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Bruges Has Come of Age as Belgium's Showplace : BRUGES

June 23, 1991|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

BRUGES, Belgium — Natural disasters come in all shapes and sizes, and as was the case with Italy's Pompeii and Herculaneum when Mt. Vesuvius blew its lid, whole cities can pass into history with little more than a whimper.

Bruges' disaster was less catastrophic in terms of lives lost, but for about five centuries it reduced this Flemish jewel on the Zwin River to a mere rubric on the pages of European history.

Until the mid-14th-Century, Bruges was one of Northern Europe's greatest trading centers thanks to its location as a deep-water port just a few miles inland from the North Sea on the Zwin. It surpassed such cities as Antwerp, Rotterdam and other thriving ports, accumulating art, architectural treasures and all the other pomp and perquisites that wealth and power brought to its door.

But nature had a disaster up its sleeve.

About 1350, the Zwin began to silt up and it wasn't too long before the river's channel was more suitable for skiffs than deep-draft trading ships. The centuries-old recession hit hard, with many natives leaving for jobs elsewhere as the city went downhill economically.

So while other more prosperous cities tore down and built anew, Bruges was locked in time, too poor to destroy its treasures in the name of progress. The effect was a bit like putting a priceless Old Master in a museum cellar, there to remain unseen and unappreciated, collecting dust for hundreds of years.

Then, in the late 19th Century when travel began to surge as an industry, someone decided to bring the masterpiece up from the cellar, perk it up with a few cosmetics that didn't compromise its inherent beauty and put it on display for all to see.

Present-day Bruges is an absolute stunner--a magnificent medieval city of willow-lined canals, gorgeous old buildings, classic cobbled squares, quiet courtyards behind weathered stone walls and a huge marketplace that has been the town's vital center since the 10th Century.

Owners of private homes or buildings who wish to refurbish their properties are paid a 50% subsidy to keep the place typically Brugean, whatever the period. And when the Holiday Inn people wanted to put a hotel in a 17th-Century building, city fathers approved the deal on the condition that the exterior remain pure 17th Century, which it is.

Bruges is now not only the showplace of Belgium, it has become one of the premier attractions in all of Europe. And while its canals may lie over the town like a piece of fine Belgian lace, don't ever call it the "Venice of the North" within earshot of a native Brugean. They aren't at all happy about the comparison, feeling that, give or take a little water, their city is unique in its beauty and tranquillity.

How long/how much? Bruges is worth at least two full days of anyone's time. Given a choice, we would base in Bruges rather than Brussels for taking day trips to Rubens' city of Antwerp and the equally art-laden medieval town of Gent. Belgium's excellent trains will get you to either in no time. Lodging and dining costs have stayed on the same curve as most of Europe, so expect hotel rates to be high-moderate to expensive, with the bills in good restaurants running slightly lower.

Getting settled in: Bourgoensch Hof, a regal townhouse with only 11 bedrooms, is tucked quietly away in a lovely little courtyard beside a canal, just a short walk from Market (Markt) Square. Start the morning in the handsome beamed breakfast room. The restaurant ('t Bourgoensche Cruyce) across the courtyard is considered one of Bruges' finest.

Ter Brughe is another 15th-Century home in late-Gothic style, also on a quiet canal and a few steps from the town's oldest bridge. The very comfortable bedrooms are rather eclectically furnished, and buffet breakfasts are excellent. A 10-minute walk gets you to Market Square. Ter Brughe and the neighborhood are old favorites of ours.

Oud Huis Amsterdam (Old Amsterdam House) combines two 16th-Century townhouses into a fairly new addition to the Bruges hotel scene. Beside the pretty Spiegelrei Canal, this one is a little closer to the center than Ter Brughe. The hotel has a pleasant garden and terrace and all of the amenities, including color TV and Jacuzzis in some baths.

Regional food and drink: Dover sole gets most of the accolades, but the Belgian variety from just across the English Channel in Ostend is easily its equal. It's at its best when grilled simply with a little butter and garlic. Other notable seafoods are the eels in an herbed green sauce ( paling in 't groen ) and shrimp, which are still harvested in some North Sea villages by pulling purse seine nets through the surf by horseback.

The lordly mussel is worshiped here, just as it is throughout Belgium and the Netherlands, so scan menus for them and find out what all the hoopla is about.

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