“Where are you from?” roars the boat’s captain into the microphone. He rattles out our various nationalities. French, Flemish, Dutch, Welsh, Scottish, Turkish, Spanish. “No Germans?” he bellows. “Excellent!” And then to ease our collective wince he sighs: “My German is not good.”
So. We have a character as guide and captain on our boat tour of Bruges. “Never go on a boat with a bald captain,” he warns us, raising his hat to show a shock of silver hair. “He doesn’t know how high the bridges are. But I do!” And he starts the engine and we’re off.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s a must-see. If you’ve only an hour in Bruges then this is what you must do.
- Taking to the water gets you off the crowded streets and gives you glimpses of the city you won’t otherwise get.
- Good for lovers of ducks, swans and architecture.
Canals, Commerce – and a Dose of Good Fortune
Bruges, or Brugge, in northern Flanders, is a city built around its canals. Though it’s several kilometres from the sea its prosperity of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was guaranteed by its river and canal connections. Then nature intervened, silting up the port and condemning Bruges to decline. Which may have been disastrous for the medieval merchants but has turned out a blessing for the twentieth century tourists as the city slipped under the radar of history and ended up preserved as a medieval gem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lots of cities keep some medieval buildings but Bruges must surely outstrip them all. Although there’s been the inevitable rebuilding and renovation it still preserves an extraordinary number of old buildings and a boat trip on its canals is the best place to see them: the city’s world heritage citation places the oldest buildings on the walls of the buildings we’re cruising past. And Bruges is doubly blessed, it seems: despite the armies which tramped across Belgium in two world wars, it somehow remained largely untouched
This rather passes our captain by: he’s too busy making us laugh (“A good captain never sails under trees with pigeons in them!”) although among the throwaway comments he does manage to toss us plenty of facts, in two languages (though not, of course, German). We start in the very centre, cruise our way along beneath the massive walls of the huge Sint Jan, formerly hospital and monastery, now a museum. We pass homes and hotels, offices and restaurants.
What is so extraordinary about Bruges is that so much of it faces on to the canals. In many cities canals sneak behind the houses but Bruges has windows and water gates aplenty. The windows are dressed with flowers and occupied by the city’s inhabitants, human and otherwise: in the south of the city a green lawn crammed with swans (the city’s symbol) slopes down to the waterside. The boats – dozens of them, all packed – chug up and down creating a wash for the ducks to ride.
View From Under the Bridge
Bruges isn’t just old: it’s almost painfully picturesque. Even the new buildings have been sensitively constructed and yet it somehow manages not to be twee. Under bridge after bridge, built across the centuries and some of them festooned with greenery, we move past the exquisite Rosenhoedkaii and into the relatively wider, quieter stretches of the canal.
The trip is just half an hour and doesn’t go as far as the outer canals, which mark the city’s former ramparts (though it is possible to take a boat farther, out into the country). We get as far as the former merchants’ houses of the Niewbrugstraat, past the narrowest house in the city (“Here they must sleep standing up,”) before turning back again.
I’ve stopped listening to the commentary at this point, just because there’s too much to look at. The detail of the brickwork, the steep crow-stepped gables, the ghosts of former windows and doors, the ducks dabbling under the bridges. Two women jump up and down on the canal side as we approach. “We love you, captain!” they shout. He slows the boat, waves back. “I love you too!” then puts his foot down (or boating equivalent) and makes good his escape.
A few minutes later, after we’ve drawn up at the quay and disembarked we wriggle our way past the line of visitors waiting for their turn to be entertained. The extraordinary thing about Bruges from the water level is very different to the city from its streets. The one complements the other, and they make an extraordinary whole.
- There are many, many places to take a boat trip on the Bruges canals. Even if there’s a queue you won’t have to wait long.
- Tours last about half an hour and you’ll pay around €5 (roughly $6.50). But you’ll be expected to tip.
- The tours are restricted to the inner canals – it’s worth taking a walk along some of the others, too.