A Tale of Two Belgian Cities

A Tale of Two Belgian Cities
Wednesday, February 1, 2012 - 9:00am

Bruges, Belgium, was but a blip on the tourist map until the movie In Bruges hit theaters in 2008. The dark comedy, featuring a duo of Laurel-and-Hardy-type hit men, resonated with audiences that were intrigued by its twisted plot, but also by its deliberate obeisance to a city that had managed to elude most American tourists.

The success of the film sparked an uptick in travelers to Bruges. People even learned how to pronounce its name (broozh). Yet despite the national media blitz, most American travelers still view Belgium as a mere trifle–like the amuse-bouche before a gourmet meal. It's often passed through, or over entirely, en route to somewhere else perceived as more significant, like Spain or Austria.

Belgium is certainly small. You can drive across it in three hours. On a map it looks like the thyroid of Europe–a small land mass squished between the Netherlands, Germany and France. Yet this Maryland-sized country is far from indistinct. Its capital, Brussels, is the de facto capital of the European Union. It also has three cultural communities–Dutch, French and German–and despite its national motto, "strength through unity," the northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders region and the southern, French-speaking Wallonia are notorious for their antagonism. Bickering between the regions' political parties beginning in 2010 led to a 20-month stalemate without a national government–a world record.

Having seen In Bruges, I did some research on the medieval city and found numerous draws. Bruges is clearly the jewel in Belgium's crown. But I also discovered scores of comparisons between Bruges and another Belgian city–Ghent–which is also in the Flanders region. Intrigued by the pair, I set out to see whether the more-obscure Ghent could measure up to Bruges' storied reputation.

Bruges may not fully be on Americans' radar, but it's exceedingly popular with Europeans, and for good reason: It's a fairytale, complete with rich chocolates, quiet canals, fine art, first-rate cuisine and more than 700 varieties of beer.

Indeed, from the minute you set foot in Bruges, you're swept up in a medieval fantasy. Horse-drawn carriages rhythmically clip-clop along winding cobblestone streets. A gothic Belfort's carillon bells chime every 15 minutes. A maze of flower-draped canals with arched stone bridges wend past A-frame buildings with gabled roofs that look like gingerbread houses at night. The air is a heady mix of doughy waffles and Belgian fries, thanks to walk-up windows and pushcart vendors who hand out both. Mimes on boxes masquerading as statues startle passersby as they come to life. Bruges' main square is lined with restaurants and outdoor tables, where patrons quaff local brews and dine on classic dishes like moules (mussels), served in big metal pots, and waterzooi (creamy fish stew) under brightly colored umbrellas.

If Bruges has any fault, it's that its charm is, in part, contrived. Detractors grouse that the architecture isn't authentic, which is partly true. In the 12th century, Bruges was a prosperous port city–its canals, which stretch to the North Sea, were important arteries for trade in the Mediterranean. During the 14th century, it was northern Europe's most important textile market. But when gradual silting clogged canal access in the 1500s, Bruges disintegrated. It wasn't until the late 1800s, with tourism as the city's focus, that a renaissance began and the gothic buildings were reconstructed.

Since then, Bruges has been brazen about catering to and thriving on tourists. Does it make it any less enchanting? No. Is it all a ruse? Not really. In fact, much about Bruges is the real deal. The fabled Grote Markt dates to 958 and its 13th century Belfort, with 366 steps to the top, is the genuine article. In the historical center, there are seven centuries of architecture ranging from Romanesque to gothic to baroque. A marble Madonna with Child sculpture in Our Lady's Church is a real Michelangelo–the only one outside Italy. Museums are cultural wonders, ­featuring ­Flemish ­masterpieces by esteemed artists such as Jan van Eyck.

Bruges' attributes have led to many monikers, among them the "Venice of the North," thanks to its miles of postcard-worthy, winding canals. It's also dubbed the "chocolate capital" and it's fair to say that Bruges' passion for cocoa borders on fanaticism. There are 52 chocolate shops in the city's 54 square miles–not to mention a chocolate museum called Choco-Story, a chocolate fair, a chocolate trail and even a chocolate guild (a consortium of chocolate makers).

One of the most renowned shops is The Chocolate Line, which had a line out the door the day I visited. The small store is run by self-described "shock-o-latier" Dominique Persoone, who claims to have taught the Rolling Stones how to sniff chocolate like snuff. Tourists leave with boxes of exceptional quality squares, filled with mind-bending flavors like wasabi or sundried tomato and basil that taste far better than they sound.

Considering that almost every resident in Bruges rides a bicycle, it could be called the biking capital of the world. The train station has a huge lot of bikes adjacent to its tracks. People in Bruges cycle everywhere, carrying one or two children, instruments or groceries. A local movie theater had a sea of bikes parked outside. During my first hour in Bruges, I was nearly run down by one as I stepped off a curb.

Locals boast that Bruges is the beer capital of Belgium, even though only one working brewery is left in the city. There are 700-plus types of beer brewed nationwide, more than half of them exports like Leffe and Chimay. Bars called "free houses" offer the greatest variety. These pubs don't have partnerships with any particular beer label, so they are "free" to offer wide selections–often a dizzying 400 or more labels. Some of the ales we tried had traces of orange and coriander, while others tasted sweet and sour, like a mix of soy sauce and molasses. Traditional ales we liked were Mamma Lakke (mother's milk), De Koninck, Straffe Hendrik (locally brewed) and the cherry-flavored Kriek.

Belgian beer drinking goes back to the Middle Ages, when it was safer to drink ale than water. There are a dozen styles of beer, from lambic to pils to wheat. Much like wine, brews are served in specially designed ­glasses to augment their flavor. We randomly chose labels from extensive beer menus, steering clear of those with 12 percent alcohol, and marveled at the glass shapes, which ranged from flutes to chalices to tulips. Some restaurants even offer beer-pairing menus.

Aside from ales, Bruges has a history of turning out the finest bobbin lace–a painstaking, regional skill that dates to the early Renaissance. Although many stores tout machine-made copies, the shop Kantjuweeltje sells the genuine article, complete with a certificate of origin. Be sure to check out the lace museum in its basement, where you'll find expensive, collector-quality items in glass cases, from doilies to tablecloths.

Tourists flood to a church called Basilica of the Holy Blood, where lines form to touch a small vial believed to contain Christ's blood that was transported from Jerusalem in 1150, after the crusades. Other noteworthy attractions are the Groeningmuseum, which houses an extensive collection of Flemish primitives by artists such as Bruegel, van Eyck and Bosch; and the stunning, Gothic-style town hall, which dates from 1376. The Frietmuseum, which devotes its space solely to spuds, is far more interesting than it sounds. It includes a history of potatoes and the Irish Potato Famine, and offers theories on how fries became known as french fries. (Belgians contend that native soldiers introduced Americans to the fried morsel during World War I. Because they spoke French, Americans ­mistakenly dubbed the fries french fries.)

Thoroughly enraptured by Bruges, we begrudgingly left the fair city, but with high hopes for Ghent (pronounced "hent" in Belgium). Unfortunately, getting off the train at Sint-Pieters station into Ghent was like stepping out of Technicolor into black and white. Whatever magic spell had been cast in Bruges went poof as we walked into a gritty, bustling city. As we rode in the cab to our hotel, I had the sinking feeling that we'd made a mistake. Buildings were grey and utilitarian, some with graffiti. Streets were bustling but with none of the oozing medieval charm of Bruges. There were no pitched roofs or brick facades, no horse-drawn carriages, no chocolate shops. How could so many people consider this city on par with Bruges?

We arrived at the back of our hotel, which faces the street, and had time until our room would be ready. We grabbed a map and set out through the front entrance of the hotel. Poof! We stepped right back into a fairytale. There was a wide canal lined with gothic buildings with gabled roofs, just as in Bruges, and restaurants with outdoor tables were packed with smoking, beer-swilling patrons. Canoes, kayaks and tour boats filled with passengers trolled the canal, which was bookended by two small arching bridges. After floundering on its periphery, we had found Ghent's nerve center–at the junction of the rivers Scheldt and Leie.

Ghent is much larger than Bruges, with more than twice its population (about 240,000, versus Bruges' 117,000) and some 60,000 students. There are only a handful of chocolate shops and few horse-drawn carriages. What's remarkable about the city are its three gothic towers–St. Nicholas' Church, the Belfry and Saint Bavo's Cathedral. (The cathedral houses the world-renowned van Eyke polyptych, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.) The city is also home to the University of Ghent, and the surge of students creates a youthful undercurrent that's palpable, if not audible, as it was one night as we watched a queue of college-age males take turns flipping into the canal on a 50-degree evening. With each splash came thunderous applause from people sitting or eating along the canal. I couldn't imagine this scene playing out in Bruges. In fact, it became obvious that comparing Bruges and Ghent was a bit like comparing film directors David Lean and David Fincher: Bruges is classic and elegant; Ghent is cool and edgy.

During the Middle Ages, Ghent was one of the richest cities in Europe and the second-largest, thanks to its export of luxury woolen cloths. Ghent was also the seat of the counts of Flanders, who built an imposing castle here in 1180 that sits in Ghent's medieval core and is open to tourists.

By the 20th century, Ghent had degenerated into a dark, lifeless city. But a few politicians–noting its history, canals and architecture–had the foresight to ­reinvigorate it in the 1980s by renovating many of the grey buildings, introducing new shops and investing in the university to attract more students. The city's renaissance is striking, particularly in a section known as Monk's Hole. Its winding maze of walled streets, once filled with seedy bars and brothels, is now lined with 25 restaurants and specialized, creative shops, many owned by recent college grads.

Near this area is an alley known as Graffiti Row, where graffiti is legal and people are encouraged to use spray paint. Neon bubble letters overlap cartoonish designs, with nary an inch left unscathed. This emphatic use of spray cans spills into other parts of the city, where it's not legal, but nonetheless prevalent.

One of my favorite shops in Ghent is a candy store tucked in a tiny 17th century house called Confiserie Temmerman. Inside its baroque façade are glass jars filled with an array of Belgian sweets. We loved the cone-shaped jellies called neuzeke (little noses) and the lutsepoepe–a small, two-toned gummy with yellow vanilla pudding at the base. Locals say its name loosely translates as "shakes like the hips of a woman."

Ghent attracts far fewer tourists than Bruges, but that's changing. "Ghent is a hidden treasure," said our tour guide, Natalie. "It's starting to get above the radar." To keep up with demand, the city added 300 hotel rooms in the past three years.

Having spent time in both Bruges and Ghent, I realized the pair has obvious differences. Bruges is theater. Ghent is a more authentic snapshot of Belgian culture. Yet there are parallels, too. At one point during the movie In Bruges, one of the hit men tells the other they will "strike a balance between culture and fun" while staying there. Visitors to Bruges and Ghent will certainly do the same. Both have enchanting medieval cores with picturesque canals, gothic architecture and Flemish works of art. Both have top-tier restaurants, amazing beer and old-fashioned food shops that specialize in everything from cheese to chocolate.

But what's most salient about both cities is the pervasive joie de vivre. Perhaps it was the beer, but there were countless times, in both Bruges and Ghent, when one person or a large group spontaneously broke into song. We heard everything from a fortissimo "Love Me Tender" to an operatic Dutch song.

Belgians are bon vivants who make time to enjoy life. Coffee is never "to go," but rather sipped and savored in a seat. Dining is a multi-hour affair. When I asked to make a dinner reservation in Bruges for 6 p.m., for example, the hostess told me she could accommodate us, but we could occupy the table for only a "short time"–two hours. As one native told me, "We like to eat, we like to drink and we like to take our time."

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