From the top, you can see most of Bruges. And from most of Bruges, you can see the Belfry. It has stood there, towering over the city, while the economy of Bruges boomed on Flemish textiles and trading, while the economy went bust when ships could no longer reach the ports of Bruges, and when it boomed again as tourists discovered the city’s medieval and cobblestoned charms.
Ah! The enchantment of the light and wind after so long a struggle upward in the stuffy darkness! The city of Bruges lies spread around you, a carpet of orange-red roofs and gray squares. The canals, with their broken silver, bound it on either side, and the featureless flat landscape, discolored and dim, mounts to the edge of the grayish blue sky, an empty circle. Below you–immediately below–lies the vast empty Grand Place, looking, no doubt, precisely as it looked five hundred years ago. [The Independent, 1900]1
The Belfry (or Belfort, as it’s sometimes known) is probably the most famous of the several famous landmarks in Bruges. It stands 272 above the scenic medieval square below, the Markt. It’s a clock tower. It’s a carillon, with its 47 bells peeling out telling a musical story of the day. And in an era when towns paid dearly for their own independence and protected it fiercely, it was used to store the and protect the town’s charter. These days it’s one of the city’s leading tourist draws.
And yet, oddly, the Belfry remains unfinished.
It’s not for want of trying. But the Belfry of Bruges hasn’t been able to catch a break. Construction started in 1240, but in 1280 much of it burned down. The tower was rebuilt, and between 1483 and 1487 a new top was added. The first stage was the octagonal stone top that you can still see there. On top of that was a wooden spire decorated with statue of Saint Michael slaying a dragon. But it turns out that as nice as the Saint Michael might have looked, it also served as a lightning magnet. In 1493, one strike sparked a fire that destroyed the wooden top and damaged many of the bells. A new wooden spire was added, but it too burned—in 1741. At that point, they just gave up and decided that it looked good as is. So the Belfry that you see now is actually shorter than it used to be.
The region has a rich history of belfries. The Belfry of Bruges is one of 33 Belgian belfries that are protected as World Heritage sites, along with 23 in northern France.
Photos of the Belfry of Bruges
What To Know Before You Go
- It’s possible to climb to the top of the Belfry—there’s a great view from up there, even if you do have to peer through the chicken wire. But know what you’re in for. It’s a long way up—83 meters up 366 spiraling steps. And there is only one staircase, so people are coming down as you’re going up. There’s no elevator. Only 70 people can be there at once for “security” reasons (really, a translation of “safety”–it’s tight quarters), so there’s often a queue to buy tickets.
- At intervals on the way up are rooms with a few exhibits on the bells. These rooms aren’t that impressive today. They do contain some brief but interesting information about the tower’s bells and provide a good opportunity for a breather on the climb up the steep winding staircase. But historically it was in these rooms that the towns’ rights and charters were kept, symbolically in a prominent position in the center of town but also secure.
- Try to be at the top when the bells chime. Intricate mechanical system plays a tune at regular intervals. Different tunes signified different times of a day–the start of the work day, the end of the work day, noon, etc. – The Carillon consists of 47 bells. 26 bells were cast by Georgius Dumery between 1742 and 1748 and 21 bells were cast by Koninklike Eijsbouts in 2010. The bourdon weights 6 tons, and the bells have a combined weight of 27 tons.
- The tower is actually leaning slightly to the east. It’s not enough that you can tell just by looking at it, but it is leaning.
- Edmund Gosse, “Impressions of Bruges,” The Independent, 28 June 1900. ↩
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