Belgium: Bruges and Brussels
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. Buckets of mussels...the best fries — with mayonnaise...excellent monk-made beer...crispy waffles...and dreamy chocolate...yep, we must be in Belgium!
Belgium is one of Europe's great secrets. A trade boom 500 years ago left this region with dazzling art and architecture. And it's emerging again as a trade center of Europe. Today, travel here is a breeze — it's small, well-organized, no language barrier and the people are great.
Enjoying the best of Belgium, we start in Bruges — with Renoir canals, fanciful gilded architecture, vivid time-tunnel art and stay-awhile cafés. Where else can you bike along a canal, savor heavenly chocolate and see a Michelangelo, all within earshot of a bell tower with a hyper-active carillon? Then, we head for Brussels, home of Europe's most magnificent medieval square and capital of the European Union.
Almost lost between Germany and France in the middle of Europe, tiny Belgium is easy to overlook. But we'll see why it's worth discovering. After exploring Bruges, we'll ride the train to the capital, Brussels.
We're starting in Brugge [BROO-ghah], as the Flemish who live in this part of Belgium pronounce their town. The French half of the country — and English speakers — call it Bruges [broozh]. However you choose to pronounce it, the name comes from the Viking word for "wharf." In other words...it's been a trading center for a long time.
About a thousand years ago, the city grew wealthy as the most important textile market in northern Europe. Back then, the city's canals provided merchants smooth transportation. Today, they provide visitors smooth photo-ops. A short cruise shows off the town's old wealth. By the 14th century, Bruges' population was 40,000, as large as London's. As the middleman in sea trade between northern and southern Europe, it was an economic powerhouse.
In the 15th century, while England and France were slogging it out in a 100 years-long war, Bruges was the favored residence of the powerful and sophisticated Dukes of Burgundy — and at peace. Commerce and the arts boomed.
But by the 16th century, its harbor silted up, trade moved to the port of Antwerp and the economy collapsed ending Bruges' Golden Age. For generations, the town slumbered. Then, in the 20th century, the tourists discovered the charms of Bruges.
Today this uniquely well-preserved Gothic city prospers because of tourism. Even with its crowds, it's the kind of city where you don't mind being a tourist. It hides some sweet surprises...
The people of Brugges are connoisseurs of fine chocolate. You'll be tempted by chocolate-filled display windows all over town. Locals buy their chocolates fresh daily — like other people buy pastries. They love the venerable family-run places like Dumon, where Madam Dumon and her children are hard at work. Their ganache, a dark creamy combo, wows chocoholics. They don't have English labels, because they believe it's best to describe their chocolates in person.
Bruges seems to have a chocolate shop on every corner — and some are more adventurous than others. The Chocolate Line — famous for its 60 gastronomique varieties — is proud of its kitchen. Everything is lovingly made by hand. Some specials come with an extra dose of creativity.
The Market Square, ringed by restaurant terraces, great old gabled buildings and the bell tower, marks the city center today as it did in its medieval heyday.
Back then, a canal came right up to this square. Farmers in the countryside shipped their wool and flax to Bruges. Before loading it onto outgoing boats, the industrious locals would maximize their profit by dying, spinning and weaving the raw goods into textiles.
The bell tower has stood over Market Square since 1300. Climb the 366 steps for a grand view.
The tower houses a grand carillon. Its 47 bells — tuned to 47 different notes — can be played mechanically with the giant barrel and movable tabs (as they are on each quarter hour) or with a manual keyboard (as they are during concerts). The carillon player uses his fists and feet rather than fingers.
Aime Lombaert, who's rung these bells since 1984, arranges his own music and enjoys sharing his art. Grab a bench in the courtyard to enjoy one of the regular and free carillon concerts. The opulent square called Burg — Bruges' historical birthplace, political center and religious heart — is decorated with six centuries of fine architecture.
The square's historic highlight is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The gleaming gold knights and ladies on the church's gray facade remind us that this church was built by a Crusader in the 12th century to house the drops of Christ's blood brought back from Jerusalem.
Inside the Basilica, the stark decor reeks of the medieval piety that drove those crusading Europeans on Christian jihads against Muslims. With heavy columns and round arches, the style is pure Romanesque.
Upstairs is the brighter neo-Gothic upper chapel. The painting at the altar tells how the holy blood got here. Derrick of Alsace, having helped conquer Muslim-held Jerusalem in the Second Crusade, kneels before the grateful Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, who rewards him with the relic. Derrick returns home and kneels before Bruges' bishop to give him the vial of blood.
Next door is the town hall. Fifteenth-century Bruges was a thriving bastion of capitalism and this building served as a model for town halls elsewhere, including Brussels. One of Europe's first representative governments convened right here.
In the adjoining room, old paintings and maps show how little the city has changed over the centuries. This map shows in exquisite detail the city as it looked in 1562, when a canal connected the North Sea to Market Square. A fortified moat circled the city. Of the town's 28 windmills...
... four survive today. The mills made paper, ground grain and functioned as the motor of the Middle Ages.
My favorite way to explore Bruges is on two wheels. Anywhere in Europe where the biking's good, you'll find handy and inexpensive rentals. Get lost on the back streets, away from the shopping and tour groups.
French fries, called Flemish fries here, are a local specialty.
In the 1500s, rich men and women decided that lace collars, sleeves and veils were fashionable. For the next two hundred years, lace was the rage. It all had to be made by hand and countless women earned extra income meeting the demand. This school makes sure that traditional lacemaking survives in Bruges. People come from around the world to study these 400-year-old techniques.
To make bobbin lace (which originated here in Bruges), women juggle different strands tied to bobbins, weaving a design with the many threads. Unlike knitting, lacemaking requires total concentration as you follow intricate patterns.
The Gruuthuse Museum, a 15th-century mansion of a wealthy Bruges merchant, displays period furniture, tapestries and much more. It gives an intimate look at the materialistic revolution that came with Bruges' glory days.
This region was renown for fine tapestries. They were popular with the wealthy — colorful, great for warming up big drafty interiors and a fun opportunity for a rich guy to tell a story. This series tells of courtship and marriage in the early 1600s.
The scenes and their old French captions subtly tell a story of youthful lustiness that upsets stereotypes about medieval piety. The first, called Soup-Eating Lady, shows a shepherd girl with a bowl of soup in her lap. The flirtatious shepherd lad cuts a slice of bread (that's foreplay in medieval symbolism) and — according to the text — saucily asks if he can "dip into the goodies in her lap." Nearby, a woman brazenly strips off her socks to dangle her feet in water.
Next, in The Dance, couples freely dance together under the apple tree of temptation and around a bagpipe — symbolic back then of hedonism. The Wedding Parade shows where all this wantonness leads — marriage. Music plays, the table is set and the meat's on the BBQ, as the bride and groom enter...reluctantly. The bride smiles, but she's closely escorted by two men, while the scared groom gulps nervously. Finally, in the tapestry called Old Age, the elderly shepherd is tangled in a wolf trap. The caption reads "Alas, he was once so lively, but marriage caught him and now he's trapped in its net."
The merchant who lived here had it all. In fact, his mansion even had a private chapel with a box seat overlooking the cathedral altar.
This was the ultimate in church-going convenience — he could attend Mass and not even leave the house.
For 600 years the Church of Our Lady has stood — with its 400-foot tall tower of bricks — as a memorial to the power and wealth of Bruges at its height.
Inside, reclining statues mark the tombs of the last local rulers of Bruges, Mary of Burgundy and her father, Charles the Bold. The dog and lion at their feet are symbols of fidelity and courage.
A delicate Madonna and Child is said to be the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy in his lifetime. It marks the tomb of the wealthy Bruges businessman who bought the statue in Tuscany.
Mary, slightly smaller than life-size, sits while young Jesus stands in front of her. Their expressions are mirror images of each other — serene but a bit melancholy, with downcast eyes, as though pondering what lies ahead for the young child. Though they're lost in thought, their hands instinctively link, tenderly.
Just a cross the street, a monastery ran a hospital. It's recalls how the sick were treated. It also displays masterpieces by the great Flemish painter — hometown boy — Hans Memling.
Some 500 years ago, the nave of this former church was lined with the sick and dying. Nuns served as nurses.
Medicine of the day was well-intentioned but very crude. In many ways, this was less a hospital than a hospice. It helped the down-and-out make the transition from this world to the next. Rather than dying in the streets, they died here...with dignity. Care was more for the soul than the body. There were more priests than physicians and the major work was worship, administering the sacraments and last rites.
Religious art reminded the sufferers that Christ could feel their pain, having lived it himself. From their death beds, they could look down at the high altar, once crowned with Hans Memling's St. John's altarpiece.
Memling was the master of "Flemish Primitives." "Primitive" is not a pejorative. It was a 19th-century term for nostalgic, pure and spiritual art of these highly skilled 15th century oil painters. Employed by and often portraying Belgium's wealthy, they captured the world in amazing detail.
Central panel: This was designed to comfort patients in the hospital. Gazing at this slice of heaven, they could imagine leaving this world of pain and illness and joining Mary and Jesus in a serene setting, listening to heavenly music and conversing with the saints. Memling's heaven echoes wealthy Bruges of the 1400s, showing the city skyline, Oriental carpets that passed through here, fine furniture manufactured by the city and the latest Italian fashions.
Memling then takes us on a journey to the end of the world. John sits on the island of Patmos — transfixed as he experiences the Apocalypse now. He writes down his vision — a revelation of the end of time — which eventually becomes the last book of the bible...Revelations.
Up in heaven, in a rainbow bubble, God opens the seals of a book, unleashing awful events — wars, fires and plagues that stretch as far as the eye can see. The dreaded Four Horsemen gallop across the clouds chasing helpless mortals who scramble for cover.
In the St. John Altarpiece, Hans Memling shows us the full range of his palette, from medieval grace to Renaissance luxury, from the real to the surreal.
This portrait takes us right back to 1400s Bruges. The woman — probably the daughter of a wealthy merchant — looks out the frame as if looking out a window, her hands literally resting on the sill. She's very fashionable — with a pale complexion, plucked eyebrows, shaved hairline and her hair pulled back tightly beneath a fez-like cap. Her features are realistic, but Memling gives her the thoughtful, sober expression of a medieval saint. She peers out at us from behind her thin veil. What's she thinking about?
It just might have been...a beer. Today... Belgians are Europe's beer connoisseurs. If you're not up to sampling all 120 local types, go right for the local favorite — Straffe Hendrik — literally "strong Henry." The happy gang at this working family brewery gives entertaining and informative tours.
We're catching one of the frequent trains that zip from Brugges to Brussels in about an hour.
Le Grand Place – Europe's grandest square – is just a short walk from the train station.
Brussels got a late start. Six hundred years ago, it was just a nice place to stop and buy a waffle on the way to Bruges. Then it was given free trade status and its economy took off. By 1830 it was the capital of an exuberant and newly independent country — Belgium — booming with the industrial age. Today, with a million inhabitants, it's the headquarters of NATO and the center of the European Union.
Brussels' Town Hall dominates the square. The fancy smaller buildings giving the square its unique character are former guild halls with ornate gabled roofs topped with statues. Once the home offices for the town's different professions (bakers, brewers, tanners and so on), they all date from shortly after 1695 — the year Louis XIV's troops surrounded the city, sighted their cannons on the Town Hall spire and bombarded the city.
The French destroyed several thousand wooden buildings — but missed the spire. As a matter of pride, these Brussels businessmen rebuilt their offices better than ever — all within about seven years. Today, they're in stone, taller and with richly ornamented gables.
One of my weightiest responsibilities as a diligent guidebook writer is to research the chocolate shops. For many, the best thing about the Grand Place is its line of venerable chocolate shops – each with an enthusiastic following.
Godiva is famous around the world. Its name is synonymous with fine Belgian chocolate.
Neuhaus has been encouraging local chocoholics since 1857. Mmm... chocolate toffee coffee.
Leonidas — this is where locals get more chocolate for less money...not the greatest...but still delicious.
Galler is less famous because they don't export. It's family run and understandably the choice of the king and queen. They proudly serve less sugary chocolate — dark.
Of course, there's more to shopping in Brussels than chocolate. This elegant arcade, built in 1847, is Europe's oldest, still-working shopping mall. It celebrated the town's new modern attitude. Having recently gained its independence from the Netherlands, Belgium was embarking on a century of expansion and industrialization. These galleries were a model of efficient modern living with elegant apartments upstairs above fine shops, theaters and cafés. Its decorative columns, cameos and pastel colors evoke a more genteel age.
The neighboring street, Rue des Bouchers, is Brussels' restaurant row. Brussels is famous for good eating — serving many cuisines. This city specializes in seafood — particularly mussels.
For some reason, every visitor has the Manneken-Pis on his list. Even with low expectations, this bronze statue is smaller than you'd think. Still, this little squirt is a fun, light-hearted symbol of Brussels.
Traditionally, visiting VIPs bring him a costume. A nearby museum displays hundreds of his outfits. Today he's an Venezualian cowboy or something.
For higher art, I like Brussels two greatest art galleries: The side-by-side Ancient and Modern Art museums .
The Ancient Art museum, featuring Flemish and Belgian art of the 14th to 18th centuries, is packed with a dazzling collection of masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Breughel, Bosch and Rubens. Rubens huge canvases graced palaces and churches far and wide.
The Breughel room takes you back in time. Flemish artists like Pieter Breughel the Elder were masters of everyday detail.
In the Census at Bethlehem, Breughel gives us a bird's-eye view over a snow-covered village near Brussels. It's full of action — kids throw snowballs and sled across the ice and a crowd gathers at the inn, where a man is slaughtering a pig. Into the scene ride a man and woman — it's Joseph leading pregnant Mary, looking for a room. Breughel paints Mary as just another face in the crowd. The busy villagers toil on, oblivious to the miracle in their midst. Breughel deftly synthesizes religious scenes and slice-of-life detail in a local landscape, far from the Holy Land. It's 1566 years after that first Christmas and Joseph is a Flemish carpenter.
Breughel's art was hugely popular. His son, Pieter Breughel the Younger, copied many of his dad's paintings to meet the demand. And the son was a fine artist in his own right. In this painting, The Struggle between Carnival and Lent, we see a classic battle between feasting and fasting. The robust figure of Carnivale jousts with the haggard figure of Lent. The tavern and the church compete as a refuge for mortal souls. It's an almanac of customs associated with carnival — that Mardi Gras time of craziness and waffle-making before the fasting and austerity of Lent, which prepared the faithful for Easter.
The attached Museum of Modern Art gives an easy-to-enjoy ramble through the art of the 19th and 20th centuries: from neoclassical to surrealism and beyond.
The Belgian surrealist René Magritte used his training in advertising to push our buttons with a collage of bizarre images. He paints real objects with camera-eye clarity, but jumbles them together in new and provocative ways. People morph into animals...or chairs. Stairs lead nowhere and windows open onto nothing. The surrealistic juxtaposition only short-circuits your brain when you try to make sense of it.
And some of Brussels' top art is edible. Many tourists consider the local waffles a cultural highlight worth savoring.
While the people of Brussels love their fun taste treats, it's also a city of sophisticates. As the unofficial capital of Europe, the place is cosmopolitan and hosts businessmen from around the world. Though Brussels (like Belgium) is officially bilingual, most of the people here speak French first. Bone up on bonjour and s'il vous plaît .
Brussels is the political nerve center of a united Europe — only Washington DC has more lobbyists. When Europeans have a gripe...this is where they demonstrate.
And the most impressive part of the city skyline these days is the glassy headquarters of the European Parliament. Europe's governing body now welcomes visitors.
This glassy Tower of Babel is filled with a cacophony of black-suited politicians speaking a dozen or so European languages. Visitors listen to a political-science lesson while viewing the chambers where the members of the Euro-parliament work. Today over 600 parliament members representing an entire continent are busily shaping Europe's future.
Whether you enjoy the cosmopolitan bustle of Brussels or the fairy tale wonders of Brugges, both cities are distinctly Belgian and a joy to explore. I'm Rick Steves. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Au revoir.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.