Bruges looks to 'capitalize' on cultural status

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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 irrelevance.

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, Spain.

Bruges has spent two years renovating its medieval city center.This 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 capital.

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 accommodations hints.

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 good."

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 coast.

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 other venues.

Events on tap

Of course, new sightseeing opportunities only are a fraction of the fun in a year packed with cultural and entertainment happenings.

"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 trading partners.

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) 32-70 223-302.

For more information, contact the Belgian Tourist Office or visit www.brugge2002.be.

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