The classic city of Bruges is known for its tiny lanes and pedestrian zones. So how exactly was motoring journalist Luke Ponsford supposed to find a cracking circuit?
The plan seems faulty from the outset. A car? In Bruges? That’ll never work. Belgium’s medieval gem isn’t the kind of place you drive around. Its pinched, cobbled lanes and public squares will surely make a night-time drive a waste of time.
On entering the city in the early evening rush hour, there’s traffic everywhere, clogging up Bruges’ arteries. Cyclists dart the wrong way down bewildering one-way systems, which render you hopeless, lost in a nanosecond. Our sat-nav has a panic attack.
So we park up and have a coffee in the Burg – one of the city’s gothic-tinged main squares. Our surroundings may be beautiful, but from a driving perspective, Bruges isn’t looking good. It takes a small car to lessen the risk of us colliding with the two-wheeled warriors, tourists, slimline canals and cramped architecture that make up the city.
As darkness brews, we drive to the main ring road to start our circuit of the city. Heading to the eastern side of town, we reach Kruisport, a small battlement over the moat that surrounds the old city of Bruges, and make our way in as the streets of Bruges clear into the darkening hours.
The tourists have gone by now, dissolved into the city’s hostelries. Lone cyclists clatter over the cobbled streets, heading for home. We pass the old tollhouse, dating from 1477, then The Royal City Theatre, one of Europe’s best-preserved neo-renaissance theatre buildings. The vertiginous spire of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk cathedral, backlit by the moonlight, acts as our compass.
It’s an eerie sensation, driving through a sparsely lit, part-gothic, part-medieval city under the spell of a full moon. The gargoyles looking down on us through the gloom are unsettling. The history of this place seeps out of the walls late at night.
Take A Trip Through Time
If you squint just a little bit, you can imagine Bruges in medieval times, when it was a leading light in the cloth trade. Although much of the city’s architecture is a recreation of older buildings, the combination of ancient and new is almost seamless. Take away the cars and the electric lighting and you could be in the 15th century.
We press on to the Markt, Bruges’ principal main square. Overlooked by the mighty Belfort, one of Belgium’s most famous landmarks, the Markt is host to a selection of mostly late 19th century recreations of medieval gabled buildings, all subtly different from each other. During the day the Markt is just another tourist attraction, full of cafes, waffle stalls and souvenirs, but with added darkness its real grandeur comes alive, looming over us through the murky skies.
Descent Into Darkness
We drive through to the Burg, where we retired for coffee all those hours ago. It too is deserted now. We stop in front of the beautiful Basilica of the Holy Blood, the city’s most holy shrine and home to a phial that reputedly contains the blood of Christ. Then the lights in the square go out suddenly at midnight and we’re plunged into darkness.
We head for the comfort of street lighting and continue south, taking in the city’s central canals before gunning down to the Astridpark and the stunning Magdalena church.
It’s getting chilly now, and it’s time to call it a night. We point the car north and wind our way back through the deserted narrow streets, past the beautifully kept houses, along the bottle-green canals, past the homely restaurants and cosy bars, and head towards a good night’s sleep. Who’d have thought a night-time tour of Bruges could’ve gone so well?