This week’s post highlights the labyrinthine network of canals in the enchanting medieval city of Bruges, Belgium. While there are many things to rave about in my favorite Belgian city (the waffles! the beer! the stunning architecture!), there is just something so unique and romantic about its tree-lined waterways that has me daydreaming constantly of a return to the capital of West Flanders.
The city’s canals, first constructed in the early 12th century to connect Flemish Bruges to the North Sea, played a critically important role in the region’s economic development during the Middle Ages. Located at the strategic crossroads of the northern Hanseatic League and southern trade routes, Bruges – and its commercial outposts in nearby Damme and Sluys – flourished in the exchange of wool, grains and spices throughout the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Starting around 1500, however, the city’s so-called Golden Inlet silted over, severing its connection to the sea and ending its period of economic prosperity. Despite the construction of new channels to the sea and the modernization of its maritime infrastructure, Bruges became impoverished and gradually faded in importance over the following centuries. In the later decades of the 19th century, wealthy British and French tourists began to seek out the city as a holiday destination, and in 1965 – after miraculously suffering virtually no damage during German occupation in World War I and II – Bruges experienced an economic renaissance. Restorations of residential and commercial structures, historic monuments, and churches generated a surge in tourism and economic activity in the ancient downtown area. International tourism boomed, resulting in the city’s designation as the ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2002.
This honor is in no small part due to its beautiful network of waterways. As noted by a local tour operator:
“The canals of Bruges are part of the personality of the city. They are one of the main attractions … to the extent that the city is known as the ‘Venice of the North’. Navigating through them and discovering the most hidden corners of Bruges is almost a must to enjoy the essence of the city.” (Niceday Tours)
I first visited Bruges with T., his mother, brother and sister in August 2016. Despite finding ourselves in this beautiful city at the height of tourist season, hitting its cobbled streets and sinuous canals shortly after sunrise afforded plenty of solitary exploration. As T. and his siblings preferred sleep to an early morning outing, I made this journey with my mother-in-law – a genuinely wonderful treat for me, as I rarely get to spend any time with her!
We started along the Groenerei (Green Canal), one of the most picturesque channels in the city center. From its verdant bank, we admired centuries-old bridges, buildings and distant steeples shrouded in mist.
Ducking through the Huidenvettersplein (Tanner’s Square), we found ourselves looking upon one of the city’s most iconic vistas: the Rozenhoedkaai, or Quai of the Rosary. Located at the intersection of the Groenerei and Dijver canals, the quai earned its moniker during the 18th century, when vendors selling rosaries to pilgrims and travelers plied their trade on this bank. Today, the Rozenhoedkaai is lined with restaurants, hotels and cruise operators, all taking advantage of the stunning views – postcard worthy! – of the towering belfry in the distance.
From the Rozenhoedkaai, we walked in the direction of the Dijver Canal. Splashed in morning light, the mansions along the canal cast their mirrored image on the dark surface of the water, broken only by a gentle breeze or the leisurely passage of ducks. A narrow, tree-lined park just beyond the Hotel de Orangerie hosts a bustling afternoon flea market of antiques and hand-made crafts; at the early hour of our visit, however, the only sign of life was a woman walking with her enthusiastic dog.
Our next stop was St. Bonifacius Bridge, spanning the Dijver Canal behind the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw (Church of our Lady). Despite its aged appearance, this tiny bridge was actually built in the early 20th century, making it one of the city’s newest architectural additions. New or old, the bridge offers one of the most charming canal views in medieval Bruges.
At this point, we paused our exploration of the canals to enjoy breakfast at the Carpe Diem tea room and bakery on Wijngaardstraat. As we emerged from the cozy confines of the restaurant, we found the city bathed in sunshine (and the streets quickly filling with tourists). From here, our party separated briefly, as I opted to continue exploring the canals while T. and his family headed off in search of the city’s other attractions.
I made my way south toward the Wijngaard Bridge, a lovely three-arch stone span adjacent to Minnewater Park. On the western side of the bridge, a towering white entrance gate inscribed with the year of construction (1776) offers access to the city’s former béguinage, a well-preserved, walled complex first established to house lay religious women in 1244.
Mindful of the time (and the need to meet up again with T. and his family), I started walking in the direction of the Markt, admiring new views of the canals along the way. I stopped briefly here at Sint-Janshospitaal (Old St. John’s Hospital). Established in the 11th century to care for sick pilgrims and travelers, the hospital is one of Europe’s oldest surviving medical institutions. A portion of the building also houses the popular Hans Memling museum, displaying triptychs, hospital records, medical instruments and other assorted works of art.
Finally, I found myself back at the Rozenhoedkaai, now bustling with tourists, street traffic and motorized watercraft. While the presence of hundreds of other sightseers did little to diminish the spectacular view across the quai, as I stood briefly in the jostling crowd of onlookers, I smiled at the memory of our solitary sunrise stroll here only hours earlier. The vista hadn’t changed, but the ambiance was markedly different. Early morning adventures, for the win!
Later in the day, as our group reconvened, we took a canal cruise through the city, re-visiting many of the same sights I explored on foot (as well as many I hadn’t!). Unfortunately, I took appallingly blurry photos as the boat bumped along the uneven surface of the water – so blurry, in fact, that they’re not worth sharing here. One of these days (hopefully), I’ll learn how to operate my camera correctly!
Thanks for joining me on this photographic journey through the beautiful canals of Bruges! – B. June
Next week’s journey: White Domes Trail – Nevada, USA