Bruges, a small city just a day trip from Brussels, is well known for two rather conflicting images:
Image #1: Bruges is a beautiful fairytale city sometimes called Venice of the north.
Image #2: Bruges was made famous when Colin Farrell called it a shithole in the movie In Bruges.
Since I was only an hour away in Brussels, I figured it was worth a stop to make the choice for myself. Luck was on my side and I was able to find a Couchsurfing host last minute. Jay picked me up from the train station at about 6pm. He was easy to spot with a huge smile on his face, waving at me excitedly with both hands. Jay is one of those people you know in an instant you will like. He is inexhaustibly enthusiastic about life and genuinely LOVES meeting new people. I told him he was crazy (because the best people are) and couldn’t help but laugh out loud as he drove like a wild man through the small streets of Bruges.
There are only 200,000 people living within the old city walls of Bruges. That means that on really busy days, there are more tourists than locals. I must have arrived on a busy day because tourists were spilling off the sidewalk onto the street, directly in the path of Jay’s old car. I was certain we would kill a tourist as Jay craned his neck out the window to point out different historical buildings as we sped down the cobbled road.
The only thing better than an awesome Couchsurfing host is an awesome Couchsurfing host that happens to be a tour guide. I was instantly upgraded from tourist status. Horse carriage rides and tourist boats? Psh, not for this girl. I got a true insiders view of this adorable, UNESCO-protected city. On my first full day, we did a walking tour of the city. Bruges may be small, but there was a lot to see. Jay moved quickly from one location to the next, patiently answering my onslaught of questions as I tried to keep up.
It didn’t take long for me to decide which image I agreed with. Bruges is definitely not a shithole. In fact, if you dreamed up a medieval fairytale town in your head, it would be hard to improve on central Bruges. Picturesque cobbled lanes and dreamy canals. Tiny bridges with flowers and ivy drooping down to the water. Lace shops and medieval Flemish architecture. Put me in a dress and call me a princess.
If that’s not romantic enough for you, there’s Lover’s Lake. Legend has it that if you throw a coin in, you will be married in the next year. (I made sure to keep my coins in my pocket, thank you very much.)
If you’re not in Bruges for the romantic views, there’s plenty to learn about history. Thanks to Jay’s tour and my handy guide book, I put together “Five Minutes of History” (we’re traveling at Jay speed) on the city of Bruges.
1277 – Arrival of the first trade fleet from Genova, making the harbor of Bruges the most important link with the Mediterranean sea.
1302 – Big fight with France. A whole regiment of French soldiers gets murdered in their sleep. (When you’re used to being rich and peaceful, you have to be smart.)
1309 – Opening of the Stock Exchange in Bruges, one of the most sophisticated early capitalist businesses in Western Europe.
1480 – Memling paints the shrine of Saint Ursula. By now, Flemish painters have set the standard for European painters with their impressive eye for realism.
1482 – Mary of Burgundy falls off her horse and dies.
1500 – The harbor of Bruges is now useless because the connection with the sea has turned into sand.
1600 – and 1700 and 1800: Bruges falls asleep.
1892 – Bruges wakes up. The popular book ‘Bruges la Morte’ describes the city as a dark, poor and ugly place. Locals are not too happy with this, but tourists see some romance in it and start visiting more and more.
1907 – Bruges builds a new harbor a bit further, called Zeebrugge. During WWI, the Germans try out the first generation of submarines there.
1975 – First independent hostel in Bruges, run by a few hippies with a documentation center. There is no way to stop young travelers anymore.
2002 – Bruges is the cultural capital of Europe. They build a big building, which all of the locals hate and complain about.
2009 – The movie ‘In Bruges’ wins an award for best scenario. Quote: “ If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” Colin Farrell calls Bruges “a shithole”, but the movie attracts only more tourists. Just like in 1982!
2012 – The singer Gotye scores a monster hit with the song ‘Somebody that I used to know.’ He moved to Australia when he was 2 years old, but was born in Bruges, so Bruges can still claim him as a superstar.