Bruges is noted for its canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings. Its port, Zeebrugge, is an important center for fishing and European trade. In the city center’s Burg square, the 14th century Stadhuis, or City Hall, has an ornate carved ceiling. Nearby, Markt square features a 13th century belfry with a 47 bell carillon and 83 meter tower with a breathtaking, panoramic views. The area of the whole city is more than 13,840 hectares, including 1,075 hectares off the coast, at Zeebrugge.
The historic city centre is a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is oval and about 430 hectares in size. The city’s population is approximately 120,000, with 20,000 of those living in the city centre.
Along with canal based Amsterdam and Stockholm, Bruges is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North”.
Bruges has a significant economic importance thanks to its port. The city was once one of the world’s chief commercial cities and the a location of a coastal settlement during prehistory. The original Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement on the site is unrelated to the development of the medieval city. In the Bruges area, the first fortifications to protect the coastal area against pirates were built after Julius Caesar’s conquest of the Menapii in the 1st century BC. The Franks took over the region from the Gallo-Romans around the 4th century and administered it as the Pagus Flandrensis. The Viking incursions of the 9th century prompted Count Baldwin I of Flanders to reinforce the Roman fortifications, after which trade resumed with England and Scandinavia. Medieval habitation started in the 9th and 10th centuries, probably with a fortified settlement and church.
In the early 1500, the Zwin channel (Golden Inlet), which had being the engine of the city’s prosperity started silting up. The city soon fell behind Antwerp as the economic center of the Low Countries.
In the 1650s Charles II of England based his court in exile in Bruges. The maritime infrastructure was modernized and new connections with the sea were built. Unfortunately the effort yielded little success and Antwerp became increasingly dominant. Bruges became impoverished and declined in importance. As a result, the city’s population dwindled from 200,000 to 50,000 by 1900.
In World War I German forces occupied Bruges but the city suffered virtually no damage and was liberated on 19 October 1918 by the allies. During the occupation, Zeebrugge, built in 1907, had been used by the Germans for their U-boats.
In 1940, during World War II, the city was again occupied by the Germans and again spared destruction. On 12 September 1944 Bruges was liberated by Canadian troops.
Today Bruges is well known as the seat of the College of Europe, an elite university institute for European studies regarded as “the EU’s very own Oxbridge. However, greatly expanded in the 1970s and early 1980s Bruges has also become one of Europe’s most important and modern port facilities.
Since 1965 the original medieval city experienced a renaissance, with restorations of residential and commercial structures, historic monuments, and churches. This revival was generated by a surge in tourism. International tourism has boomed, and Bruges earned the designation, ‘European Capital of Culture’, in 2002. Currently Bruges attracts some 2 million tourists annually.
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