This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
Picture the scene: you’re at the top of an 83-metre-high medieval building, looking out across a bustling market square that has been used as such since AD 958. This square, the Markt, was once the commercial centre of the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium, and the building from which you are admiring it is the 13th-century Belfry of Bruges, once the home of the treasury and the municipal archives.
This has to be one of the most spectacular views in Bruges, and it’s one that, despite several visits to the city, I experienced for the first time just recently. The reason being that I’m terrified of heights. But I was determined to confront my fear by climbing the 366 steps to the top of this remarkable building – the tower of which leans a full metre to the east – and I’m so glad I did! The view is breathtaking, and made even more awe-inspiring by the magnificent blend of historic buildings that encase the picturesque square. It’s easy to imagine Bruges at the height of its medieval golden age.
I’ve visited Bruges on several occasions, and such is its charm that it’s somewhere I never tire of. The city has a rich history that goes back centuries. What’s even more marvellous is that you need not look far to find it – every cobbled street and every building has a story to tell.
As a centre of trade, by the 14th century Bruges was a wealthy city and it was here, a century later, that Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, chose to house his court. His wedding feast to Isabella of Portugal was staged in Bruges in 1430, and the couple’s son, Charles the Bold, succeeded his father in 1467. The following year Charles married Margaret of York, and nine days of lavish celebrations were hosted in the city.
In 1470 the wealthy nobleman Louis de Gruuthuse hosted Margaret’s brothers Edward IV and Richard (later Richard III) at his Bruges home, now the Gruuthuse Museum, when they fled England following Henry VI’s restoration to the throne. And Edward wasn’t the only monarch to seek refuge in the Gruuthuse; Charles II spent part of his exile there too. The Gruuthuse Museum, which is due to reopen in spring 2019, is well worth a visit, and what’s more, its prayer chapel once gave the Lords of Gruuthuse direct access to my favourite Bruges landmark: the 13th-century Church of our Lady.
Many visitors flock to the Basilica of the Holy Blood to see the holy relic housed within, but I find the Church of Our Lady, which is brimming with exciting historical treasures, much more interesting. Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of Madonna and Child is among its chief attractions, but for me there lies here something even more enthralling: the two spectacular Renaissance tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy, who died in 1482, aged 25, as the result of a horse-riding accident.
I’ve always been fascinated by tombs, but these two – adorned with gilt bronze effigies with carved animals at their feet – are particularly fine examples. It’s possible that Charles may not actually be buried here, for a search in the 1970s failed to uncover his remains. Mary certainly is, and she shares a vault with an urn containing the heart of her son, Philip the Handsome, who died in 1506. Her effigy was modelled on her death mask, and was commissioned by her husband, Maximilian of Austria.
The great thing about Bruges is that it’s compact, with most sites within walking distance of each other. Just a couple of minutes away from the Church of Our Lady is the Diamond Museum. If, like me, you like to combine history with a bit of glitz, then this is the perfect place to visit. The Diamond Museum is a great place to learn about the history of diamond cutting – first developed in Bruges – and the role that Bruges, which was once a major centre for jewellery production, played in supplying the Burgundian court with these highly prized gems. The museum offers demonstrations of diamond cutting and hands-on exhibits for those keen to handle the real thing.
Wherever your interest lies, the moment you set foot in Bruges, you’re surrounded by an overwhelming sense of history that draws you in. I’ve fallen in love with this captivating city, which I feel sure will continue to be my favourite place to visit for many years to come.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Bruges is often busy, but if you’re interested in culture, the best time to visit is in the summer when the city hosts a number of festivals. Alternatively, if you visit in December you can take advantage of the Christmas market, complete with ice rink, in the Markt.
From London, Bruges is easily accessible by Eurostar, with a change at Brussels. It is about an hour and a half drive from Brussels airport. Once there everything is within walking distance. Alternatively, you could take a ride on a horse and cart or hire a segway.
What to pack
Don’t forget your camera to capture all the pretty sights and, due to the amount of walking you’re likely to do, comfortable footwear is also advisable.
What to bring back
Handmade Belgian chocolate is a must – and, with a vast array of shops offering all sorts of exquisite variations, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
@winkliedewtoo: I love strolling the canals, admiring the bridges while eating a Belgian waffle covered in Belgian chocolate
@kruijk_m: Don’t miss the Basilica of the Holy Blood and Old St John’s Hospital
Nicola Tallis is a historian. She is author of Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth’s Rival (both Michael O’Mara, 2016 and 2017).