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.”
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. With just over 100,000 inhabitants, we found it so accessible and so 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, winding, 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, we filling our silent staircase with vibrations.
As we looked out over Bruges from the top of the tower, the kids kept saying, “It doesn’t look real. It looks like a movie set.” Even though it appears fake in its perfection, the carilloneur playing the bells was a reality I will never forget.