Monday, August 22, 2011

Bruges, Flâner, Brel & Le Plat Pays

How on earth do I sum up Bruges in a blog?  I can't, but I can tell you how it affects me and how I experience it.  To be honest you would be best coming to see it for yourself, please do.  You have only to watch the people threading the streets of this European City to see from their eyes how moved and enthralled they are.  Once you leave and the medieval spires towers and turrets disappear and melt with the vast Flanders sky, you immediately find yourself planning to be back again.

The Belfort seen from the Burg
I first saw Bruges when I was seven years old, taken there by my parents, wide eyed and truly amazed at seeing a city whose streets seemed to have come straight out of a book of fairy tales.  Bruges felt more decayed then, less untouched, rather forgotten and dilapidated in a beautiful sort of way.   I have felt compelled to return ever since, at intervals throughout my life; at 16 studying French and realising that Bruges was in Belgium not France, as a romantic young married person, then twice as a mother with a daughter who fell in love with place as much as I had.

Don't visit Bruges with a guidebook in your hand unless you like that sort of thing.  You need to stroll, wander, saunter, walk randomly and experience the city.  That's 'flâner', just one word to sum it all up in French.  J'aime flâner, not as Yves Montand put it, 'sur les grands boulevards' but round the narrow cobbled streets of this Belgian City with the sound of horses hooves clip clopping everywhere across the cobblestones, the slopping water of the quiet canals and the Minnewater, the chiming of the carillon from the Belfort on the market square.

Bruges is more fashionable, tidy, less decayed and far more expensive now with its many restaurants and chocolate shops.  It's the only place I know of with two shops selling Christmas things the whole year round.  Still, the charm and that other worldly atmosphere is there.  If you only see one city in Europe, see Bruges.

Bruges is visible for miles and miles across the extremely flat Flanders countryside surrounding it.  'Le Plat Pays' was how the Belgian Chanson Singer Jacques Brel described it.  A French teacher introduced me to the song at 15 and it made a deep impression on me as a young teenager.  Brel talks about the towers of the cites as the only mountains in this flat land.  It may be flat, but not monotonous.  It is best explored on a bicycle, something I last did back in my teens with a french pen friend for my companion, stopping in bar-tabacs in villages here and there for cigarettes or a beer.  Don't take any main roads. There are plenty of byways.  You are always coming across long straight canals lined with trees, little pan tiled villages and way side shrines with small bunches of flowers.

I'm back now in Wales, a very wet and mountainous contrast to the flat landscape of Flanders.  I came back with a substance abuse problem, large brown slabs which break easily and keep you perpetually wanting more, fresh hot waffles covered with chocolate from street cafes .  I've tried buying Belgian chocolate and waffles here but sadly it doesn't taste the same as when you're wandering the cobbled streets, I can feel myself mentally planning my next visit...
The Markt


  1. Bruges is simply the best place in the world to sit on the pavment with a cold beer and just watch the world go past, listen to the clarion, and did I mention the beer.

    If brave climb the bell tower, bu accept that you are a tourist and go for a boat cruise of the canals, and then you have earned another nice cold beer.

  2. Nice post. I so agree, and I am not a beer drinker! I prefer a glass of wine but Bruges is about the only place (and possibly in the Galeries St. Hubert in Brussels) I would really enjoy it, not quite sure why, probably that great atmosphere. Never climbed the Beffroi yet, must do that next time (there is always a next time). Love the canal cruises. Now I'm missing the place all over again :)