Bruges or Ghent – either way you win in Belgium

In 2002, Bruges bore the title of “Cultural Capital of Europe.”

PRINZ IN Bruges, Belgium 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
PRINZ IN Bruges, Belgium 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As long as I can remember, when I mention Belgium, travelers answer, “Bruges.”
And they are right. This sophisticated and small, pretty city will not let you down. Bruges long ago figured out exactly how to attract tourists and went about doing it.
The city sports canals, excellent eateries – fine gourmet restaurants to moderate establishments – and historic structures that invite exploration. It’s a fun place and only about a 100-km. drive from the busy capital, Brussels. No wonder it attracts 2.5 million visitors a year, many for a day visit. The shops and stores here are geared for tourists, especially for keen shoppers; even in the rain.
True, you can jump onto a little yellow minivan for a city tour. Or, you can see Bruges by boat or bike or horse-drawn cabs. All this is fine as long as some place along the line, you get out of a vehicle and become a pedestrian. Bruges is a walking town and the traveler will just love the shops, the museums, the banks of the Lakes of Love and the picturesque canals. The city center is an ambler’s dream; walking is the best way to discover Bruges. The city is rather small – population about 120,000 – so you can saunter across most of it in less than an hour.
When I walked in the Market Square, I admired the surrounding medieval-style, step-gabled buildings. This open market square is the city’s nerve and tourist center. Mind the horse carriages and tour groups!
Towering above the square is a gigantic medieval tower, the 13th-century Belfort. Only the brave make the 366-step climb to the top. The Belfort is an indication of Bruges’ medieval power and freedom and it dominates this city’s main square.
Actually, this square is interlinked to the Burg Square. Both are the perfect introduction to the medieval city. You can do as I did and explore the surrounding lanes. Indeed, the Burg is an historic enclave. Here you will see the Stadhuis, city hall, built between 1376 and 1420. This town hall is the oldest in Belgium.
At the old Fish Market, besides fresh fish in the morning, there are arcades where travelers can browse: toys, jewelry, accessories, and as one travel writer put it: “starving artists’ depictions of Bruges.” The Fish Market is located on the Groenerel Canal between Burg Square and Koningin Astrid Park.
For non-meat eaters, there is always plenty of fish on the menus of local eateries.
Don’t forget to visit the city’s many museums; there is even a Bruges beer museum.
As for souvenirs, a box of Belgian pralines is at the top of shoppers’ lists – and do try Belgian waffles and ice cream.
Bruges was once a world-famous trading center and a cradle of Flemish art. It started as Gallo-Roman settlement in the second and third centuries. From the 11th century, Bruges became an international commercial center, thanks to its direct access to the sea.
Around 1350, Bruges had about 45,000 residents. In the 15th century, Flanders became part of the Bergundian state. But at the end of the 15th century, the Bergundians left Bruges and the city’s ‘Golden Age’ ended. First, the city lost its outlet to the sea because of the silting up of the coastal area. Then Antwerp pulled ahead of Bruges and took over the wool trade. It took several hundred years, but Bruges finally regained its position as an art and tourist city.
In 2002, Bruges bore the title of “Cultural Capital of Europe.” Europe still thinks it’s a fine place to visit. So does this writer.
BRUGES DOES not have a Jewish community per se, but Jews do work in and around the town. Jewish students are among those attending the College of Europe in this municipality.
The nearest Jewish community to Bruges is located in Ghent, but their numbers are small, less than a hundred. Actually, Ghent, too, stands as beautiful historic town in Flanders and less than an hour from Bruges.
A very important site in Ghent is the Holocaust Memorial, at Compure rechts and Linden lei. This memorial is in the shape of a dreidel and is located at the confluence of a major canal. But it is not easy to locate. Often tourists are told about it when they are walking in the area or come upon it by accident.
More than half of the Jewish population of Belgium survived the war, according to Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer.
In the last analysis, it matters not which city you visit – both are located in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking (Flemish) northern portion of Belgium. The point is to imbibe in the culture, language, politics and history of this area; that’s what makes a visit to Bruges, and if possible Ghent, well worthwhile.
The writer, a travel writer and travel-lecturer, is the author of the just-published fourth edition of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, (Pelican Publishing) and Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press).
Follow him on twitter:@bengfrank.