in Brugge – belgium

When I think about it, I’m not sure what compulsion had me so fascinated to visit Brugge except for the film set in it. Really, that was the first I’d even heard of it, and I thought it comical how Ralph Fiennes’ character (more often the disembodied voice over the phone as the ruthless “boss” to hitmen) was infatuated by it. It was his soft spot, it seems. His favourite place.

And I understand why.

The ‘old town’ of Brugge is accessible only by crossing bridges to get in, and everything inside lends itself to a feeling of going back in time.

The streets are all cobblestone, winding along and taking you past historic buildings that look like they belong on your grandmother’s cross-stitching. Gable-steps and chimneys galore, that classic look is intentionally maintained for the sole purpose of looking like it belongs on your grandmother’s cross-stitching. In fact, the square was even paved once, complete with tram rails, but it looked too “modern” so they took it out and re-cobbled it for that ‘vintage’ look.

And it’s certainly paid off.

The population of Brugge is a mere 5000 local residents, but the pedestrian traffic during tourist season sees over 120,000 people a day.

Maybe it’s for the swans.

This was another of Fienne’s character’s little infatuations, but the history behind it is even more comical than the soft spot of the ruthless hitman.

When Maximillian ruled Austria, he, like most rulers, had that “must conquer the world” complex and tried to claim Belgium too. Long story short (and apologies for the terrible paraphrasing), he failed in the end. But when he left Brugge, he told them that the day the last swan dies, the Baltic Sea will rise and wash them all away. As it turns out, they’re still quite superstitious about it so they keep swans there. You’ll find them gleefully floating about the ponds in the park or merrily paddling through the canals with the boats, but they are quite abundantly situated.

Perhaps it’s simply because they’re pretty, too.

I mean, what tourist doesn’t always point, and exclaim, “Oh look! Swans! Aren’t they beautiful?” The question, of course, is rhetorical.

Everyone knows the answer is yes.

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So, whether your soft spot is for the elegant swan, the belfry (which is also, interestingly enough, the world’s largest music box), the churches, the chance to touch the blood of Christ, or the beer – of which, there is plenty – there is something for everyone in this “fairy tale” town.

But don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s an elaborate medieval amusement park as so many other hapless tourists assume (going so far as to ask what time they need to leave by to get out before the bridges over the canal are drawn up – it really is that convincing), just acknowledge that it just happens to be a town with over 95% tourists. So, do respect the locals, as rare as they are, and if you’re interested in experiencing the culture, well… If you do happen to find a local, befriend them. They might even show the special way locals say hi to each other so they can tell each other apart from the tourists before even a word is spoken, assuming they don’t already know each other anyway.

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