Western Europe #06 - Amiens & Bruges
Western Europe #06, Amiens & Bruges
This is part 5 of a trip we took through Northwestern Europe in August of 2018. See bottom of this article for links to other parts of this trip and for articles for other trips.
Full Trip Map
Map for this trip segment (Giverny to Bruges)
Heading north out of Giverny and stopping in Beauvais (both discussed in previous installment), we left the Seine River valley and crossed over to the Somme River valley and the city of Amiens. Amiens is the capital of the Somme department in Hauts-de-France with a population of 136,105 (2006) making it a full-fledged city and much larger than most of the towns and villages in the last chapter. It houses one of the biggest university hospitals in France with a capacity of 1,200 beds and the Cathedral is the tallest of the large classic Gothic churches of the 13th century and the largest in France of its kind.
From a tourist perspective it has an important historical and cultural heritage, there is yet another “Notre Dame” cathedral, the hortillonnages (floating gardens), Jules Verne House, the Musée de Picardie, the zoo, and the quarters of Saint-Leu and Saint-Maurice. During December, the town hosts the largest Christmas market in northern France. Of course we didn’t visit all of these attractions – including the Christmas market since it was August - but we saw a couple of day’s worth sticking to areas we could walk to from our hotel, Our hotel was literally 50 yards from the Cathedral and well within the pedestrian only zone of the city and quite convenient.
Where we wandered in Amiens
Historically, the town saw a fair amount of fighting during both World Wars and suffered much damage as it changed sides several times. The 1918 Battle of Amiens was the opening phase of the Hundred Days Offensive which led directly to the Armistice with Germany. Heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, the city was rebuilt according to Pierre Dufau's plans however with wider streets to ease traffic congestion.
The author Jules Verne lived in Amiens from 1871 until his death in 1905, and served on the city council for 15 years. The house he lived in from 1882 to 1900 is now a 4 floor museum. While living here he wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and, Around the World in Eighty Days among others. The museum contains over 700 items and documents from his life and writings. This includes many movie posters and even some artifacts from movie sets used to produce films of his novels. The museum is nicely done and not too cluttered. It is meant more to show how people in his class lived in that period rather than having display cases filled with random artifacts.
Back spiral stairs in Jules Vern’s house
But no matter how you slice it the centerpiece of the town is the Notre Dame of Amiens Cathedral. According to the brochure it is the largest church in France with outstanding harmony in its architecture which was a result of it being rapidly constructed over a period of a mere 50 years (1220 to 1270). In regards to cathedral building 50 years is pretty darn fast and fast enough that architectural styles didn’t change much during the construction as was the case for most medieval cathedrals. For example, look at the one in Rouen that took over 250 years to complete and which started out in the Early Gothic style and wound up including, High gothic, Late (Flamboyant) Gothic as well as Neo-Gothic styles.
Medieval cathedral builders were intent on maximizing the internal dimensions in order to reach for the heavens and bring in more light – not to mention prestige to the Bishop in charge. In that regard, the Amiens cathedral is the tallest complete cathedral in France with its stone-vaulted nave reaching an internal height of 138.8 ft. (42.30 meters) which was only surpassed by the incomplete Beauvais Cathedral. It also has the greatest interior volume of any French cathedral.
Although it has lost most of its original stained glass, the Amiens Cathedral is renowned for the quality and quantity of early 13th-century Gothic sculpture in the (main) west façade and the south transept portal, and a large quantity of polychrome sculpture from later periods inside the building.
Gothic stone sculpture on front façade of Amiens Cathedral
Stone vaulted interior of Amiens Cathedral
Like the cathedral in Rouen, this Cathedral also has a laser light show projected on its front façade in the evening. And, just like Rouen it rains during the show. The light show is not quite as elaborate as the one in Rouen, with less of a story and not quite as impressive graphics. So, if you can only see one, see the one in Rouen. But, if your schedule permits see them both as they are both quite spectacular.
Laser projected “drapery” on Amiens Cathedral
Projecting the inside of the Cathedral on its outside, Amiens Cathedral
Highlighting the edges
Painted in color
Main entry arch painted in laser light
The back streets of Amiens are very nice to stroll around. Maybe not as “touristy” as other more popular towns, and at places perhaps a bit gritty but quite a bit more real. This is where people live and work without being much concerned about impressing foreign tourists. And that is a nice change from places like Rouen, Mont St. Michael, and Giverny. As in most places some owners take more pride in their building than others and this is evident in abundance. Some well kept and clean, some ready to fall into a heap in the street. In addition to various levels of upkeep, you’ll also see a wide variety of architecture from half-timber medieval styles all the way to ultra modern structures.
Back streets of Amiens
Back streets of Amiens in the rain
From Amiens, we continued heading north, out of France and into Belgium for a couple of nights in Bruges before heading on up to Amsterdam. On the way we passed through (but didn’t stop at) Calais which is where the French end of the “Chunnel” to England is, and Dunkirk of World War II fame. After crossing over into Belgium, and as we neared Bruges on the Motorway, we were a bit low on gas -- excuse me, petrol -- so pulled into one of those service centers on the highway just as we had on numerous occasions in France on this trip. But for some reason the card reader at the pumps wouldn’t take any of our 4 US credit cards. So I went inside to pay there but the line was quite long and decided to just forget it and we’d get gas on the way out of Bruges a couple of days later. We just figured that the highway service center was being extra cautious due to the transient nature of customers who would be in another country in an hour and hard to track down if there were an issue with a foreign credit card. So, on we went into Bruges with our trusty GPS showing the way.
If you’ve been following along with us on these travel logs you will know that we’ve been in several medieval cities and towns with their narrow streets going off at weird angles. But, I have to tell you that in terms of the difficulty of getting from point A to point B in Bruges in a car was in a whole different class. What with one way streets, streets changing their name every block, very few streets meeting a right angles, and loads of pedestrians to avoid it was quite a challenge. I think we actually wound up circling the hotel at least once as we zeroed in on its actual location. This wasn’t because we missed any turns, it is just with canals, one way bridges and streets it was how you go to get there.
But, eventually we arrived and checked in. We picked this hotel as it was centrally located (walking distance from the main attractions) and had parking available for a fee – which we gladly signed up and paid for. So, after dropping off our luggage in our room overlooking the hotels courtyard, I got a map from the receptionist on how to get to the parking lot which was 1.5 blocks away. I didn’t get an actual address that I could plug into the GPS though, which would have made things a lot easier. So, back out into the maze of streets. Once again, one-way streets and other impediments prevented us from taking a direct route the 1.5 blocks to the garage. Rather the mapped directions sheet traversed a 15 or so block route to arrive at the garage. And, this was not even including a few wrong turns along the way. But arrive we did. The parking was below some sort of building with an elevator for the car. After leaving the car, we had to walk 1.5 blocks back to the hotel. The only problem was that we were somewhat turned around and had to think a bit to deduce which way the hotel was. The hand drawn map was of no help as it didn’t indicate where the hotel was in regard to the parking. But, we guessed to turn right – which also turned out to be correct and eventually found our way back to the hotel.
Where we wandered in Bruges (driving to/from hotel, bus tour, canal tour and walking
Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium, in the northwest area of the country. It is a significantly large city with an area of more than 53 sq. miles. The city itself extends 8 miles to the coast from the central area. The historic city center is a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city's total population is 117,073 (January 2008) of whom around 20,000 live in the city center. If you include the suburbs you have 238 sq. miles and a population of 255,844 people.
Along with a few other canal-based northern cities such as Amsterdam, it is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North. The central historic district is almost entirely encircled by canals almost like a giant moat - which perhaps it was at one time.
Bruges was a location of coastal settlement during prehistory but this Bronze and Iron Age settlement is unrelated to the traditional medieval city development we’ve been seeing throughout Northern France. In the Bruges area, the first fortifications were built after Julius Caesar's conquest of the Menapii in the first century BC to protect the coastal area against pirates. The Franks took over the whole region from the Gallo-Romans around the 4th century but then those pesky Vikings came along in the ninth century causing the need for better fortifications.
Bruges became important due to a tidal inlet - known as the "Golden Inlet". This inlet was quite important for local commerce. The canals were built around 1089 and Bruges received its city charter in 1128. Since about 1050 (even before the canals were dug), gradual silting of the inlet caused the city to lose its direct access to the sea which was a real bummer for the merchant trade. But, fate stepped in and a storm in 1134 re-established access to the sea through the creation of a new natural channel. That must have been one hell of a storm. But what gets given, gets taken and starting around 1500, the channel (the Golden Inlet) started silting up which ended the Golden Era of trade. The city soon fell behind Antwerp as the economic flagship of the Low Countries.
During the 17th century, the lace industry took off, and various efforts to bring back the glorious past were made. During the 1650s, the city was the base for Charles II of England and his court in exile. The maritime infrastructure was modernized, and new connections with the sea were built, but without much success as Antwerp had already established dominance. Bruges became impoverished and gradually faded in importance; its population dwindling from 200,000 to 50,000 by 1900. But, by the last half of the 19th century a new industry was entering the world scene and Bruges became one of the world's first tourist destinations attracting wealthy British and French tourists. Seeing this coming, by 1909 it had established an association called 'Bruges Forward: Society to Improve Tourism’ and the city started to come back.
But this too was short lived due to WW-I when the Germans occupied the city. Fortunately though Bruges suffered virtually no damage and was liberated by the allies in October 1918. But in 1940 the city again was occupied by the Germans and again with little fighting and unlike many other European cities it was spared destruction. It was again liberated in September 1944, this time by Canadian troops.
After 1965, the original medieval city experienced a "renaissance". Restorations of residential and commercial structures, historic monuments, and churches generated a surge in tourism and economic activity in the ancient downtown area. International tourism boomed and new efforts resulted in Bruges being designated 'European Capital of Culture' in 2002. It attracts some eight million tourists annually – and we were 2 of them.
Bruges has a pretty large central tourist area which is anchored by Market Square (or Central Plaza). This large open space has the “Belfry of Bruges” on one side, City buildings including a lovely museum on another and the rest consisting of side by side cafes that spill out into the square. Horse drawn carriages clip-clop through the square intermingled with hop on, hop off tourist busses, taxi cabs, and walking tour groups of every description. And, there are always tourists milling about, sitting on benches, having bag lunches along the low concrete walls or just walking through.
But by no uncertain terms, Market Square as well as the entire historic area is dominated by the Belfry Tower (Bruges Belfry). The Belfry of Bruges is a medieval bell tower and the city's most prominent symbol visible from pretty much anywhere in the large historic district. This was quite convenient as it is an easy landmark to navigate ones meandering by (as long as you don’t confuse it with the steeple of the Cathedral). The building containing the tower formerly housed a treasury and the municipal archives, with the tower serving as an observation post for spotting fires and other danger. A narrow, steep staircase of 366 steps (for a small fee) leads to the top of the 272 foot (83 meter) building. And, not to be outdone by Pisa Italy, this tower leans a bit over 34 inches (87 cm) to the east. To the sides and back of the tower stands the rectangular former market hall.
Bruges Central Square (Market Square)
The Bruges Belfry
Radiating out from this square in all directions are streets lined with every imaginable type of shop with each street seeming to specialize in one thing or another. For example, Wollestraat, which leaves the square from its Southeast corner and heads south is lined with shops selling that famous Belgium Chocolate. It takes a strong will to walk those 3 blocks to the canal without stopping to indulge. If you decide to buy chocolates to give as gifts back home, have it shipped as there is unlikely to be any left at the end of your trip if you just put it in your luggage.
Belgium Chocolate Shop
Chocolate comes in all sorts of flavors, sizes and forms
On our journey, we were in Bruges for 3 days and on our arrival day, after checking into the hotel, went down to Market Square and caught the last hop-on hop-off buss of the day to get the layout of the city. This turned out to be a very good idea on our part as we had no idea there were so many different sections of town in the old city to see and gave us a wonderful idea of the places we wanted to go back to on our own. Not only were there areas of town that looked quite interesting, we also spied where the canal tour boats left from and noted that of the 3 terminals we observed, the line was significantly shorter at one which was two blocks away from the main tourist street (the street with the chocolate shops).
Bruges was built around a network of these canals that connected the city to the sea, with barges forming the commercial transport system not only for world trade, but also within the city itself. As many of these canals are still present we decided to take a canal tour. We checked and found that all the companies which run such tours pretty much go the same places and we also found out what time the first boats departed. So, to avoid long lines we made plans to be there when they opened which, as I recall, was 10:00 am. And, we went to the launch point that was a bit more out of the way and as such had shorter lines.
The view of Bruges from the water is quite a bit different than when walking the streets. This is due to two factors. First is that many of the buildings were built facing the canal as that was how people and goods came and went on a daily basis – so the original front façade faces the canal, not the street on the other side of the building. And second, buildings right on the canals tended to be the older and more charming structures. It also turns out that Bruges has over 80 stone bridges arching over the canals which are quite picturesque.
Bruges Canal and Belfry (Note line for tour boat at far left of image. Dock is on other side of bridge)
One of over 80 stone arch bridges over Bruges canals
Many buildings more interesting from the canal side rather than the street side
Groenerei street is said to be one of the prettiest streets in Bruges. I vaguely recall one of the tour guides saying that these building used to house the tin smiths and other fine metal workers
Tea room of old mansion. Now part of a hotel
Waiting for our canal tour
They just don’t build things with character like these two old houses anymore
And, a bit of the past as our tour boat motored by
Even though the canals formed the vascular system for old Bruges, many streets weave their way through the old section of town as well. Most are not perpendicular to each other and most also change their name every couple of blocks. This makes it especially challenging trying to find your way around using a map. But if you keep track of your location with your thumb as you wander, you can usually figure out where you are and which way to go to get to whatever it was you were looking for. Or, more importantly, which way to go to get back to your hotel. That Belfry tower sure came in handy from time to time in the latter case.
Each street has a story to tell. Some were where fine fabrics or clothing were made, others were pottery oriented and some were for the literary. Pretty much every trade and craft had a street or two where the stores, shops, and factories plying that trade would be clustered together. Unfortunately, not too many descriptive signs were to be found as we walked around and I can’t recall from the bus or canal boat narration which streets were which. I guess we’ll just have to go back and pay more attention.
While most of the back streets are classic old time architecture, every now and again something modern shows up in the most unexpected places – jarring the senses. Why in the world would someone build an ultra modern house on a street that is in an entirely different style? Don’t they look at where they are building? It really does lend an air of ugliness to otherwise lovely streets. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against ultra modern architecture but not when it is totally out of character with everything around it.
Which building doesn’t fit?
As is the case with many cities around the world, when you wander around the endemic architecture and construction is the predominant aspect of what you see. But, it is also a wonderful pastime to look for the little details that form punctuation marks on the overall look of a city and add a bit of flare or character. I love looking for these gems hiding in plain sight.
Three cats in a window
Modern statue on corner of a building
Bright red letter box blockaded by bicycles
Whale made of plastic garbage fished out of the canals and sea
Reflection of outdoor café surrounded by bicycles reflected in the window of a dentist office
Green seat on red bike in front of yellow house
Ornate entrance to the Basilica of the Holy Blood (next to City Hall)
Typical back street in Bruges
Along the back streets of Bruges
After Bruges, we headed out again for our next stop, Amsterdam. And seeing as we had been unsuccessful buying gas on our way into Bruges at those highway service centers a few days earlier we were on the lookout for gas stations on our way out. Our credit cards had all worked in Bruges for meals, bus and boat tours, to pay the hotel, snacks in convenience stores and for gifts so maybe there was just some computer glitch at the gas station before. And, no problem even if our card didn’t work as we could just pay cash. The entrance to the main highway was several miles from central Bruges through the suburbs on city streets so there would be plenty of gas stations. And there were.
We pulled into the first one and discovered that our cards again would not work. And, the store part of the station was closed. Turns out it was Ascension Day. Ascension Day is a national holiday in Belgium when all the shops and stores are closed. Okay, we’ll just go to the next station. Once again, cards didn’t work at the self serve pump and the store was closed. You can’t pay with cash if no one is there to take the money and there was no way we could make it to the next country (the Netherlands) on our remaining gas so things were starting to get a bit serious. Other patrons we found at these stations from countries like France, Italy, and Germany didn’t seem to have any issue with their credit cards, but another couple we encountered from the US was having the same issue we were. It seems that all the gas stations in Belgium require a Chip-and-Pin card rather than the Chip-and-Signature cards issued in the US.
So, on we went. Well, luck was with us. On our fifth gas station attempt, the owner of the station had needed to come down to the station to get some paper work and had decided to open the store for an hour or two before leaving for the festivities of the day. He was just locking up when we arrived. His English wasn’t too good, but through his mangled English and my non existent French made do. I beckoned him over and showed him my card and pointed to the card reader shrugging my shoulders. He gave me that “dumb tourists” look and proceeded to demonstrated how to use a card reader. But, guess what, it didn’t work for him either. So, I handed him card 2. Then card 3. Then card 4 all with the same result. I then pulled out a bunch of Euros and pointed to it and he got the idea, reopened the store and we got our gas. Ahhhh, the joys of international travel. Once we got into the Netherlands our cards worked in gas stations once again.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the Amiens and Bruges leg of our NW Europe trip, Please check out my other travel blogs under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/n-europe-trip-all (all images)
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
Keywords: Amiens, Amiens France, Belgium, Blog, Bruges, Bruges Belgium, Dan Hartford Photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogNW-Europe, France, Northern France, Western Europe, Western France
Karen J Roe(non-registered)
Bruges is one of the few places in Europe I've been. Did you watch the movie "In Bruges"? It's a nice way to see the city again vicariously. Great photos and story.
Hey Dan. Loved our trip to Bruges some years ago, and your commentary. Unfortunately, most of the accompanying photos would not open for me, or only partially. Likely to be the fault of my computer, but thought you might want to know
Great fun to see Bruges again! We took the train there from Brussels or Ghent years ago and stayed in a small hotel. The architecture is such a treat, and our canal boat ride was similarly wonderful. There was a pub at the end of my street with great local beer and terrific pub food.....began to wish I could stay! We climbed those stairs in the castle....knees hurt by the time I was done. Thanks for the memories and the great shots.
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