I have long since wanted to visit Belgium and its beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Bruges and last month I was fortunate enough to finally do so. Cited as "an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement" full of equally outstanding photographic opportunities I was sure, my husband and I booked ourselves a week in the city to celebrate our third wedding anniversary.
I’ll be honest, I did little in the way of research before we departed Scotland, such had been the demands on our time beforehand. I had simply booked flights to Brussels Charleroi airport and a guest house in the City Centre. It was only a few days before we left home, when preparing travel paperwork, that I realised both were 140kms apart! I scolded myself for not having spent enough time researching beforehand, but I needn’t have worried. Flibco airport buses were parked right outside the airport terminal to take us the 2.5 hour road trip to Bruges for only €21 each, considerably less than the feared €150 taxi fare!
Other than this airport transfer, my tardiness when it came to preparation thankfully had no further repercussions. On arrival at our accommodation in Bruges we found ourselves right around the corner from the city’s most photographed location, the Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai), centred where the Groenerei and Dijver canals meet. Seeing this location in photographs was what sold me on a visit to Bruges and it was as beautiful in real life as I had imagined it to be. In fact it was more so. The Rozenhoedkaai was reportedly a salt port in the Middle Ages. Boats loaded and unloaded the precious commodity that was in those days as expensive as gold, due to its ability to preserve food and season dishes. Our first couple of evenings were spent photographing this idyllic little corner in calm conditions, giving beautiful reflections that wouldn’t be repeated for the rest of our time there. The unexpected icing on the cake was how few other serious photographers were there, meaning we didn’t have to jostle for position and a spot to set down our tripods.
Beyond the Rozenhoedkaai, I knew little more of Bruges so we simply spent our days meandering the streets and network of canals, letting the city charm us as we went. Horse-drawn carriages transported eager tourists through its winding cobbled streets and boat trips chugged along the calm waters of the canals. We however preferred to walk, exploring all the little side streets and hidden corners, accessible only by foot.
Bruges is one of the most well preserved medieval cities in Europe, its extraordinary architecture splendidly ornate. Its political centre, The Burg Square, was one of the earliest inhabited squares in the city. It has on show a variety of architectural styles, from the Gothic City Hall dating back to 1376 to the smaller Renaissance period Old Civil Registry (1537). In the corner of the The Burg Square is one of the smallest and most interesting of buildings, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, its façade decorated with gilded statues and medallions of the Counts of Flanders and their partners. One rainy afternoon we took shelter in the 12th Century Basilica, made up of a Romanesque lower chapel and a Gothic upper chapel. Our timing was opportune in that its most famous sacred relic was on display to the public, a vial reportedly containing the blood of Jesus Christ. We each took to the pulpit to spend a few seconds in front of the vial with our own thoughts before quietly moving on. No matter what your beliefs, it was hard not to feel moved by what was a very spiritual experience in a city heavily populated with churches and cathedrals. A subsequent visit to the Begijnhof convent, founded in 1245 and now occupied by Sisters of the religious St. Benedict Order, was similarly very poignant.
When our feet tired from the walking, we would stop off at one of the numerous restaurants and bars to rest and refuel. Queue an introduction to Belgian Beer! I have never been a beer drinker, other than the odd sip over the years. Belgium is said to be the fatherland of quality beer brewing however, so I felt it almost compulsory to give beer the opportunity to win me over as a refreshing and less potent alternative to a glass of wine. I started with what turned out to be the best beer of our trip, Brugse Zot, brewed in the Halve Maan brewery in Bruges itself. A blonde beer using an ancient and unique recipe, I found it immediately pleasant and very drinkable. What followed was an brief exploration of other beer offerings such as Duvel Cherry and the local Gruut Blonde, before I settled for the remainder of our holiday on enjoying the Brugse Zot.
Four days into our trip we decided to take a spontaneous trip to the nearby city of Ghent, a 20 minute train journey from Bruges. Once again I had been attracted by some beautiful photographs I had seen online of the buildings on Graslei at night, lit up and reflecting in the Leie river. Of course such photographs require optimum conditions, the right light as well as low levels of wind to allow for mirror-like reflections. A quick check of the weather forecast was non-conclusive but we decided to go anyway, treating ourselves to a night in the boutique hotel 1898 The Post, the former post office of Ghent which takes pride of place in the Belgian city’s historic centre. On arrival we fortunately managed to secure an early check-in and a complimentary upgrade to a suite, making for a very special introduction to this city.
Ghent was one of the most important cities in Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, its economy underpinned by the wool trade. It was the first industrialised city in Europe, its development ceasing during the two world wars and Great Depression until the second half of the 20th Century. Today, wandering through the streets of Ghent really does give the feeling of stepping back into the 14th Century, such is the historic architecture on display. As we absorbed the city’s old world authenticity, I concluded that whilst slightly less refined than Bruges, as depicted by its legal ‘Graffiti Street’ which would have seemed out of character for Bruges, it compensated with an engrossing atmosphere that made it hard to choose a favourite between the two. Ghent hosts the largest student population in Europe, giving it a lively ambiance in the evening as students congregate in small groups along Graslei and Korenlei. Bruges on the other hand is an early-bedder, the city going into sleep mode shortly after 10pm. Both, I am happy to say, have a plethora of chocolate shops and waffle stands, indistinguishable in their quality (and we tried many just to test the theory!). As for the photography in Ghent, the weather Gods smiled down on us that evening and gave us a small window of perfect weather at Blue Hour before the heavens opened and rain swept away the last of the day.
Our final day was spent back in the city of Bruges, photographing the last corners of the city, drinking the last of its beer and sampling the last of its scrumptious Belgian chocolates. In what seemed like a heartbeat we found ourselves back on the Flibco bus, travelling the 140kms back to the airport for our short flight home, truly thankful of another place on that big old world map that we had been so fortunate to enjoy.