Be honest: it doesn’t look like it was built around the 13th century, does it? At that time the houses consisted of reed and wood. Bruges is not that perfect city from the Middle Ages. What I see continues to fascinate me.

Facade renovations
Many of the houses around the Markt were built between 1920 and 1930. In addition, many facades were already restored in the 19th century, with a subsidy from the municipality. The facades that is, not what is behind them. It’s partly a facade. Yet there are plenty of old buildings to be found here. The Bruges architectural style dates from the post-medieval period, the 16th and 17th centuries. A style characterized by stepped gables, brick facades with filigree arches and, last but not least, all kinds of turrets, large and small.

Architecture through the ages
The city is full of inspired late 19th century, neo-Gothic and early 20th century “Art & Crafts” buildings. This exudes a special atmosphere. You imagine yourself centuries back in time here. A walk through Bruges offers an overview of architecture through the centuries. The Rozenhoedkaai, one of the most photographed views you have from the water in this area, is also not what you think. Admittedly, it has been beautifully restored. The Bonifacius Bridge, is it from the Middle Ages? You can see that … it is really old, isn’t it? The facts are different: the bridge dates from … 1910. Some picturesque corners has been preserved in Bruges from every era. It is not surprising that Bruges is called an “open-air museum”.

Important commercial metropolis
In the 15th century, the West Flemish city of Bruges was one of the largest cities in NW Europe and an international trade hub. With its canals over which many trading boats once sailed. On a European level, the city was an important commercial metropolis. Two worlds came together here: on the one hand, the Mediterranean sea world, with Spanish and Italian trading posts. With connection to the Silk Road via the Black Sea. On the other side the North and Baltic Sea route, where the German Hanseatic League was active.

 The English traded wool; fish was caught and shipped to Bruges. Bruges formed a major link within those trade networks: an exchange market for rare and especially expensive goods. With commercial districts such as Lage Rei, Spinalorei and Spiegelrei. In the cellars and attics of Inns, the hotels of that time, goods were stored from foreign merchants. In the second half of the 14th century, the traditional industry also took off.

Antwerp and Ghent
Due to the silting up of the Zwin and later the Bruges-Damme-Sluiskanaal, Bruges lost its role as a seaport. Antwerp and Ghent became more important cities. Not until around the 20th century that a financial perspective returned to Bruges: tourism, a very important source of income.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Bruges accounted for two million hotel nights a year and about five million day-trippers who visited the well-preserved city. Not a small number in relation to the size of this city. That number is now far from being achieved. Admittedly, it is now wonderfully quiet. Don’t forget that Bruges is conveniently located for nearby coastal towns, such as Oostende and other major cities in this country.

The Flemish primitive Jan van Eyck
On my walking tour of Bruges, I come across the statue of the painter Jan van Eyck, who is inextricably linked to this city. Jan van Eyck is considered one of the best painters of that time. Jan was once court painter to Philip the Good, which gave him the opportunity to travel and come into contact with well-known foreign artists. Why did Jan van Eyck, presumably born in Maaseik, settle in Bruges around 1430? Here for the talented painter interesting and distinguished clients and buyers of his art could be found. Wealthy merchants, prelates, Italian bankers, nobles, courtiers and city administrators. Van Eyck appears to have played an important and even decisive role in the

Jan van Eyck Brugge by John Vijbrief

development of oil painting. Six centuries of art history from the Low Countries can be found in the Groeninger Museum. Where the Flemish Primitives play an important role. In addition to Jan van Eyck, works by Hieronymus Bosch, Albert Cuyp and Jan Provoost can be seen here.

To be continued …
So much for part of this story. You can read the entire story with the extensive photo report in my magazine “JCW”, the abbreviation of JohnsCreativeWorld. The new (monthly) magazine is available digitally via this website at the end of each month.

John Vijlbrief

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