Bruges: Back to the Future?

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There probably aren’t too many places left in the world like Bruges. Located in Western Flanders, in the northwest of Belgium, Bruges is probably the best-preserved medieval city left in Europe. It’s a classic storybook town, drawn straight out of romance movies and children’s books, the kind of place you’d never imagine a city bus snorting through.

Yet here I am waiting for the bus. The roads here are too small to be anything but one-way, and the road in front of my destination, the hostel where I’m staying, goes the wrong way. I’m not entirely sure where I’ll end up.

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In North America, we’re accustomed to newness. It’s ingrained in us. Whether we like it or not, most of our continent lives in the suburbs; many of those same places weren’t there when their inhabitants were children. And our cities – even the older ones – are shrines to modernism and postmodernism: statues without recognizable forms, or skyscrapers that we could judiciously refer to as “concrete slab chic.”

So to the North American eye, Bruges is old. Really old. And quaint too! The roofs are gabled, the streets are paved in cobblestones, and the locals are speaking a language that the North American has never heard in her life. Forget Disney’s Magic Kingdom, she thinks as she drifts toward the town centre with wide eyes, I’ve got this real cathedral right here. There’s a Christmas market still out, and just look at these adorable little restaurants!

Bruges’s centre is the Grote Markt, or Grand Place in French, and grand it is. Surrounded on two sides by three-story buildings full of shops and restaurants, on the third by the city hall with its tall surveillance tower, and on the fourth by a Gothic-style cathedral, the Markt is an important hub and reference point for the city. Merchants inside the Christmas market’s stalls sell bratwurst sandwiches, holiday season compact discs, and savoyard tartiflette: a dish involving potatos drenched in cheese and covered with bacon and onions.

Moving radially outward from the plaza, our visitor witnesses the commerce slowly transform from restaurants and souvenir shops to groceries and laundromats. She sees the stately central buildings give way to gabled attached houses and even the rare abandoned brown lot. The sidewalks empty out and the roadbeds turn from cobbles to asphalt.

And then, finally, one last wind in the road and one final canal. And then, a traffic light. An arterial road. Our traveler is in the ‘burbs.

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I came to Bruges because I was told I absolutely had to. I was staying at a hostel for a few days in Brussels and my taste of Belgium would be there and Antwerp. But person after person told me to go to Bruges. “Oh, but it’s so pretty!,” they said. The caveat was also the same: full of tourists. But it’s worth it. Even my tour book used practically the same words.

Travelling alone, or almost alone, is fun but tiring. Each hostel has a new group of travellers, none of whom you’ve ever met before or will probably ever see again. They come in certain forms: world-weary backpackers for whom the current city is never quite as good as the last; tired drivers halfway to their destination; confused teenagers lost without a beer in hand. The people you meet start to blur together.

Then there’s the physical fatigue. You’ve stayed up late with your single-serving friends, but then need to wake up early to catch the hostel’s free breakfast (inevitably toast with jam, and two to four cups of watery coffee). You find your friends from last night – who are inevitably more hung over than you, and care mostly to talk about life back in the Chicago suburbs or English Midlands (remember, people of the same language inevitably flock together). You might indulge in a few nice meals if you’re in a culinary town, but most of what you’ve been eating for the time of your travels has been fast food or streetside kebab, so your lack of nutrition isn’t helping your body’s natural balance much either. But hey – you’re on vacation! Who needs nutrition or sleep?

If you’re moving on to another city that day, you find somewhere in the hostel to stash your suitcase so that you can sightsee before catching your train. Or you return to the dorm and try to hide everything you own under the bunk bed. Then out you go: back into the foreign city that’s become your short-term home.

Foreign cities have lots of museums, so if you’re inclined towards culture, those are always a possibility. In Europe, they also often have historic old downtowns, so photo opportunities are a dime a dozen. Odds are one in two that there’s a historic wharf, a museum of city history, or an important cathedral. After your full day of culture and sightseeing, as the art museums are turning out their lights, you return to the hostel to find something to do for the evening.

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I am walking down a dark cobblestone street in Bruges with two other men. One, Richard, is from the North of France; the other, Paul, is from Wallonia: Belgium’s Southern, French-speaking half. Richard and Paul are on the way from the area around Calais to Brussels to catch a plane. They had decided to stay in Bruges for a night to catch a drink.

After having left Richard’s car on the Bruges outskirts to avoid the stringent centre-city parking regulations, we start in toward the Grote Markt. There is no one else on the street: the tourists are asleep in their hotels, and the locals are watching TV in their homes. The air is damp and cold. Street lamps pierce the night’s deep grey.

At a twist in the road, Richard stops us. “You see that tower over in front of us?” he asks, gesturing at a large, pointed spire on the other side of a few blocks of residential buildings.

Paul and I nod.

“That’s the city hall, of course,” he says as we start walking again, more slowly than before. “In old times, they used to keep someone up there at all times. There was always a risk of an invasion, and they wanted to be forewarned. The land around here is almost completely flat, so it was easy to see.”

Turning a few more corners, we arrive at the front of the city hall, at the Grote Markt. It’s mostly abandoned. A few cars drive cautiously through. A man running a fry kiosk listens to a radio talk show in Flemish.

I buy a medium fry, slathered in Andalusian Sauce – the Belgians cover their fries in mayonnaise-based dips and provide a tiny two-pronged fork to help you escape the grease. I turn back to the French speakers, who are puzzling over the Tourism Office map.

We walk around the Grote Markt toward a bar: what appears to be the only place still open. A bouncer opens the door for us and we enter.

The bar is submerged in a blue tint, as if in a submarine, and packed with teenagers: Bruges’ high school students. A lone disco ball hangs from the ceiling, rotating back and forth and projecting little white U’s on the surfaces underneath. There’s a stage to the right with two men on it: one plays a keyboard, as the other sings in Flemish and keeps the adolescent crowd under control.

Richard, Paul, and I slink to the back of the chamber. We’re probably the only ones in the bar speaking French instead of Flemish: much like in Canada, language issues are supreme in Belgium, and it wouldn’t be good to be heard by too many people. We find a table at chest height to stand around. Paul snags a beer list from the next table and announces that this round’s on him. A waiter comes and we order.

It’s only a couple days after Christmas, and in tourist towns, holidays die hard. The singer on stage is singing a Flemish Christmas song: there are synthesized bells coming out of the keyboard, and the crowd is swaying back and forth drunkenly.

Richard sidles up to another table and says something to its occupants. When he returns, he has a thick pamphlet with him. He pages through it and shrugs.

“It’s a song list,” he says. “But I have no idea what they’re singing now. In fact, I don’t know how to do much in Flemish. I can order drinks and that’s pretty much it.”

“How much more do you need?” Paul asks, laughing.

The two men on stage start performing John Lennon’s “A Very Merry Christmas.” The entire bar erupts for the chorus.

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On a web site like Urbanphoto, a site so devoted to recently enshined ideas like an “urban experience” of mixed land use and walkability, it’s easy to laud Bruges for its good urban design. True, it’s compact and walkable; it’s got great focal points like plazas and canal arms that make it easy to navigate. To a limited degree, Western cities could try to glean a lesson or two from Bruges. But let’s not forget that Bruges is not a product of our time. It hasn’t been up-to-date since it was one of Europe’s main ports. That was in the 1400s.

Europe deals with this tension between the new and old-fashioned frequently. In a sense, World War II settled the question for them: there would be space for new architecture where buildings had been destroyed. Americans, too, chose novelty, by building tracts upon tracts of suburban houses outside of the existing inner city. Canada has always teetered on the edge.

But this is all in the world of what is. Bruges, however, is a tourist city: a place devoted to what was and what might have been. From the point of view of the urban planner, if Bruges has made its visitors think more about the spaces in which they live, it has probably fulfilled its purpose.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Thursday February 01 2007at 02:02 am , filed under Europe, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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