Sit up and beg about Bruges

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Bernard Adams gets the measure of this car-tamed Belgian city

Bruges, one of Europe's most charming cities, is surrounded and criss-crossed by canals. Small, tactfully quiet motorboats whisk tourists around the waterways to a gently humorous commentary in four languages.

The city has largely tamed the car - by ruthless pedestrianisation, underground car parks and the cult of the sit-up-and-beg bicycle. Old and young, fit and unfit, pedal around the well-marked cycle tracks on comfortable roadsters with broad, accommodating saddles and handlebars high enough to allow an upright torso and an opportunity to cruise serenely past the gabled houses and over the ivy-covered bridges.

This is a very ancient city. It was a centre of international trade in the Middle Ages. Philip the Fair took it from the Count of Flanders in 1297, but the men of Bruges threw out the French in 1302. The city prospered until the Zwin inlet silted up and Bruges was cut off from the sea. Antwerp became the great trade centre and Bruges slept peacefully until a canal was built to the port of Zeebrugge and the city revived again in this century.

A boat trip is one way of quickly getting the flavour of Bruges. Another is to climb the 366 steps to the top of the famous Belfry where you can see the compact contours of the red-roofed medieval city are spread out below. The Town Hall breathes civic pride and solidity - particularly notable is the 14th century Gothic room with its fine vaulted wooden ceiling.

An architectural wholeness, a sense of order and tranquillity - these are perhaps the greatest attraction of Bruges. But it has some fine artistic treasures as well. The Groeninge Museum has an outstanding collection of 15th century Flemish painting - featuring Jan Van Eyck, who spent most of this life in Bruges. There's also a Memling museum which celebrates the painter who lived in the city from 1477 and which includes the extraordinary altar-piece, the Mystical Marriage of St Catherine.

The simpler, more accessible Museum of Folklore (Rolweg 40, a little tricky to find) is housed in old almshouses set around a courtyard and contains 16 rooms devoted to the arts, crafts and daily life of the region.

Among the many star turns are the Shoemaker's Shop with well-preserved "mud-shoes" from the last century, and the Hatter's with its extraordinary array of wooden "heads" on which hundreds of hats were shaped and moulded.

There is also an unexpected and surprising gallery filled with the paintings and drawings of Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956). He was born in Bruges but spent most of his life in England where he was enormously successful not only as a painter but also as an illustrator and designer.

The gallery shows his matchless ability to capture the grandeur of 19th century industrial scenes - like shipbuilding - or the excitement of a huge railway engine about to depart, and it confirms his remarkable draughtsmanship. Brangwyn is an unexpected bonus in a city where good food and good sense seem to predominate.

For further information about travel to Belgium and accommodation in Bruges for school parties, telephone the Belgian Tourist Office: 0171 629 1988 (afternoons only)

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