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.

Bruges business: The city’s ancient markets
Within Belgium, the Brugeoise have a reputation for being greedy and rapacious. Hardly very surprising when their city was built on business; their essence was to market. The heart of the city is Markt, a beautiful open market square. It’s surrounded by gabled medieval buildings and the former market halls. The old stone slabs which traders used to cut and sell meat and other produce, like cloth, have been preserved. Looming over it all is the Belfort, the city’s 13th-century belfry – the scene of a particularly dramatic moment in the film In Bruges. In a place as flat as Belgium, the only way to get a view – to really get a sense of the lie of the land and see how the city works – is to get up high. From the top of the tower you look down on to a web of canals, on to the little roof terraces that the people of the city are so fond of cultivating, and out across the flat landscape towards distant wind farms.

Around the corner, Bruges’ fabulous fish market is still very much a working market. The Brugeoise December 2012 Lonely Planet Traveller 83 love their fish; fresh, raw herring is the Belgian equivalent of Japanese sushi, and highly prized. Every summer, the first barrel of herring to be caught – enough for, say, 100 people to eat – is sold at auction and traditionally goes for around €70,000. The winning bid is given to charity, so it’s a big prestige thing among the benevolent super-rich.

A great delicacy, herring is eaten with raw onions and gherkin. A really nice thing to do is to stop at the fish market, buy a load of herring and make yourself a little picnic, with a couple of bottles of Belgian beer. Again, with a meal like this you’re eating the history of this place, because herring was traditionally what local people lived on; it’s how human habitation was even possible in this cold, wet place, before the city became rich. The Romans called the Belgians a ‘miserable tribe of herringeating primitives’, but the Belgians had the last laugh when they created Bruges.

Rich in oil: Bruges on canvas
During the 15th century Bruges became a centre for a stunningly new and completely beguiling artistic technique: oil painting. Its great masters were Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and their work can be seen at Bruges’ Groeningemuseum. It isn’t a huge gallery but its collection is spectacular. It has the wonderful Madonna with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck – a frozen, seated Madonna with a Bruges clergyman kneeled beside her. At the same time this was painted, 1436, the Italians were using fresco, painting murals on freshly laid plaster. It gives vivid images but not the sense that you can actually touch someone’s arm or see the moistness in the corner of their eye – as with oil.

Oil paint’s potential was discovered in Flanders in the 1430s. We’re not sure how it was discovered, but it completely transformed the whole history of western art. Perhaps because the Low Countries’ culture came from a world of near nothingness, derided by the ancient Romans as a watery wilderness, they loved art that was rich. In Flemish painting you get everything – gold, silver, jewels; the Madonna wearing something beautiful; castles in the landscape. Artists stacked up visual elements for the viewer to enjoy. At the time, people were so stunned by the hypnotic realism of oil painting they put it about that Jan van Eyck had sold his soul to the devil for the ability to paint like that. It’s impossible for us now to understand its impact. Imagine a world with no advertisements, no photographs, no cars. You go to church and see an altarpiece that is almost photographically real – it must have been astonishing.

A lot of the Groeningemuseum’s great works were once in the city’s churches and cathedrals. Hugo van der Goes’ St Hippolyte Triptych was restored by the museum, but is now back in its original home, St Saviour’s Cathedral. The painting is a transfixing and completely weird depiction of a saint about to be torn in four by men on horseback. The scene is painted within an inviting landscape, and there’s this beautiful sky in the background. It’s odd and makes you ask how something so horrible could be happening in such a peaceful place. Another one of my favourites is Death and the Miser, by Jan Provoost. It’s a fantastic picture of a Flemish Scrooge-character being paid a final visit by a skeletal Death. In the background are bottle glass windows, still seen in Bruges today.

There was a tendency among Bruges’ painters to set everything in the present day – in their own world. For example, you might be looking at a painting of the nativity story, and the Holy Family will be wandering not through Bethlehem but Bruges. It’ll be a Bruges innkeeper saying, ‘Sorry, no room at the inn,’ and there’ll be a dog barking at them from the doorstep of a little gabled house. Because Bruges has been so carefully preserved as a medieval city, when you’re walking its streets you can feel like you’re walking within these paintings. Particularly at night, when the streets tend to be emptier of day-tripping tourists – in the semidarkness, the illusion is more convincing.

A place of pilgrimage: The St-Janshospitaal
You can really sense the city’s past at St-Janshospitaal, a 12th-century hospital building which is a wonderful mix of Flanders’ Middle Ages culture. Now a museum, it’s a reminder that although the canals were good for business, they also brought the plague to the city, and the way Bruges ministered to their sick was through religion. The hospital’s chapel was a pilgrimage site. It held the relics of St Ursula, a virgin killed by Huns people around the 4th or 5th century while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome.

In the 15th century, the hospital commissioned the artist Hans Memling to create a shrine for the relics. Memling was described by the art historian Erwin Panofsky as ‘the very model of a major minor master’, which is a highbrow joke taken from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. In other words, he was the perfect second-rate artist. But his shrine really is wonderful, bridging the gap between the medieval foundations of the hospital and its Renaissance incarnation. Memling took the old reliquary containing Ursula’s remains – a wooden box, which people had been coming to touch for hundreds of years – and then housed it in a sort of dolls’ house in the shape of a miniature church. On this he painted the whole story of Ursula’s journey: her life and death.

Flemish oil painting was born out of manuscript illumination, of which Bruges was a great centre. Walking around Memling’s shrine, it’s clear to see how one gave rise to the other. It’s a bit like the pages of a story book, put onto the outside of a box. It’s no surprise that Belgium also produced the artist and comics writer Hergé; Memling’s box is almost like a Renaissance Tintin tale, unfolding frame by frame. Ursula even dies being watched by her little dog, like a mournful little Snowy. The paintings are full of such wonderful details. The pope, as well as looking serious, receiving all these virgins in Rome, has the appearance of a naughty schoolboy. The characters are wearing these fantastically fine fabrics, so even when you’re watching Ursula being killed, you’re also checking out what she’s wearing. Narratively, this isn’t terribly convincing but it is very revealing of the contemporary culture.

Hans Memling knew perfectly well that people would come from far and wide to be in the presence of Ursula’s reliquary. This shrine was a big tourist attraction, drawing people to Bruges. So he made it an advert for what the city had to offer. It was saying: ‘Come on a pilgrimage, say your prayers, let’s hope that your husband recovers from his illness. And before you leave, why don’t you do a bit of shopping?’ In the art of Flanders – especially the Renaissance art, which I love – there’s this wonderful collision between spirituality and materialism. They want their art to be deeply spiritual, absolutely, but it’s also a way of stocking the world with riches.

The article 'A cultural tour of Bruges' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.