Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bruges, Belgium - June 25, 2010

Bruges is one of a number of northern European cities that chooses to promote itself as the "Venice of the North" - quite a stretch, even if one hasn't been to Venice. It is however the capital and the  largest city in the province of West Flanders which is in the Flemish Region of Belgium. With a population approaching 120,000, 20,000 of whom live in the old town, it has regained some of its earlier economic importance thanks to the development of the Zeebrugge port and a burgeoning tourist trade.
Bruges' first millenium CE began with Julius Ceasar fortifying the coastal area against pirates in the 1st century, after he successfully beat off the Manapii. In the 4th century, with the Roman Empire in collapse, the Franks moved in and took charge. Pestered by Viking raids during the 9th century, Baldwin the First, Count of Flanders, reinforced the Roman fortifications and steadily built trade with England, Scandinavia and other nations. During this era, Bruges evolved into one of the largest commercial centers in the world and was granted its city charter in 1128.
Beginning around 1050, silting of the port basin gradually reduced the utility of the port and began strangling the city's prospects. A fortuitous storm in 1134 cut a new channel to the sea at which time the port was effectively relocated west to Damme, which quickly became the commercial outpost for Bruges.
Thus began 300 years of glory days for Bruges. It operated almost like an exchange, or distribution center, for the wool industry as well as for the grain and wine trades. Ships appeared from as far away as  Genoa in Italy making Bruges a vital link to the Mediterranean. Money poured in from all quarters and this huge wealth encouraged a surge of chauvinism in which the local population, with the aid of their militia, succeeded in kicking the French out in 1302.
In the 15th century the population of the city grew to 200,000 and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, set up court, attracting a number of artists, bankers, and other prominent personalities from all over Europe. The oil painting techniques of the new Flemish school gained wide exposure and both Edward IV and Richard III of England chose the city to wait out their exiles.
The 16th century was not so kind. Starting around 1500, the channel to Damme, the conduit for the city's prosperity, started silting and the city quickly fell behind Antwerp as the economic flagship of the Low Countries. Despite a variety of efforts to regain its former glory Bruges slowly atrophied with its population declining 75% to 50,000 by the end of the 19th century.
In 1907 the new port of Zeebugge was built which unintentionally became a German U-Boat  base in WWI. It wasn't until the 1970s, when a massive expansion of Zeebrugge was undertaken, that Bruges rose again to become one of northern Europe's important ports. International tourism has also been nurtured resulting in the city being awarded the "European Capital of Culture" mantle in 2002.
More pictures here.

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