For the last weekend in February, a friend and sorority sister of mine visited us in Germany. After picking her up at the airport bright and early Friday morning, we drove directly to Bruges, Belgium. Our original plan was to spend a day in Bruges, and then a day in Ghent, but in researching things to do in Bruges, we decided there was too much to see and do and a one day visit would not do the city justice. So while I was bummed about having to cancel plans to visit Ghent, the silver lining is that we have at least one more trip to Belgium - one more chance to eat Belgian chocolate and waffles and drink Belgian beer. So really, not a problem at all.
But, back to Bruges. It has been on our bucket list for a couple years now, especially seeing Michelangelo's Madonna, one of only two sculptures of his to leave Italy during his lifetime and one of the pieces of art sought by the monuments men of World War II. While there, we took to one of our favorite ways to get introduced to a city - a free walking tour. We opted for the tour offered by Legends of Bruges. They offer two tours a day that follow one route and one night tour that follows a different route. We had planned on only doing the day tour, but then decided on a whim to go on the night tour too. After both tours, you get a coupon for a free beer at a local pub (always a good motivator!), and after the day tour, there is the option for a free chocolate tasting (another good motivator).
The day tour took us to some of the more famous sights of the city - the Church of our Lady (which is home to Michelangelo's Madonna with Child), the Begijnhof, famous locations from the move In Bruges - as well as some of the lesser known parts of the city. We got lots of history and stories throughout the tour. One of my favorite locations was the Begijnhof. One must use a small stone bridge over one of the canals to enter the cloister where poor, unmarried women lived. This part of the city was a city within a city - it had it's own laws and rules, only women were allowed to live there, and they were completely self sufficient. Inside, there was a large common area. The daffodils were already starting to bloom and their bright color was a happy reminder that spring is right around the corner.
During the tour, our guide shared some interesting stories with us. One of the most interesting was about an unusual resident of Bruges - swans. The city is the only one in Belgium to have swans. The story tells of when the residents (the human ones) of Bruges rose up in revolt against Emperor Maximillian of Austria. He and his advisor were captured and imprisioned. While Maximilian's adviser was executed, Maximilian himself escaped. He later took his revenge on the city and declared that the city of Bruges must forever house swans on its lakes and canals. Interesting punishment, but to this day, swans glide gracefully on the waterways. Just don't get too close to them, they can bite.
The tour concluded near the blind donkey bridge. The legend is that an army from Ghent invaded Bruges and tried to steal a gold figuring from one of the local churches. The donkey, also stolen, carrying the cart stopped at what used to be the old city walls and would not go any further. They tried everything to get him to move, but, being a Bruges donkey, had never left the city and wouldn't budge. Eventually, they burned out his eyes, blinding him, and they were then able to make him cross the canal. Ever since, that particular bridge has been called the blind donkey bridge.
The night tour had a decidedly different feel than the day tour. Our guide was a local, but, surprisingly, spoke with a very British accent. So much so, we originally thought he was British. One this tour, we heard some of the spookier stories of Bruges past. One of them told of a priest and a nun. The priest had fallen in love with the nun and would use the tunnels under the city to try to visit her in the evenings. She would not forsake her vows and one day, she disappeared. She was never found, and years later, when the priest died, his spirit is said to have haunted the houses where the nun once lived.
The canals are an integral part of the city since it was originally settled as a harbor by the vikings. They are home to a number of aquatic creatures and were once a source of food for the locals. Another one of the stories tells of a man that, despite being warned to never eat an eel from the canal (they were seen as a the devil's spirit), cast his net off of one of the bridges to catch one for that night's dinner. But his net got snagged on something. When he climbed down a small set of stairs to the canal in an effort to free his net, a golden hand reached out and pulled him into the water, drowning him.
These are just two of the stories were heard on the night tour. We were also shown the two oldest houses in Bruges - wooden ones that predate the mandate of 1691 that no more houses were to be built of wood (fire was an ever present danger). Seeing buildings that old always astounds me, and makes me wish that walls could talk. I can't imagine what they've seen in their 400+ years.
If you're in Bruges and looking for a walking tour, check out Legends of Bruges. They offer tours at 9:45 in the morning and 2:30 in the afternoon. The night tour starts at 8:00 in the evening. For all of them, meet by the large statue in the main square.