Bruges is the capital of the Belgian province West-Vlaanderen and has a population of approximately 120,000. The historical city center of Bruges was added to the Unesco World Heritage List in the year 2000. Two years later, Bruges was named the Cultural Capital of Europe.
The recorded history of Bruges begins more than two thousand years ago with the establishment of a Gallo-Roman settlement. In the ninth century, the Vikings discovered and conquered the town. It is thought that the name Bruges derives from the old-Scandinavian word ‘Bryggia’, which translates to harbor. In the 11th century, the rising water levels created the Zwin, a very useful and highly navigable channel running all the way into Bruges. Thanks to its good position for the North Sea, Bruges soon became an important international port, which played a significant role in the trade between North and South Europe. Not everybody was able to enjoy this economical growth however. When commoners lined up with the Count of Flanders against the French king in 1302, the revolution led to a Flemish victory. By the 15th century, the natural access to the city from the sea was silted up and so Antwerp took over the leading position of Bruges among the Belgian harbors.
In the Middle Ages, Bruges was protected by nine heavilly guarded gates which controlled access in and out of the city. Four out of these nine gates have survived the past centuries - the Gentpoort, the Kruispoort, the Ezelpoort and the Smedenpoort. Two squares, the Brug and the Markt form the heart of the city center. The church Onze Lieve Vrouwenkerk ('Our Lady’s Church') has the highest brick-built tower in Europe and takes pride in housing one of the very few Michelangelo statues outside of Italy: Madonna and Child. In the Groeninge Museum, you can find important works of the Flemish Primitives. The Belfort is a splendid building in the city center, and those who don’t mind climbing up the 366 steps to its tower are rewarded with an unforgettable view of the city.