Finding The Dog of Bruges
My hotel window opened onto one of the many canals criss-crossing Bruges. I sat on the window seat, watching the tourist barges putter past. Under the autumn sun the water sparkled. Across the way, the occasional horse and carriage passed by. Willows graced the banks, and footbridges arched just high enough for the barges to pass. Some swans came to the window, looking for offerings from my afternoon tea.
The Groenerei (or Green Canal) is one of the old town’s major waterways, and was only two bridges away from our hotel. As I walked along it the next morning I was surprised to see a golden retriever pawing at a window of the Côté Canal Hotel. Unseen hands opened the latch and spread out a quilt, and the dog made himself quite comfortable lying across the window-sill, soaking up the sun as he watched the world go by. This was my first sighting of the famous Dog of Bruges. Every morning he gets into place as the tourist boats start up for the day. Apart from appearing in the photos of every tourist who passes, he has even starred in both TV commercials and movies (including a two second cameo for In Bruges).
Towards the end of The Groenerei is the Fish Market (selling seafood of a morning before becoming a tourist market). From here a cobbled lane leads to the Huidenvettersplein – The Tanners’ Square. Dating from around 1300, the square is now filled with cafes, restaurants, shops and bars. Tourist barges pull up in one corner, offering a thirty-minute ride, complete with a multi-lingual commentary. (I was always amazed at how shop assistants moved effortlessly from Flemish to Dutch to German to English to French – the list seemed endless.)
At heart Bruges remains a medieval city, best seen from the water. After pausing to wave at the dog, our tour boat passed the 12th century St John’s hospital (Sint-Janshospitaal), which was still treating patients as late as 1978. The oldest standing hospital in Europe, it now serves as a museum. Opposite is the 13th century Church of Our Lady. Inside is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, the only one of Michelangelo’s statues to leave Italy while the artist was alive.
A little further into the tour, the view from the Rozenhoedkaai, (so named for the roses sold here in the Middle Ages), gives the classic postcard view of Bruges. In all directions the skyline is broken by
zigzagging rooves. (In a city built largely of wood, a stepped roof was essential for escaping fires.) From here can be seen the Basilica of The Holy Blood, the Belfry, the Town Hall and The Church of our Lady.
Once the boat tour finishes, a great place to begin exploring Bruges is at The Burg, considered the city’s birthplace. A castle was built here to defend the town from invading Norsemen; now tourists and locals alike sit under colourful umbrellas outside the many bistros and cafes. To one side is The Basilica of The Holy Blood. Its Lower Chapel – Bruges’ oldest building – dates from the 12th century. A relic in the Upper Chapel was brought back from the Second Crusade by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. The crystal phial is believed to contain a relic of Christ’s Blood.
Winding from The Burg to the Grote Markt (the Big Square) is the cobbled Breidelstraat. Like much of this town, it abounds with cafes, more chocolate shops than can be decently visited, and a quintessential Christmas shop. It is always packed with tourists. The 13th century Belfry dominates the Grote Markt. Those brave enough to climb the 366 very
narrow steps (remember that scene from In Bruges?) are rewarded with a spectacular view over the centuries-old skyline to the coast. Next to the Belfry is the Provincial Palace, built on what in the 13th century was a harbour – a reminder of the important role Bruges once played in Flemish trade.
None of the cobbled streets run in a straight line, so the Old Town is perfect for wandering and becoming completely lost. Every turn offers the charm of moss-covered bridges and medieval buildings, including art galleries such as the Groeningmuseum, or the Chocolate Museum, where even the website comes complete with recipes There are numerous museums, the Beguinage, parks, and churches, as well as four windmills marking the remains of the old city walls.
There is still so much to see in Bruges, but after a day of exploring I was exhausted. There is always tomorrow. I made my way back to my hotel. The Dog of Bruges still sat at his window, contentedly watching the last tourists of the day pass by, before retiring for a well-deserved rest.
The Literary Traveller
First published in 1892, Bruges-la-Morte is often described as the archetypical Symbolistic novel. Written by the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach, it is also the first novel illustrated with photographs. The evocative, almost poetic style evokes a dying city, reflecting the emotions of a man, grieving for his wife, obsessed with death.
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