In the Monty Python song “Finland,” Michael Palin referred to that luminous and chilly country as “A poor second to Belgium / When go-ing abroad.” If this is actually true, I suspect Belgium's possession of the city of Bruges has much to do with its comparative attractiveness. Recently, your humble narrator was lucky enough to visit this medieval port and UNESCO World Heritage site, in the company of my petite amie and some of the three million tourists who descend on Bruges each year. I of course enjoyed the city's well-known charms: its gabled and brightly-painted houses, the narrow canals and the swans that nest by some of them, the cool green isolation of the Minnewater, the beautiful Church of Our Lady, the looming Belfry containing Bruges' medieval charter, and the Groeninge Museum, with works by Van Eyck and Bosch and James Ensor. Somehow I avoided sampling any Belgian chocolate, a peculiar omission given that every other store in Bruges is a chocolate shop. My gustatory adventures I limited to trying a glass of local lager, which was palatable enough, and a plate of spaghetti bolognese, which was filling. The local specialty is moules frites – fried mussels – but I suspect many tourists choose to dine on Belgian waffles instead.
Bruges's story is a typical one in our post-industrial age, though the city went through its stages of decline and revival much earlier than most. It was a medieval cloth-making center whose merchants steadily built up their capital and connections between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. By the late medieval era the port had become a leading destination for ships from Italy and the Hanseatic cities, and by the 1400s its merchants had acquired so much wealth and influence that, according to Fernand Braudel, Bruges and London and Venice formed an axis of commercial power dominating western Europe. Bruges suffered, however, from two geographical problems: the river connecting it to the North Sea had silted up by the late Middle Ages, and the city lay within the domain of the Duke of Burgundy, whose principality fell into civil disorder in the late fifteenth century. Political turmoil allowed the merchants of nearby Antwerp, which had greater political stability and a better harbor, to grab Bruges' trade after 1500, just as northern Europe began to benefit from commerce with the Americas and Africa. (Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century [Harper & Row, 1984], 99-101, 124, 143-44.)
Local investors tried to turn Bruges into a lace-making center in the seventeenth century, and lace remains a prized souvenir for tourists (imported though it now is from southeast Asia), but the economy remained depressed into the 1800s. It was during that era of commodified nostalgia that European and American travelers discovered Bruges, its medieval buildings untouched by industrialization, and helped reinvent it as a tourist destination. Not all foreign sojourners came with good intentions, however. During the First World War, when Germany occupied Belgium, the German Army impressed laborers from Bruges and other cities. The German Navy built a U-boat base in Bruges, presumably because its inland location made it less vulnerable to shore bombardment, and opened a canal connecting the base to the North Sea. In 1916 the Germans brought the captured Captain Charles Fryatt, whom they had condemned for piracy after he rammed a U-boat the previous year, to Bruges and shot him. (Larry Zuckerman, The Rape of Belgium [NYU Press, 2004], 158, 171-72.) During the Second World War the Germans returned and, as the film The Monuments Men recounts, tried to plunder the city of some of its artistic treasures. Time and a couple of hundred million tourists have no doubt effaced most of these memories, but I wouldn't want to venture into Bruges speaking only German.
(Images above are of the Minnewater, with the Sashuis [Guard House] in the distance; the Memling Museum; and the Belfry, a familiar landmark to viewers of the film In Bruges.)