A Quick History of Belgium, Brussels, and Bruges

A Quick History of Belgium, Brussels, and Bruges

Around 57 BC Rome extended its empire into the area now known as Belgium; it was inhabited by a Celtic tribe calling themselves the Belgae. Julius Caesar named the region Gallia Belgica, and Rome held power here until the fourth century AD, when the Franks took control. Word was that the Franks (a Germanic tribe) were actually Roman mercenaries, who were paid off with a reward of this area, which was called Gaul by then.

The Franks established their own dynasty, the Merovingian, and made its capitol in Tournai. By the year 500 AD the Romans had been completely eliminated from the area, which included Belgium, as well as large areas of France and Germany. The emperor Clovis adopted Christianity, and gained the support of the Church. (There are some fascinating footnotes to this historical period to be found in Dan Brown’s excellent novel “The Da Vinci Code”).

Belgium became a constitutional monarchy in 1830. Yet Belgium is small (around the size of the US state of Maryland) with a population of around 10 million. Belgium has kept its old-world charm by preserving its history and architecture, and for such a small country it holds an important place in modern Europe.

As of now, the kingdom of Belgium claims to be over a 1000 years old. And the capitol city of Brussels is presently home to the European Commission, the council of ministers of the EU, and NATO’s headquarters.

Belgium is composed of two distinct cultural influences. In the north (Flanders) people speak Dutch, and in the south (Wallonia) the people are French-speaking. So the country itself if bilingual, and many people here also speak English. Confusingly, street names and signs are in both French and Dutch, so one must be clear as to where one is going, and what BOTH names of something might be, in order to find one’s destination easily. Brussels can claim to be the crossroads of Europe, because of the EU’s presence here, and this is reflected in the diversity of languages and cultures living side-by-side here.

The architecture of the country reflects this mix, with medieval Gothic cathedrals alongside classical samples of architecture from around the world. In Brussels there is an incredible mix of styles, leading one to wonder where exactly they are on the planet. Near and around the beautiful Grand Place (or Grote Markt) in Brussels are examples of art nouveau and art deco buildings, Gothic-spired cathedrals, and modern monstrosities. This square claims to be one of the most beautiful in Europe, but I think for sheer beauty and size, Krakow in Poland has the best – but that is only the opinion of this humble writer.

Bruges was perhaps Belgium’s most important city, historically and economically. Bruges is quite special because the town authorities have preserved the medieval-looking image of the city. Called the ‘Venice of the North’ because of its beautiful canals and medieval architecture, Bruges is also famous as a center of lace-making since the 15th century, when Charles the Fifth decreed that lace making was to be taught in the schools and convents of the Belgian provinces.

Bruges (or Brugge) was founded in the 9th century by Vikings. The name Bruges is probably derived from the old-Scandinavian word ‘Brygga,’ which means ‘harbor, or mooring place.’ Near the North Sea, the town very quickly became an important international harbor. An inlet from the sea, called the Zwin, connected Bruges to the North Sea. In the 12th century the first protective wall was built around Bruges, and then the Zwin started to silt up. This would have caused major problems for the port, but the town’s leaders created ‘out ports’ in nearby Damme and in Sluis. As the ages progressed, transport of goods over land became more common, so in the 14th century Bruges became the starting point of a commercial transport road towards modern-day northern Germany.

By the 13th century Bruges had become an important international trading center. Traders from all over Europe came here to buy Flemish cloth. Many European countries influenced Bruges economically and politically. The Italians, Germans, Scots, and the Spanish made this city into a true European center with many different languages in use, and a place where many exotic products could be found.

The 15th century saw the beginning of Bruges decline. Perhaps the unstoppable silting up of the Zwin, competition with the bigger harbor at Antwerp, and a change in the cloth industry resulted in less commercial activity. At this time Bruges continued to construct splendid late-gothic buildings and churches, and the Flemish painting style evolved and became quite popular.

Beginning in the 17th century Bruges declined for the next several centuries, and never regained her former glory and power. By the middle of the 1800's Bruges was the poorest city in Belgium, but the 20th century saw a turnaround in its fortunes with the discovery of the city as a tourist center. Also developed was the new harbor of Zeebrugge outside of the city, which brought new development and life into the ancient city of Bruges.

A Quick History of Belgium, Brussels, and Bruges
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