Bruges’ glorious past & ever-lasting charm

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photos: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

In the Middle Ages, Bruges was the centre of the trading world living its Golden Age in the 15th century: exotic products, precious stones and pigments, spices and expensive goods were exchanged from all corners of the world. This is where the stock exchange got its name, and the cradle of the Flemish Primitive painters. Dig into its history to enjoy one of the cutest European towns even better!

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Known from the 3rd century BC as a Gallo-Roman settlement, Bruges was named by the Vikings who called it “Brygga” or harbour when they founded it in the 9th century. The name of its region, Flanders, comes from a word meaning swamp: as the soil was far from ideal for farming, sheep were introduced, and rivers altered to trade in-between villages. The settlement remained rural until the 11th century when cloth made from the wool of the sheep started being exported.

It is only in 1277 that Genoese merchants arrived by sea for the first time, turning Bruges into a meeting point for traders, bankers and investors. This was possible thanks to the Zwin Estuary that after a storm, opened up to link Bruges to the North Sea. Damme and Sluis (which are a healthy and picturesque bike ride away today) were developed as transhipment ports where the precious cargo of big ships would be transferred onto smaller flat-bottom embarkations that would go back and forth to the Market Hall in Bruges.

Thanks to this safe harbour, the city quickly became an important international trading metropolis between Northern and Southern European countries. In the 12th century English wool was imported to manufacture cloth like in many other Flemish towns. Scandinavians sold fish and wood, Russians amber and furs, Spaniards wines and pigments, Italians fabrics embroidered with gold and silver, alum, ivory from Northern Africa, silk and Middle Eastern products that they acquired along the Silk Road… Bruges was a vibrant trading hub for the world!

The city had invested for the merchants’ comfort and efficiency, building the Water Halle, a covered unloading quay, a spacious cloth hall, the nations’ houses, its bathhouses and water system. The city showcased its wealth with its majestic 13th-century belfry, its Saint John’s Hospital, churches and chapels and its 14th-century prestigious city hall.

In the second half of the 14th century, the traditional industry of textile underwent a crisis (the Black Death combined with the Hundred Years’ War (1338-1453) between France and England contributed greatly). Under the refined influence of the ruling House of Burgundy, local craftsmen specialized in locally produced luxury goods: illuminated manuscripts, rosaries made of amber, works in precious metals and panel paintings, and of course paintings, here in the cradle of the Flemish Primitives. The craft guilds guaranteed the quality of the craftsmanship. “Made in Bruges” meant luxury.

Many languages were spoken in the city and exotic products exchanged. Merchants from all over the world would stay in one of the most important cities in Europe. Inns were also warehouse where goods were stored, and brokerage facilities where merchants would meet and negotiate. Banks, like the Medici had offices in Bruges and an informal stock exchange was initiated. The elite loved showing off its wealth by living in luxury and funding the arts, making Bruges the ideal city for the master painter Van Eyck to settle in.

Despite the constant noise, the horrendous smells and filth in the streets and canals, the 15th century was the heyday of Bruges. The very wealthy city hosted jousts regularly on the Market Square where well-dressed people enjoyed good food. Bruges certainly was the centre of the business world.

However, at the end of the 15th century, the vibrant Bruges went into a rapid decline: a difficult political situation ruled over by Spain, an overly protectionist trade policy, the development of the competing harbour of Antwerp and the silting up of The Zwin led to the fall of Bruges. A century later, the city had turned into a provincial town and by the mid-1800s, Bruges had become the poorest city of the new country of Belgium (1830), victim of the previous religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, and the French invasion.

In retrospect, it is the harsh decline of Bruges that has preserved the city and made it one of Europe’s cutest medieval town today that seems frozen in a romantic time. Today, Bruges relies heavily on tourism. The new harbour of Zeebrugge along the Flemish Coast has brought new developments and new industries to the area, as well as many day tourists from cruise ships. To appreciate Bruges to the fullest, make sure you spend at least a night in town, or better, three days if you can (check out this article to truly experience Bruges).

Travel tips:

  • To plan your trip, check out our article about 72 hours in Bruges and refer to Visit Bruges.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more in Belgium, click on the image below!

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