What struck me most was the way the sunlight danced across the water. It had been raining in Paris, and the rain had followed me as the train sped past windmills and back-roads lined with poplars decked in autumn finery. Old stone farmhouses sat in tilled fields of soft green.
Yet when I reached Bruges, in Belgium, the sun broke through the grey clouds. The whole city had emerged into the sunshine to promenade through this medieval city, or else pass by in horse and carriage.
To meander along the canals of Bruges is to step back into the Middle Ages. Willow branches tickle the water as swans drift grandly by. Stepped rooves zigzag against the sky in classic Flemish style. The canals, dressed by the fallen leaves of autumn, sparkle in the morning sun. Having a hotel room with a window opening onto a canal is delight.
Many canals are best seen by barge. Indeed, they were the original arteries of the town,
and not all can be reached by foot.
Walk along The Groenerei to The Fish Market (which, after selling seafood of a morning, becomes a market of an afternoon). This opens onto the Huidenvettersplein – The Tanners’ Square – which dates from around 1300. The stench of their trade meant tanners were forbidden to work within the town walls, so they congregated in this area which lay outside the original walls. Now the square is filled with cafes and restaurants.
Boats leave from a corner of Huidenvettersplein, offering a thirty minute tour with a running commentary in English, Dutch, French, German and the occasional Italian. The view from the Rozenhoedkaai, (so named for the roses sold here in the Middle Ages), gives the classic postcard view of Bruges, with the Bascilica of The Holy Blood, the Belfry, the Town Hall and The Church of our Lady on view.
The Church of Our Lady is a 13th century chapel, originally outside the city limits. Inside is proudly displayed a Madonna and Child – the only statue by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime.
Opposite the church stands St John’s hospital (Sint-Janshospitaal). Dating from the 12th century, this is the oldest hospital in Europe, and was in service until 1978. The wing running along the canal was used in the 13th century as both a chapel and a ward, (for spiritual healing was considered more important than healing of the flesh).
Then, of course, there is The Dog of Bruges. Halfway along The Groenerei (or Green Canal), a golden retriever lay on a window sill, watching the world go by. The Dog of Bruges does this every day, his owner laying out a mattress as the first tourist boats drift by. Despite the charm of moss-covered bridges and medieval buildings, it is the dog who causes a photo frenzy in each passing barge. He rests in the window of the Côté Canal Hotel, oblivious to his fame. Although he doesn’t
even rate a mention on the official Bruges website, for anyone who has seen him, The Dog of Bruges remains an enduring memory of the town.
I pushed open my hotel window, and sat on the ledge a few feet above the water. As if on cue a barge chugged past. Across the way the branches of an ancient willow gently stroked the water. A small stone bridge arched over the canal; medieval buildings with their Flemish roofs zigzagged against the sky. Some swans glided up to my window. Dressed by the fallen leaves of autumn, the water sparkled in the sun.
I raised my glass, and a boatload of tourists waved back. Ah, Bruges; a town where past and present merge so seamlessly.