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Explore the ethnic legacy of Bruges, once the art centre of the western world and home to the pre-Renaissance Flemish masters.

The Venice of the North: The city by boat
Many European cities with canals – Amsterdam, sometimes even Manchester and Liverpool – are described as the ‘Venice of the North’. It’s not true of those places, but it is true of Bruges. The best way to see the city is to find someone with a private boat to take you around. Setting out first thing in the morning, especially on an autumn or winter day, when you might get some atmospheric fog on the water, you can almost fool yourself into feeling that you are journeying back into the past. On my last visit, I was taken around by an off-duty fireman; in Bruges they travel to fires by boat and then pump water from the canal to put out the blaze, so a fireman needs a boat licence. Travelling the canals, you see the way the city’s architecture is orientated towards the water, and only by doing that can you really understand the miracle that Bruges is.

The whole of the Low Countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg – represents a miracle of human ingenuity over a hostile environment. In many places the sea level is higher than that of flat land, so the fact that it was drained in the 11th and 12th centuries to an extent that cities thrive is a great achievement. In Belgium, there are weird relationships between land and water – you’ll be driving along a road and suddenly realise you’re going under a canal. But the advantage for the Belgians, having created cities like Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, is that they were all connected by this network of waterways. For example, it’s an easy four-mile cycle along the canal from Bruges to its pretty neighbouring port of Damme. Because these waterways were the arteries of trade, Bruges became rich during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

On the canals, you realise that the houses don’t face the water because it’s pretty, but because that’s where business is. Bruges’ prime businesses, such as brewing and textiles, which reached their zenith in the 14th century, were made possible by manipulating water. That’s why Belgium has the best and most varied beer, because they have so much water. The monasteries, in particular, were very good at harnessing fresh water. Drink a beer in Bruges and you are actually touching history, as those brewing traditions are as ancient as the city itself. Drink several beers, especially strong ones like Leffe or Pelforth, and you might end up forgetting history altogether, including your own!

The land around Bruges wasn’t fertile, and people couldn’t live on fish alone, so they produced things; beer and textiles like their famous lace, which could be transported along the canal network. Canals, towpaths, horses pulling barges – this was all cutting-edge technology, developed in Belgium and later taken up everywhere else. And that’s why Bruges is such a magnificent city, it was created by sheer force of will. On the canals it’s possible to feel all that, and it’s simultaneously a very peaceful way to see the city. Bruges is a touristy place and can feel crowded, but on the water you’re removed from the hustle and bustle. Travel along the Groenerei, or Green Canal, and you might even spot Bruges’ most famous dog: a Labrador who sits up in a beautiful Renaissance window, watching the world go by.

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