Brugge, a medieval city that died and came back to life, is perfect for people who are seeking the rich sights, sounds and tastes of Europe.
They have mussels and beer. They have old brickwork. They have scenic bridge-spans and battered bicycles to cross them on. But best of all, the people of Brugge have proof underfoot and overhead that there is life after municipal death.
That life, prosperous, pedestrian and multilingual, is what enveloped me here for a handful of days this summer.In the morning you walk the narrow streets, or pedal one of those bicycles, or glide on the long, glassy face of a canal. In the afternoon, I'm not sure what you do; it sneaks away while you're puzzling over the Peruvian folk songs heard in the marketplace that morning. In the evening you eat well. And each night you probably sleep somewhere old and snug, in my case the well-kept rooms of a 17th-century gentleman's home.
It's not cheap and it's not a closely guarded secret, but Brugge is easy. (Pronounce it like rouge with a B in front; the French spelling is Bruges.) It's also centrally located, 60 miles west of Brussels, 175 miles north of Paris. For those who seek a European city rich in sight, sound and taste, yet condensed into a medieval village no broader than the distance of a brisk walk, the search may end here under the towering city belfry, seven centuries old and 366 steps up.
It was 100 years ago this summer that Brugge was most recently pronounced dead.
In June 1892, Belgian author Georges Rodenbach published ``Bruges-Le-Morte,' a romance novel set in a once-proud city reduced to crumbling and quiet. Brugge, the dead city.
The book sold big, as melodramas did and do. Yet, at least as far as the city was concerned, the author was working not far from reality.
Brugge is more than a millennium old. By the 13th century, when many of the town's principal landmarks were built, the city had grown from a Flemish outpost against Norman invaders into one of the most powerful cities in Europe. Elaborate guild houses, shrines to commerce, rose above its canals.
As a member of the Hanseatic League of trading ports, the city capitalized on its position near the Reie River's confluence with the Atlantic. Brugge dominated world markets in English wool and even withstood an attack by the French in 1302.
But where the French failed, mud succeeded.
Slowly and steadily, silt choked the Zwijn estuary, which connected Brugge to the North Sea. The merchants moved a few miles away, but the silt caught them there as well. The merchants deserted, and Brugge's life as a working port was finished before the end of the 15th century. By the 16th century, Brugge was a backwater where priests and nuns took refuge from religious wars.
The advantage of all these travails is that no one ever thought to improve on the old architecture by knocking it down. There it stood, three centuries later, for Rodenbach to exploit in his romance. And there it stands now, towering over upscale boutiques and sidewalk cafes.
Arriving in summer, tourists find thousands like themselves, treading the cobblestones in twosomes and eyeing the windows of shops such as Callebert, an international design store with such wares as a black bicycle that folds in half (about $520).
Others devote their days to the more than 100 restaurants of Brugge, which stand pinched between shops or perched above canals.
As in Venice, to which Brugge is often compared, the summer visitors sometimes seem to outnumber the city's 120,000 residents. Arrive later in the year and you're likely to find more elbow room.
I stayed at the Oud Huis Amsterdam, a 17-room establishment that fronted on a canal and sat about six blocks from the main square. The cheapest single room began at $125 nightly - reasonable, compared to going European rates - and the service was beyond reasonable.
One morning, I mentioned at the desk that I planned to rent a bicycle. Not knowing me from Adam, hotelier Philip Traen immediately stepped up to offer use of his well-used green Raleigh, complete with mudguard behind its front tire and warning bell at my left thumb. Thus equipped, I rambled out to the windmills at the edge of town and back, sneering as I went at the other tourists on their obvious rentals.
Probably, one of those tourists stood above and sneered down at me when I settled in to take a canal tour. This was a matter of 30 travelers (infants and poodles excluded) wedged into a long, narrow boat, and assessed $4 each. It lasted about 45 minutes and was strictly a tourist experience. But even with no leg room, the swan's-eye view from under a low stone bridge is hard to complain about.
``For me, the best time to visit Brugge is October,' local resident Martin Vansteenkiste told me one day. ``The crowds are not here, nor is winter. The medieval spirit comes better out in autumn, which is a very melancholic period. The autumn leaves are on the ground, all brown and yellow. That's the most romantic period.'
Vansteenkiste had the longish hair, noble bearing and elocution of 18th-century gentry, but at 32, he was in his second year at the reins of a horse-drawn carriage. For about $24 - no great bargain for a tour of less than an hour - he and a mare named Darko led me on a trot around the city.
At the city's hub, the Grote Markt, or market square, walkers far outnumber drivers, 11 restaurants stand in a colorful row facing the much-loved belfry, and a pair of statuary lions gaze down from the steps of the 14th-century Town Hall.
A block east, past a row of lace shops, stands the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a 12th-century structure that for seven centuries or more has held a scrap of cloth said to be soaked with the blood of Christ. On Fridays, the relic is displayed for the public.