The jewels of the North Sea
In the Middle Ages, Bruges was one of the richest cities of the world. Today it is one of the most romantic. Its legacy from that golden age are its canals, its Gothic palaces and its artistic heritage that make it one of Europe's most beautiful tourist destinations. The delights can be prolonged a few kilometres further on, on the sands of Ostend. Nicknamed the Queen of beaches, this seaside resort has promoted pleasure and relaxation for nearly two centuries.
"Traduttore, traditore", reads a famous Italian proverb. But what does it mean? To translate is to betray. Of course, every rule has an exception! In Bruges for instance, where, in the nineteenth century, a romantic era par excellence, a first translator embellished the truth by making Minnewater the “Lake of Love”. In old Dutch, Minne does in fact mean "Love". The word is perfect for this beautiful stretch of water which, surrounded by greenery and old buildings, is still a delightful outing for many couples. There is also a tragic legend attached to the location: that of Minna, who in ancient times found refuge in these woods, fleeing a marriage she did not want. Stromberg, her true love, finally found her there but, exhausted, his lady died in his arms. To preserve her memory, Stromberg dammed a stream to cover her tomb forever. A moving story! Except that the truth is far less poetic. Because Minne can also be translated as… "collective". So Minnewater also designates … "collective waters"! And this meaning is in fact closest to the first vocation of this reservoir: it was built in the thirteenth century to help control the flow of the canal linking the city to the sea.
The most romantic city of Flanders
Some truths are better left unsaid. Minnewater is a case in point. Let's face it: a buffer pool is not very glamorous. So we'll just remember the romantic version of the Lake of Love and its legend. It's far closer to the true nature of Bruges. It's true: there's few places as romantic as this beautiful Flemish city. Every single survey places it among the top destinations for lovers. It ranks almost as high as… Venice. That says it all! Not for nothing this Belgian city was nicknamed after the Serenissima as "Venice of the North". For its "romantic" atmosphere, undoubtedly. But also and especially for its canals. Here, they are called "Reie". They criss-cross a large part of the city, which makes for superb tours by motor launch, to discover the historical heart of the city. And it is well worth the discovery! Listed in the Unesco World Heritage, the architecture of Old Bruges spans several centuries, some of the most remarkable facades dating back to the Middle Ages. The Golden Age! At the time, Bruges traded with all of Europe. It was even the home of the world's first Stock Exchange. This prosperity is still apparent today in the city's main monuments: the 83 meter high Belfry, which dominates the Markt, Bruges' grande place; the Rozenhoedkaai and its large brick and wood houses, homes of the merchants of yesteryear; Saint John's Hospital, which was one of the largest medieval hospitals; the Basilica of the Holy Blood and its rich polychrome paintings; the City Hall, a Gothic jewel on the Burg square…
A tasty paradise
Bruges owed its wealth to the channels that linked it to the North Sea, and through it, to the whole of Europe. But the silting up of these very channels was also largely responsible for its decline in the sixteenth century. It was quiescent for more than three centuries, until the European aristocracy discovered a new hobby: tourism. The phoenix was then reborn from its ashes. Within a few decades, the reputation of Bruges attracted visitors from all over the planet. And that aura has never dimmed. Because generation after generation falls under its spell: Bruges is not only beautiful, it is also welcoming! Its inhabitants enjoy life and its small pleasures. Such as a cool beer: the city and its surroundings produce over 350 different varieties! Or a dish patiently left to simmer for a while. What's on the menu? Flemish Carbonade (beef stew, Bruges style), the Hutsepot (the local pot au feu) or the famous Waterzooi (fish stew). Or you may prefer mussels and chips. More than a local specialty, here it's been made into a true art-form! But the summit of the selection of tasty delights is occupied by the city's sweet treats: the dentelles de Bruges, a very thin biscuit with cinnamon and brown sugar, or waffles and, above all, chocolate. The home of chocolatiers Jeff of Bruges and Leonidas, the city numbers at least 50 others. Irresistible…
The queen of beaches
Change of scenery and atmosphere… Step outside the warm embrace of Bruges and head for the neighbouring Ostend. Here, there is no need for canals to reach the sea: this small town of 13.000 inhabitants faces the sea. Its nine kilometers of sandy beaches have been its main attraction for nearly two hundred years. The English were the first to enjoy them. They passed through the town on their way to visit the battlefield at Waterloo. They finished by breaking off their journey, giving rise to one of Europe's more popular seaside resorts. For the entertainment of the counts, dukes, princes and kings, the town built a casino, a racecourse, a theatre… They still ensure the entertainment of holidaymakers, a crowd less well-heeled than in the past but just as good when it comes to merrymaking. Many people turn up in the summer season to enjoy the waves of the North Sea (a surfers' paradise!) and the locally-caught fish caught cooked with talent in the many restaurants of the Visserskaai… or fisherman's wharf. From the net to the table in record time!
Must-see in Bruges and Ostende:
Bikes: Bruges is Belgium's most bike-obsessed town. Almost one inhabitant in three moves around by bike. It must be said that the bicycle is the most comfortable means of transport in a city which has practically banned cars from the down-town area. If pedalling is not your style, you can take a drive through old Bruges in a horse-drawn carriage.
Groeninge Museum: its collection is devoted entirely to the Flemish artists. Known for its "primitive" art, the early ones left an indelible mark in art history by generalising the use of the oil paints. Among them are some Bruges-born masters such as Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, Jan Van Eyck or Gérard David. Their canvases are worth a visit.
Visit a mill: installed by the city walls, the grain mills of Bruges have been part of the landscape since the 13th century. Four of them are still standing, and one them is still in operation: the Sint-Janshuis. It can be visited every day except Monday.
The mu.ZEE: contemporary of Munch and Van Gogh, James Ensor is one of the great masters of expressionism. Ostend, his home, celebrates his talent through two institutions: Ensor House, his former home and workshop, and the Mu.ZEE, whose collection contains several of his masterpieces.
Remember Marvin Gaye: ruined, addicted to drugs, pursued by the IRS, angry with his record company Motown, the artist who wrote What's Going On left the US in 1981 and moved to Ostend, where a friend lent him an apartment. There he found peace, sobriety and inspiration: within a few months, he composed the album Midnight Love and a global hit: Sexual Healing. Today, the Tourist Office offers a two-hour tour with guide much appreciated by his fans.
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