As the Belgian city bustles with over three million tourists each year, Talia Jones writes about the heart and soul of the city from the calmer waters of the canal routes.
“…And whatever you do, don’t fall in, yes?” muffles our tour guide through plastic headphones as we tentatively step into the sun-soaked canal boat. That was exactly the confidence boost we needed to hear. Michel had been explaining Bruges’ history and culture for the last three hours in his broken English, adding ‘yes?’ to every other sentence. It was as though even he was not certain of his facts.
We had spent most of the tour lagging behind the guide; amidst copious photographic opportunities of the idyllic surroundings and only two good ankles between the pair of us, my mother and I had firmly found our place as the tortoises of the group. Dipping in and out of headphone range left a constant static ringing through our ears, but we didn’t care – it was her 50th birthday and we were going to enjoy ourselves.
The boat appeared derelict at best, with rotting wood and an attempt at covering up the cracks with a translucent-looking lick of white paint, so we were grateful when Vincent offered us a helping hand onto the water. Very grateful indeed. He was a gorgeous specimen of a man – exactly the physique and chiselled jawline you’d expect to grace the London Fashion Week catwalk. This was a welcome distraction from Michel’s constant, incessant mumblings.
Unfortunately, the moment was abruptly ended by my inability to fathom where I was going, having to be saved from face-planting into the canal. Not exactly my finest hour.
Picturesque views were at every sweeping corner in the city they named ‘The Venice of the North’; the 12th century hospital still stands with the original brickwork and has been resurrected as a museum almost rivalling the Louvre. Meandering up the river, you encounter a piece of modern art living in the canal made entirely of white steel pipes standing three storeys high – something Tracy Emin would have been immensely proud of creating. And all this before you get to experience the three tallest buildings within the five-mile city walls.
“Get your cameras out now,” Vincent says, with a knowing grin on his face, “The Church of Our Lady is straight ahead of us.” And he isn’t wrong about wanting to capture this hugely impressive feat of architecture on film – it is a thing of absolute, man-made beauty. The 13th century, gothic-style cathedral has been modified with a Victorian era twist to give the building a more modern interpretation in the historical centre of the city. “Oh, and one of Michelangelo’s sculptures lives there too. I think it’s called Madonna,” he adds, as if this unintentional comment was just an afterthought and not one of the most widely recognisable pieces of artwork in the world.
The other two masterpieces of Bruges’ skyline are also cathedrals of varying style and stature, but equally outstanding in the dusky lighting. But these startling structures were to be just three of the many highlights of the canal tour. “If you look to your right, you’ll see Marilyn Monroe in the window,” Vincent nonchalantly declares, as if it is a sight you would see anywhere in the world. Marilyn’s iconic pose resides in one of the shop windows and would send shivers down even the coldest of spines.
People wax lyrically about the unequivocal beauty of the autumnal colours dissipating into the narrow waterways, but observing the reddish-green leaves falling around you under the sunset sends you into some zen-like trance. Until the women at the back of the boat giggle like schoolgirls so much that the boat nearly overturns – magical moment gone.
We had already been given a warning before we even started covering the sparkling water – Vincent had the audacity to ask one of the larger women on the boat to kindly sit on the other side, attempting to even the balance out. He was obviously one who was unafraid of offending people, but we found him oddly charming in spite of this. In fact, all the middle-aged ladies were hanging on to his every word throughout the tour like pre-teens at a One Direction concert.
It was lucky we were so attentive to his stories – we may have only met him twenty minutes previously, but he clearly had an understanding of the females on board, pointing out the best chocolate shops across the city, in between the historical highlights and majestic museums. But it’s the houses on the river that stand out the most. The pastel-coloured, medieval-style buildings that line the canal front astound me. It is like the adult, real life version of Balamory.
Before we knew it, our journey through the centre of Bruges was over and we would have to go back to the rather dull musings of Michel, suffering once more with headphones too big to fit comfortably in our ears and contend with static that would haunt us for the next three days. But half an hour with a dishy-looking man, husky voice and a sat down tour around a city with undoubtedly rich history: Priceless.
This overwhelmingly stunning city has hidden treasures encompassed within the five-mile radius of handmade bricked wall; from chocolatiers that share melt-in-the-mouth milk chocolate with tourists for free (which, incidentally, we exploited as much as we could) to the obliging natives who direct the clueless among us without a moment’s consideration. Bruges is not just a medieval city; it is a land of unwavering possibilities.