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Bruges: Gourmet Chocolate, a Carillon, and Holy Blood

Bruges, Belgium

Learn how Bruges, once a textile trading center, became a backwater when its port silted up — yet thrives again today, fueled by fine chocolates, carillon concerts, and well-preserved historic and holy sites.

Complete Video Script

We’re starting in Brugge, as the Flemish people who live in this part of Belgium call their town. The French speaking half of the country — and English speakers — call it Bruges. However you choose to pronounce it, it comes from the Viking word for “wharf.” In other words…it’s been a trading center for a long time.

About a thousand years ago, the city grew wealthy as the most important textile market in northern Europe. Back then the city’s canals provided merchants smooth transportation. Today they provide visitors smooth photo ops. A short cruise shows off the town’s old wealth. By the 14th century, Bruges’ population was 40,000, as large as London’s. As the middleman in sea trade between northern and southern Europe, it was an economic powerhouse.

In the 15th century, while England and France were slogging it out in a 100 years-long war, Bruges was the favored residence of the powerful and sophisticated Dukes of Burgundy — and at peace. Commerce and the arts flourished.

But in the 16th century, its harbor silted up, trade moved to the port of Antwerp, and the economy collapsed ending Bruges’ Golden Age. The town slumbered for generations. Then, in the 20th century, tourists discovered the charms of Bruges.

Today this uniquely well-preserved Gothic city prospers because of tourism. Even with its crowds, it’s the kind of city where you don’t mind being a tourist. And it hides some sweet surprises…

The people of Bruges are connoisseurs of fine chocolate. You’ll be tempted by chocolate-filled display windows all over town. Locals buy their chocolates fresh daily — like other people buy pastries. They love the family-run places like Dumon where Madam Dumon and her children are hard at work. Their Ganache, a dark creamy combo, wows chocoholics.

Bruges seems to have a chocolate shop on every corner — and some are more adventurous than others. The Chocolate Line — famous for its many “gastronomique” varieties — proudly shows off its kitchen. Everything here's lovingly made by hand. Some specials come with an extra dose of creativity.

Rick: So, how many different flavors do you have?
Clerk: About 60 different kinds we have.
Rick: 60? What are some interesting… you must have some special flavors?
Clerk: We have special ones like Cuban tobacco, or Saffron curry, or ginger.
Rick: Cuban tobacco? Is that legal for Americans?
Clerk: Yes.
Rick: Can I try one?
Clerk: Yeah, sure sir.
Rick: So how is this made?
Clerk: It’s a layer of Marzipan, flavored by a tobacco of Cuba.
Rick: Cuban tobacco leaves? Wow. It’s probably not as good as a Cuban cigar, but it’s very good for chocolate.

The Market Square, ringed by restaurant terraces, great old gabled buildings, and the bell tower, marks the city center today as it did in its medieval heyday.

Back then, a canal came right to this main square. Farmers in the countryside would ship their wool and flax into Bruges. Before loading it onto outgoing boats, industrious locals would maximize their profit by dying, spinning, and weaving it into finished textiles.

The bell tower has stood over Market Square since 1300. Climb the 366 steps for a commanding view.

The tower houses a grand carillon. Rather than fingers, the carillon player uses his fists and feet.

Aimé Lombaert, who's rung these bells since 1984, arranges his own music and enjoys sharing his art.

[Playing carillon.]

Grab a bench in the courtyard to enjoy one of the regular and free carillon concerts.

[Playing carillon.]

The opulent square called Burg — Bruges’ historical birthplace, political center, and religious heart — is decorated with six centuries of fine architecture.

The square’s historic highlight is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The gleaming gold knights and ladies on the church's facade remind us that this church was built by a Crusader in the 12th century to house the drops of Christ's blood which he brought back from Jerusalem.

Inside the Basilica, the stark decor reeks of the medieval piety that drove those crusading European Christians on their holy war against the Muslims. With heavy columns and round arches, the style is pure Romanesque.

Stairs lead to the brighter Gothic-style upper chapel. The painting at the altar tells how the Holy Blood actually got here. Derrick of Alsace helped conquer Muslim-held Jerusalem in the Second Crusade. Here he kneels before the grateful Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, who rewards him with the relic. Derrick returns home and kneels before Bruges' bishop to give him the vial of blood.

Next door is the town hall. 15th century Bruges was a thriving bastion of capitalism and this building served as a model for town halls elsewhere, including Brussels. One of Europe’s first representative governments convened right here.

In the adjoining room, old paintings and maps show how little the city has changed over the centuries. This map shows in exquisite detail the city as it looked in 1562 when a canal connected the North Sea to the Market Square. A fortified moat circled the city. Of the town’s 28 windmills… four survive today. The mills made paper, ground grain, and functioned as the motor of the Middle Ages.