What To Find When You've Got Three Hours Tops in Bruges
I moved my train time to London so I could see Bruges. Moved it by about 4 hours so I could take the 45-minute train from Brussels and give myself at least two hours to meet the streets of a most charming city. If you read my last travel post on my Europe trip, you'll know I am in love with Haarlem, and could see myself living there. Well, if there was another city to pull rank, it'd be Bruges. Walking the streets of Haarlem, I had told myself I was cheating on Seattle...walking the streets of Bruges I wrote down I think I'm cheating on Haarlem. Maybe my heart is more of a nomad than I thought.
Months prior to departure, I was sharing my rough itinerary with my co-worker Victoria, and when I mentioned Belgium was on my list, she encouraged I visit Bruges. She had a great experience visiting the city, and that impression has stuck with her, years later. As she described the subtle wonderment to me, I trusted she was not exaggerating.
As soon as I left the train station, not even at the city center yet, I wanted to call her and tell her I was experiencing the wonderment. Bruges is a beautiful city. It has a great charm that feels approachable and every street is like a step back into medieval times with clapboard window row houses and cobblestone streets.
There was also a certain sense of quiet when I was there, some of the streets completely empty with only the echo of hooves of horse-drawn carriages, trotting along one lane away from me. It was the steady beat to the quiet rhythm of Bruges that I fell in love with. Well, that's one of the things I fell in love with.
And that's not to say it was empty. Far from it. It is a bustling place, especially in the center square and near the shops. I went into a curiosity shop called The Old Curiosity Shop on Walstraat street, where I bought a vintage postcard and a little Photothill packet of Bruges Snapshots for Victoria.
In the northwest of Belgium, Bruges is most distinguished by it's canals, cobbled streets, and medieval buildings. The architecture in the markt square is very similar to that of Brussels but without the glistening gilded gold façade of a lot of Brussel’s main square. That detail is visually so stunning, but I appreciated the fact Bruges did not have it. Something about the simplicity made me admire it as its own compared to Brussels.
So, what can you expect to find in a place like Bruges? Here are a few things you will...
quiet places for reflection
In the form of Almshouses
Almshouses are the quaintest type of housing complex. Comprised of a courtyard fully enclosed by tall pitched homes, you feel as though you are wrapped in it, a short escape from the outside world. The homes appear as one continuous form of smooth white stone, broken up only by the curved black doors. They envelop you. These places are also known as Godshuizen or "God Houses", established from the 14th century-on by wealthy citizens to help provide housing, particularly for the poor and for single women. I went to an almshouse in Haarlem and explained a little of the history in that piece. In Bruges, there are 46 in the centre of the city, and the exterior of each has the name of the founder painted on the facade. When you come across one, it feels as though you should not enter with the tall impenetrable like walls. But for that you feel like you have found a respite and entering a secret garden kind of world. It's lovely.
Godshuis St. Jozef 17de EEUW was the most tranquil place I had yet to visit. I took a seat on the bench and immediately began to write, wishing I could capture scents and sounds on the page. For how short a time I had in Bruges, I couldn't get myself to leave! It was sitting here among the yellow daisies that I confidently determined I could move here.
Today they are predominately occupied by seniors and social services' management, so I'll need to do my research. If nothing else, I will move as close as possible to this Godshuis, so I can go there every day and of course explore more of the city to find the others.
Hours: NO SET HOURS! according to the bruges travel site, simply says open Monday through sunday. always visit with respect to the residents of course :)
Where to Find it: nieuwe gentweg
you'll too find...
in the form of waffles
Yes, a Belgian waffle. The quintessential sweet treat, arguably equal to the fame of Belgian chocolate. I did feel the tourist a bit by choosing it, but only until I took my first bite, and then I couldn't care less what anyone thought of me, I was eating magic. The shop, just a short walk from the Church of Our Lady, was called I Love Waffles. An apt name for a delicious, customizable, cute waffle shop. I got mine with strawberries, whipped cream, and caramel. YES.
Price: between 2,50 and 7,50 euros
hours: sorry, unknown! they unfortunately don't have a website but i suspect their hours are similar to the other stores ~8am - 5pm
Where to Find it: Katelijinstraat
and you'll find...
Amazing art and history
in the form of a hospital + a church
The first stop in Bruges history was the Sint-Jans Hospitaal, which was so interesting. It is one of the oldest charitable institutions in the city, and all of Europe, dating back to the 12th century. As much a religious institution as a medical one, faith was an essential element to the healing of its patients, as many of the caretakers were nuns. Many patients were pilgrims, travelers and the poor. Reading of the inclusiveness Sint-Jans practiced was admirable and it was fascinating to see the progression of its role in the city as a faith based medical establishment.
"Furniture, paintings, sculptures, silverware, and pewterware are the silent witnesses of the care for bodies and souls that took place in this hospital through the centuries."
I love this description from the Bruges Travel Site because that is the exact impression this museum's collection created for me. I was fascinated at the history of health and science, the displays of medical instruments (many which looked absolutely terrifying) gave you a powerful glimpse into what it looked like to practice healing over the centuries.
I loved looking at all of the art too, my favorite of which was the Tryptich of the Two Saints John by Flemish Master, Hans Memling. It was quite large, with five paintings, one on the center panel and four on both sides of the wings. When the shutters are closed you can see the hospital donors flanked by their patron saints. It was commissioned in the mid-1470's for the hospital itself. There is an intimacy in its overwhelming presence, as you can get close enough to see the strokes and the amazing detail.
Price: 8 euros
hours: 9:30am - 5pm
Where to Find it: Mariastraat 38
The church is the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, also known as the Church of Our Lady. It is an austere and beautiful place with ornate details and tall arches everywhere. It dates from the 13th-15th centuries, is home to such magnificent pieces like Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child from 1505, 13th-century painted sepulchres, the tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold from the 16th century, and other beautiful paintings.
Fun fact: The Church of Our Lady in Bruges has the second tallest brickwork tower in the world and is the tallest structure of the city.
At the time of my visit, large-scale renovation was happening, so part of the interior was not able to be viewed. There was still much to see and even with the tarps and construction ladders, just look up and you can still see the aged bronze figurines, their backs tightly pressed against the columns of the perfect archways, overlooking the pews and people. The tall ceilings and arched windows are just spectacular in their craftsmanship.
Price: 6 euros for museum | free for the church
hours: 9:30am - 5pm
Where to Find it: Mariastraat 8000
more of bruges
You may prefer the bustle of city life, dislike waffles, and feel no particular joy in museums and art. That's totally cool. I'm certainly not saying that if you don't seek these things out you will miss out on the city, everyone's travel interests are their own, and there is so much more to Bruges that I didn't get to experience. But, for my brief introduction to this part of Belgium, these sites and places were what made the introduction really special.
I fear this next statement is becoming too redundant, but I can't help it. I can't wait to go back. I always want to go back, to places I’ve seen but could not yet know due to minimal time. I guess it's that nomadic spirit within me calling out for more adventure and thus my perpetual location unfaithfulness to one place. So, nomad I am inclined to be :)
Looking forward to my return soon.
What destination could you consider calling home?
To your fulfilled life,