The streets of Bruges have echoed with music through the ages. Carillon bells from the medieval Belfry still make the air quiver every hour and half hour in this city where music marks the very passing of time. From its Burgundian heyday as an important hub for music sharing, through its role as a cradle of choral polyphony, to the striking modernity of its millennial concert hall and podcasts, Bruges feels like a city shaped by music.
1. The Belfry
Why not begin your musical tour of Bruges with a climb of the 83-metre-high Belfry? Book a slot for your visit to avoid disappointment. Its distinctive octagonal form towers over the Markt and 366 steps are not for the faint-hearted; it is one of the most visceral tower-climbs I’ve experienced. At the top, you’ll have a magnificent panoramic vista of Bruges. Time it right (on the hour or half hour) and you’ll be up close and personal with the gigantic bell system of the carillon when it chimes. Summer carillon concerts in the city hall courtyard are something to behold too.
Built in time to honour Bruges’s 2002 City of Culture status, this angular orange concert venue cuts a dashing lowslung figure complementing the city’s terracotta-tiled roofs and venerable skyline. Close to the main train station and to ‘t Zand’s vast underground car park, Concertgebouw is not only easy to reach but combines stunning architecture with two cutting edge music spaces and art.
Inside, light pours in through coloured panels while vast picture windows cleverly frame and nod to the city beyond. The building’s expansive polished concrete and wood, balconies, and mezzanines offer tantalising internal vistas too. Artworks have been carefully chosen and placed, whether temporary exhibition or permanent collection. Some of them are bespoke for the space, such as the otherworldly giant mural Angel, created by Luc Tuymans to mark the building’s 10th anniversary. Others are interactive, inviting visitors to join in with music-making.
Guided tours are available, and tailored when children are along, taking visitors behind the scenes into the technical corridors and giving glimpses into rehearsals. You’ll learn gems about how the building is proofed against vibrations from the carpark below, or how the space gives performers realistic concert feedback even without an audience. Book ahead.
3. Burgundian heyday
Around the city, churches, art and landmarks tell the story of Bruges when it was a hub for music sharing back in the Middle Ages. On a guided tour with musicologist Marie Paule Wouters, I learned how cloth trade riches and the glamour of the nobility meant constant event work in Bruges for travelling musicians, minstrels and entertainers. As a result, performers from all over Europe gathered there.
One of the buildings that housed them and where they would have passed along songs and tunes through the oral tradition is the Speelmanskapel (Players’ or Minstrels Guild Chapel), which can still be found along a little-taken walk to the romantic Sleutelbrug bridge, not far from Concertgebouw. At nearby St James Church (Sint-Jakobskerk), famed 15th century songmaster Jacob Obrecht wrote his ‘missa’ for Santa Donation, influencing the city’s reputation for polyphonic choral singing. Why not check out the city’s programme of cathedral concerts while you’re there.
Prior to the advent of Concertgebouw, the city’s main performance venue was the Italianate Koninklijke Stadsschouwburg Brugge (Bruges Royal Municipal Theatre). Ironically, a working-class neighbourhood that would have been full of jobbing musicians was demolished to create this mid-nineteenth-century cultural statement, putting Bruges back on the map after the devastation of more than two centuries of religious wars. Its plush red and gold auditorium still welcomes contemporary dance and theatre.
4. Where to eat and stay
And bringing it full circle, try this new award-winning bistro near Bruges’s oldest bridge, representing “a beautiful syntheses of our Flemish cuisine, where terroir and traditions are given a contemporary look” to round off your time in a city with music in its bones.