‘Splat!’ said our taxi driver, chuckling and pointing out Bruges’s great landmark bell tower in the distance. ‘That’s where he fell. Remember?’ He craned round to smile at me. Embarrassed that my history was letting me down, I was struggling to remember which rebellious medieval princeling or meddling priest had fallen or been pushed to his death. Actually, our driver was talking about Ken, Brendan Gleeson’s character in In Bruges, a movie that has done more for this city’s tourist industry than all its history, monuments and museums put together.
The plot involves a vicious thug, Harry, played with relish by Ralph Fiennes, who sends Ray (Colin Farrell) to Bruges to enjoy a final holiday before being executed by Ken. At one point Ken tells Harry on the telephone that Ray is not enjoying Bruges. Harry explodes: ‘How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches and all that beautiful f—–ing fairytale stuff not be someone’s f—–ing thing?’ Dare I admit it — I’m with Ray on this one.
It’s not that Bruges isn’t beautiful. It’s exquisite, with all its misty views of canals and Vermeer-like glimpses of cobbled streets that still echo with the sound of horses’ hooves (among tourists, the horse and cart ride is as obligatory here as a gondola ride in Venice). But for all its neo-Gothic charm and smattering of significant historical monuments, this town is so busy milking the international hordes that it’s hard to find anything to do that doesn’t make you feel as if you’re just responding to cynical marketing.
Everything — even the humble chip — has become an ‘attraction’. Culture snob that I am, I gave the museum dedicated to frites a wide berth but succumbed to the Chocolate Museum for the children’s sake. After rooms full of dull information about cocoa beans and displays of chocolate cups and jugs, the visit was almost worthwhile for a gloriously kitsch, lifesize chocolate statue of Barack Obama, wearing a grimace that made him look like a black and white minstrel who’d just been electrocuted. On the upside, we were treated to a display of chocolate-making, and allowed to taste one of the products on the way out. This was a step up from the Half Man Brewery, where the tour sold out before the shuffling crowd of eager tourists were informed that none of the machinery was in action that day.
Bruges has several museums, but many of their exhibits are unimaginatively staged and reminded me of being dragged round the Commonwealth Institute as a teenager. But I loved the Groeningemuseum, which houses the city’s collection of Flemish primitives, including Van Eyck’s ‘Madonna with Canon George van der Paele’. I would go to Bruges again just in order to see this painting — the sheer bravura of the paintwork that makes the carpet, the thick red drapery around the virgin and the bishop’s brocade leap out of the canvas. ‘It’s like 3D or a photograph,’ said my 11-year-old stepdaughter.
Yet after three days of trawling between the Markt Platz and our canalside hotel, past the tourist shops that failed to tempt me with lace and chocolates and then more chocolates, I felt jaded. We Brits are perpetually complaining about globalisation and change, as if the appearance of a Starbucks or a McDonald’s threatens the very fabric of civilisation. Yet here I found I was longing to see evidence of the hustle and bustle of city life or the hint of a rotten underbelly. In the 16th century, the River Zwin silted up, cutting Bruges off from the sea. It’s probably what saved its beauty, but it ruined its international trade and stopped it becoming an economic power. The trouble with being in Bruges is that after a while it starts to feel like you’re in a giant historical tableau, preserved in aspic, and ultimately lacking life.