NEW YORK -- For much of the Middle Ages, the Belgian city of Bruges
was one of Europe's most important centers of commerce and finance,
renowned as both the birthplace of the stock exchange and as a
seaport exporting fine textiles across the Continent.
But religious wars, political and economic turmoil, and
environmental change, such as the loss of direct access to the sea,
eventually led the prosperous town on a slow decline into
Beginning this month, however, Bruges will recapture some of
that former glory as it becomes one of the European Union's two
Cultural Capitals for 2002, a status shared with Salamanca,
year, the city's intense program of architectural and cultural
renovation and innovation affords travel agents the opportunity to
sell clients both on Bruges' lasting beauty and on new attractions
and scores of unique, one-time events.
"I think this is going to be a huge success because Bruges
already is a popular tourism destination, and even more visitors
will be attracted by its restoration and the rich and ambitious
cultural program being plan-ned," said Frederique Raeymaekers,
director of the Belgian Tourist Office in New York.
Hot spot for tour ops
Indeed, Bruges already has proved more popular with U.S.
visitors than nearby urban Brussels, capital of both Belgium and
the European Union.
While 85% of leisure travel to Belgium is FIT, according to
Raeymaekers, those U.S. tour operators that do offer the country on
their European itineraries tend to schedule overnight stays in
Bruges, paired with only short day trips to the more modern
For example, participants in Tauck World Discovery's 13-night
Holland to Switzerland package spend two nights in Bruges,
exploring its canals, bridges, town square and hall and open-air
fish market on foot and by minivan and boat. This is followed by
only a morning in Brussels before heading for France.
"I have to say Brussels is a very nice city, but Bruges is
really more of a 'Yellow Roads of Europe' kind of town," said a
spokeswoman for Westport, Conn.-based Tauck, referring to the
company's emphasis on Europe's scenic back roads -- marked in
yellow on maps -- and smaller historical towns.
"Bruges really fits that ideal, and people who don't know much
about the town are usually pleasantly surprised by it."
Similarly, Collette Tours' Netherlands, Belgium and Paris tour
spends its two nights in Belgium in Bruges, as does the Belgium
& Holland Self Drive offered by Europe Express.
While no U.S. tour operator queried had altered its Belgium
programs to accommodate Cultural Capital events in Bruges, clients
can take advantage of many of the offerings during free time.
Meanwhile, agents planning FIT itineraries for clients can
contact the Belgian Tourist Office for events, dining and
For example, "hundreds of extremely charming bed-and-breakfasts,
priced in every category" are the most affordable and popular
lodging option in Bruges, said Raeymaekers, while the city boasts
restaurants "with Michelin stars and without, which are just as
Bridges to past, future
European cities that earn Cultural Capital status usually
undertake a vigorous clean-up and construction campaign well in
advance, and Bruges is no exception.
According to Raeymaekers, each of the city's historical brick
and sandstone church steeples and town hall towers has been
carefully restored. "It's an expensive process that must be done by
hand," she noted.
Even more importantly, several new 21st century landmarks have
been added to Bruges' impressive architectural landscape.
For example, the new Concertgebouw Bruges concert hall has risen
in the city center, tiled in red to match the brick towers of the
Belfry, the Church of Our Lady and St. Savior's Cathedral.
Dedicated for its entire first year to Bruges 2002 events, the
Concertgebouw's main auditorium seats 1,200 spectators; the tower
of its chamber music hall, which can accommodate 300, features a
cafe-restaurant and terrace with spectacular views of the city and
In addition, Japanese architect Toyo Ito built a modern glass
pavilion in the heart of the Burg square, which is surrounded by
some of the city's most impressive Gothic architecture.
Comparing its function to I.M. Pei's glass pyramids at the
Louvre in Paris, Raeymaekers described the pavilion as "a
beautiful, light construction with lots of glass and space," that
doesn't "ruin the look" of the square.
And as Bruges traditionally is "a town of canals and bridges,"
Swiss architect Juerg Conzett has strung a brand new span over the
Coupure canal, and dozens of smaller art projects will dot the
city's parks, parking lots, stadiums and train stations, among
Events on tap
Of course, new sightseeing opportunities only are a fraction of
the fun in a year packed with cultural and entertainment
"From late February until the very end of the year, there is
something going on almost every day, whether it's a play, a ballet
or a concert," said Raeymaekers.
The first major event scheduled for 2002 is the "Jan van Eyck:
Early Netherlandish Painting and Southern Europe" exhibition, which
will explore the influence of Spanish and Portuguese art on Flemish
Primitive painters such as van Eyck, who worked in Bruges.
The show runs from March 15 to June 30 at the Groeninge Museum,
which is open daily except for May 9; admission costs about $9 for
adults, $8 for unescorted groups and seniors and $5 for those ages
12 to 26.
The citywide "[email protected]" exhibition opens May 24 for a
daily summer run through Sept. 8 at various locations across
Bruges' old commercial district. Starting at the Provincial
Government Palace, the show will seek to illustrate medieval links
between the Hanseatic cities of northern Europe and their southern
Meanwhile, "Cloistered World, Open Books," open daily at the
Episcopal Seminary -- or Grootseminarie -- from Aug. 16 to Nov. 17,
contrasts medieval manuscripts and modern art.
Tickets for both shows are priced at about $8 for adults, $6 for
unescorted groups and seniors and about $4 for ages 12 to 26.
Other highlights scheduled for Bruges 2002 include:
• "Swan Lake," Royal Ballet of Flanders, Concertgebouw, March 22
and 23 at 8:30 p.m.
• "The Europa Myth," an international writers' symposium,
Concertgebouw, March 25, April 29, May 27, June 24, Sept. 30 and
Oct. 28 at 8:30 p.m.
• Performances by French circus troupe Cirque Plume, April 5 to
9 and April 11 to 15.
• Octopus, a contemporary art exhibition at various locations,
May 17 to Sept. 16.
• Reconstruction of Bruges' medieval crane at the Jan van
Eyckplein, May 24 to Sept. 8.
• Jazz Bruges 2002, the first installment of a new annual jazz
festival, Concertgebouw, Aug. 15 to 18.
• "Antigona," opera by Tommaso Traetta at Concertgebouw, Sept. 7
and 8 at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets for the "Jan van Eyck," "[email protected]" and
"Cloistered World, Open Books" shows are available from Keith
Prowse by calling (800) 669-8687, faxing (212) 302-4251 or
e-mailing [email protected].
Tours for all three shows on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays
cost about $56 per group (15 person maximum). Tickets and
reservations for all other events are available at (011) 32-70
For more information, contact the Belgian Tourist Office or