Today is remembrance day, a national holiday in Belgium when we remember our war heroes and all that have fallen for our country during the First World War, and by extension all soldiers who have died in the line of duty in the Second World War and after. Public holidays in Belgium are like Sundays, quiet, all shops, government buildings and banks are closed, forcing people to slow down and actually think about why it is a public holiday.
If it does not rain it is a perfect day for a walk, everything being quiet and people walking in a slower pace. I thought it would be a perfect day to show you the quiet Bruges, and maybe show you how beautiful Bruges can be, without any commerce around it. Just people walking on the cobblestone streets, looking up at all the beautiful facades, undistracted by music coming out of the shops on the ground floor.
Of course I was not alone, many inhabitants of Bruges had set out for a walk, and I greeted some familiar faces on the way. I drove up to the Beguinage and yes it was really quiet here, no people threading the green grass, and the ones who were there respected the silence asked for on a little sign when you enter.
The horse carriages were still there today, but the drivers did not have to shout all the time to warn the pedestrians to make way. Of course the chocolate shops were open, with all the tourists around, they have to be crazy not to open.
I then arrived at the main shopping street, convinced I would be able to take a picture of an almost empty street, to show possible tourists what a wonderful day remembrance day could be to visit Bruges, if you really want to enjoy its architecture.
What a disappointment. All the tourists I had not seen until now were for the most part walking the shopping streets, since most of the shops were open today! This is not right. While on this day people visit Ypres to stand at the Menepoort and become quiet when the poppies fall from the sky and listen to the Last Post, people are merrily shopping here as if it was any other day of the year. Until now I had no real opinion on the question if shops should be open on Sunday or not. But now I am convinced, by experience; all shops should close on Sundays and on public holidays.
Especially in a city like Bruges. At least once a week the city should be given back, not only to its inhabitants but to itself. Once a week, we should be able to enjoy this beautiful city, for what it is, a, beautiful ‘medieval’ city. Without music blaring out of every shop we pass, without feeling the urge to enter that one shop that cleverly puts its most attractive items in the shop window. Once a week we should be saved from our relentless consumerism which seems so tiresome to fight. Once a week we should be able to look into a shop window, really long for something and be forced to have to wait for it until the shop opens (the next day already!).
We humans have to be forced sometimes to learn to wish and long for something. Believe me it makes the reward so much more gratifying! We have to be protected against immediate gratification that seems to be the rule of the day. And we have to learn to walk through a beautiful city like Bruges with the only reward being the endless beautiful sights, fantastic buildings, cobblestone streets with horse carriages, beautiful parks and lakes, the beautiful tree lined canals around the city that make for wonderful walks. Is that really too much too ask for? So this is a plea against shopping Sundays in Bruges!
Today also showed me for the first time how ugly Bruges can become if we do not take care. I had never really noticed until today. The centre is slowly being taken over by too many tourist shops, that all seem to offer the same. How do tourists know where to buy their chocolates? We have great traditional chocolate makers in Bruges, but their shops are getting drowned away from sight by a growing number of shops that offer low quality chocolate products in shiny shops using blaring colours and too much lights and signs. Shops like La Belgique Gourmande seem to pop up everywhere in the city, they now already have three stores in a small place like Bruges. What they offer has nothing to do with the kind of chocolates Belgium and Bruges got famous for in the first place. But their bright lights and tin boxes in the form old Bruges houses lure tourists in like rabbits attracted by the head lights of a car. The old centre is being taken over by that kind of shops at great speed, at the expense of the traditional small shops that used to be the trademark of the city.
For those of you who are interested in the good chocolates of Bruges, visit the shops that are a member of the guild of chocolatiers. The members of the guild can be found on the following site: http://www.brugsechocoladegilde.be . Only these shops can sell the official praline of the city of Bruges: The Swan. So please check this site first and buy chocolate from one of these shops, you will know why when you taste them! I can recommend the following chocolate shops: Dumon for great quality traditional pralines, Sweertvaegher as one of the oldest shops with a hang for dark chocolate, Sukerbuyc for those of you who like the sweeter kind of chocolate, Spegelaere for the oldest family business in chocolate in Bruges, the Chocolate Line for the adventurous type, and Marcolini for the expensive kind. Neyts Heidi (Rozenhoedkaai 1, 8000 Brugge) has the best babelutte ( a kind of toffee) and red noses (typical Belgian sweet). If you only pay 12 euro for a kilo of pralines, you get the industrialized kind, the kind you also find at home. And you did not travel all the way to little Belgium for that?
And for the Lace shops in Bruges, none of the shops sell lace that has been made anywhere near Belgium, let alone Bruges. It is a sad fact, but lace is a time intensive hand made product, and believe me, most tourists are not willing to pay the price of a real hand made piece of lace. I do not really care if tourists want buy computerized lace made in China, I just dislike the lack of taste these shops put in their displays, that add to the ugliness of the Bruges centre.
If you are really interested in the genuine product, visit the lace museum (Het Kantcentrum), located a bit out of the centre of Bruges, close tot the windmills on the East of Bruges. (but in walking distance from the centre) Here you still find people who make handmade lace in and teach children how to make it. The museum also has a little shop attached where you can buy the real local handmade stuff! And they have a webshop (you can find it on their website) http://kantcentrum.eu/en/
And if you want to buy real good speculoos (traditional spiced biscuit), visit our traditional baker Juliettes: http://www.juliettes.be/, smack in the centre just around the corner from the belfry tower.