Walking around the almost perfectly preserved city of Bruges (Brugge) is like taking a step back in time. From its 13th-century origins as a cloth-manufacturing town to its current incarnation as a tourism mecca, Bruges seems to have changed little. As in a fairy tale, swans glide down the winding canals and the stone houses look like they're made of gingerbread. Even though glass-fronted stores have taken over the ground floors of ancient buildings, and the swans scatter before tour boats chugging along the canals, Bruges has made the transition from medieval to modern with remarkable grace. The town seems revitalized rather than crushed by the tremendous influx of tourists.
In the Middle Ages, Bruges was among the wealthiest cities of Europe. Unlike so many European cities that have had their hearts torn out by war, Bruges has remained unravaged, its glorious monumental buildings intact. UNESCO has recognized the cultural importance of the historic center by awarding it World Heritage status. The city (pop. 115,000, of whom 25,000 live in the old center) is the capital town of West-Vlaanderen (West Flanders) province and the pride and joy of all Flanders. Around four million visitors a year agree that it's the place to see.
Medieval Gothic architecture is the big deal here. Sure, there's a layer of Romanesque; a touch of Renaissance, baroque, and rococo; a dab of neoclassical and neo-Gothic; and a smidgen of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. But Gothic is what Bruges provides, in quantities that come near to numbing the senses -- and likely would do so if it weren't for the distraction of the city's contemporary animation.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Bruges is the consistently warm welcome its residents provide to the swarms of visitors. The basis for this is more than mere economics -- those who live in Bruges love their city and can well appreciate that others want to experience it.