Brugge: the right spot to 'settle in'
"A man without land is nobody," Jan Broes read aloud. Struck by its profundity (from the book "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," by Mordecai Richler), Broes nodded in agreement, petted his donkey, and repeated, "a man without land is nobody."Skip to next paragraph
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Jan Broes is somebody. For each weekend, he and his wife and three sons leave their city home and drive to their "land house" (as he calls it) in the Belgian country side, 20 minutes outside of Brugge (often spelled Bruges.) Their life style is a harmonious blend of art and culture in Brguee, combined with the serenity and nature of Bekegem, where their modest farmhouse is located.
Nothing is very far from Brugge, I found out, after spending nearly two weeks in this medieval city, practically a stone's throw from London, Amsterdam, or Paris and the mighty North Sea. "Two weeks in Brugge?" a friend asked, amazed that anyone would stay that long in this Flemish provicial city. In fact, the average tourist only spends 1.78 days here, usually en route to some other European destination, Jean-Pierre Drubbel of the city's tourist office told me.
I specifically went to Brugge to visit my friends, the Broes', and also to rest in one place after traveling around for two months. Brugge was just the right spot to settle in, cozy down, and move at my own pace without feeling frazzled. There's museum hopping, canal rides, people gazing at sidewalk cafes, and long leisurely walks through parks and narrow cobblestone streets. Often referred to as the Venice of the north, Brugge itself is a museum piece, a showcase of well-preserved, restored medieval architecture; liter-free streets; collection of paintings by the Flemish masters such as Jan van Eyck, Han Memling , Hugo van der Goes, Hieronymus bosch, Gerard David, and others, which are housed in world-famous museums -- Groeninge, Gruuthuse, and Arenthuis.
The city fathers makes a concerterd effort to keep their city unpolluted and uncongested by vehicles. Tourist buses are prohibited from parking within the Old City, which gives the hansom cabs maneuverability. Nor will you see neon signs on any building exterior, or aluminum, for both are outlawed. And all new paint contracts must first be approved for color. Mr. Drubbel pointed out that Brugge was the first European city to enforce restoration codes in the 1900s. And today there are scores of laws. Brugge will never lose face!
Jan Broes lives in a 15th-century gothic-style, three-story hose built in 1479, one of only three remaining in Brugge of this type. Bought in 1966, in fairly poor condition, the house is now being restored according to specific architectural plans that took five years to gain the approval of the local Historic Preservation Society, the city, the province (West Flanders), and the national government. Tha law provides that these agencies shall pay 61 percent of restoration costs, of which the state pays 50 percent, the city, 10, and the province 1 percent.
Just as important as buildings are in Brugge, so are the three windmills, which are also eligible for funding. Only St. John's mill has been restored to working condition at a cost of $250,000. Built in 1770, St. John's stands at the site, on a knoll by one of the old town gates, where one of the first windmills was erected in 1290, according to Brugge windmill aficionado Christian DeWyt.
"The windmill was a Flemish invention and was built as a source of power for machinery during the 13th century when Brugge was an important trade center," Mr. DeWyt explained. "Our port (which has been silted up) was at the junction of the trade routes from Italy, France, the British Isles, the Baltic countries, and Russia, too," he added. Mr. DeWyt is a lawyer and judge, as well as an expert on windmills and an active member in the International Molenzborg, an organization that preserves and cares for the country's mills. Of the 140 in Belgium, 65 are in flanders province, and Brugge has three. Mr. DeWyt thinks that St. john's is the most beautiful of all and says that it is a major tourist attraction. Inside, you can see a panorama of the city. Made from oak, its sails span approximately 25 meters, and when it whirrs in the wind, you can feel it shakes slightly.