How many visitors to this fascinating city are really aware that most of the buildings around Markt, the city's 'medieval' main square, date from the 1920s and 1930s, or that the statues filling the niches on the facade of the Stadhuis (Town Hall) first made their appearance in the 1960s? Even the city's most-photographed view ‑ of the buildings surrounding the stretch of water called the Rozenhoedkaai ‑ a view that appears on thousands of postcards, chocolate boxes and biscuit tins, owes more to architects working in the 1930s than to those of the 1330s. To say this is not to denigrate the city. On the contrary, it is to highlight a much-neglected aspect of Bruges: the fact that the city is full of inspired late-19th century neo-Gothic and early 20th-centry Arts and Crafts buildings of outstanding quality.
The idea ‑ frequently promulgated ‑ that Bruges is a perfectly preserved medieval city does not stand up to scrutiny when you remember that most of the buildings depicted in early maps and views are of timber and thatch. City records show that this was true even as late as the 17th century when wooden facades were finally banned because they represented a fire hazard. Today, only the timber house at 7 Genthof (late 15th century) and 90 Vlamingstraat (early16th century) survive to remind us what the city looked like in its medieval heyday (though older structures do survive behind the later brick or stone facades of restored houses).
So the Bruges architectural style ‑ characterised by step-gabled buildings and brick facades with filigree arches ‑ actually dates from the post-medieval period ‑ from the 16th and 17th centuries ‑ rather than the 13th and 14th. How then did it survive to become the style of the 19th and 20th century as well? The answer has to do with a group of eccentric English antiquaries who were smitten by a taste for Flemish art and architecture.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Flanders was looted again and again by Revolutionary and Napoleonic troops. Houses and churches were robbed of furnishings, statuary, stained glass, paintings and tapestry work, which eventually ended up in the hands of Brussels and London-based dealers who sold it to wealthy English aristocrats for decorating their stately homes and parish churches.
Bruges was an important source of such material, and the city was used as a base for agents buying on behalf of English clients. The city also attracted Englishmen of a certain temperament – often high Anglican or liberal Catholic. This sizeable English community (which remained until the outbreak of the First World War) formed common cause with local Bruges residents in the 19th century. Together they opposed the destruction of the city's architectural heritage and prevent large areas of Bruges being cleared to make way for the grand classical buildings that were favoured in Paris and Brussels at the time. Instead they championed architects and designers who dedicated themselves to understanding and developing the indigenous 'Bruges style', and in doing so they played an important part in the birth of the conservation movement.
It is to their credit that Bruges is such an endlessly satisfying city, with 19th and 20th century buildings stitched in with the medieval city so as to give the appearance of a seamless whole. Walking the streets ‑ especially in the south of the city ‑ you will come to recognise relatively recent buildings by their delightful recombination of medieval elements, executed with wit and style.
The best time to explore is dusk, when you can also peep through windows to see the lit interiors of neo-Gothic houses, with their ornate fireplaces, timber panelling and exposed and painted ceiling beams. Or visit the Gruuthusemuseum, one of the finest examples of the genre, restored in 1900 to accommodate the collections of the Bruges Antiquarian Society. One glimpse of the extraordinary mantelpiece in Room 1, with its battlemented walls, archers and trumpeters, will serve to show that the city's 19th century artists, architects and craftsmen, though dedicated to the past, did not lack a sense of humour.