When King of France, Philip the Fair, visited Bruges in 1301, his wife, Joanna of Navarre, was so shocked by the inhabitants’ wealth and exquisite clothing that she exclaimed: “I thought I alone was queen, but I see that I have 600 rivals here.” Today, with just over 118,000 inhabitants, Bruges is dazzling, perhaps even more so because it’s had over 700 years of practice.
When walking the streets of Bruges, there is a museum-like quality that is somehow overflowing with daily life. Bruges escaped both World Wars unscathed so it is truly preserved and in some ways ethereal. We found it surprisingly accessible and somehow delicately precious all in the same breath. The elegantly dressed couples in stay-a-while cafes were visible on every corner. The horses drawing the carriages even looked proud to be clapping along the cobbled lanes, showing tourists their town.
It wasn’t until we entered the spiral, worn staircase of the bell tower that we could truly experience Bruges. We went from street music filling the air, as shoppers navigated boutiques seamlessly, to almost complete silence, as the brick tower absorbed all outside noise. As we climbed the 366 steps to the top of the 272 foot-high building that leans more than a foot to the east, we anticipated the experience of arriving.
We passed beautiful bells, encased in wooden beams, and wondered what their song would sound like when we were close enough to touch them. Then it happened. The same bells that once regulated the lives of the city dwellers, announcing work hours, fire alarms, and religious and political celebrations, were filling our once silent staircase with symphonic vibrations.
As we sat in the square feasting on rijsttaart (custard tart), a local man asked our children if they knew how Bruges got its name. With the carillonneur playing the bells in the distance, the kids sat wide-eyed, as we learned the word Bruge is the old-German word ‘brugj’, which means mooring place. It refers to the fact that there was an embarkation point in Bruges used by sea traders of a by-gone era. We couldn’t help but think this glittering city was perfectly named. Bruges has somehow anchored itself through centuries without fading, becoming even more beautiful and polished over time.
As Henry David Thoreau stated, “None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” Perhaps that is the secret to the glow we felt in Bruges. The people who work and live there were excited to share Flemish culture with us, and that enthusiasm has been passed through the generations casting a radiant shadow on the surrounding landscape.
Bruges reminded us that a youthful glow has nothing to with age and everything to do with owning one’s history while resting a hopeful eye on the horizon. Thank you for aging gracefully, Bruges, and generously sharing your lessons with us.
Today’s Tweetable: Why we think Bruges is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe