We arrived at Brugge on an early morning train, when the streets were empty, and were able to experience the Belgian city in a state of quiet that, I suspect, most visitors don’t. Emerging from the station, we turned toward the spires of the old city and walked in that direction. Although the way was clearly marked, this felt like what it might feel like to approach the city as a pilgrim, on foot, from far away. Brugge is a web of narrow streets lined with tiny houses, and the churches soar above everything else. Moving in silence, through mostly empty streets, and then entering the Cathedral of Sint Salvator, so explosively dramatic, was the closest I know to what it’s like to live in a Medieval world.
If we had been Medieval, we’d probably have walked from there to the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, where there’s a famous madonna by Michelangelo. Instead we took a boat tour through the canals, which was probably not Medieval, led by a ruddy swain who repeated his well-worn shtick to us in French, Dutch, Spanish and finally English. The whole city seemed, from that vantage, fairy-tale pretty, with brick cottages, flower gardens, and swans and geese that looked as if they had been engineered by Walt Disney. Then we sat down for a restful, rather posh lunch, which was definitely not Medieval. When it was time to head back to the train station, in mid-afternoon, we had to cut through throngs of just-arriving tourists. By that time the Medieval feeling had all but evaporated.