Beautiful Bruges and 6 surprising facts about potatoes I bet you didn’t know!

“If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t so it doesn’t.” Despite this quote from the movie “In Bruges”, the city is a huge attraction for tourists who every year come in ever greater numbers. I didn’t remember it as being exceptionally busy when I first visited in 2005, but now that I think of it, it was january and it was snowing. Nowadays, even in march it is packed with tourists. We went on a week-end and had to spent the 1h train ride standing up because the train was full!


Once there, you realize that like in Brussels, every other store is a chocolate store, the architecture is magnificent, but since the centre of the city is very small, bicycles are everywhere, unlike in the capital.


The Markt, or Market Square, with the 13th century Belfry, the most famous sight in the city. We had the energy to climb the 366 steps (fries fuelled energy), but not the patience to wait in line, so we skipped.


The other side of the Markt, lined with mostly tourist trap restaurants.


The Belfry tower.


And the inside.


Notwithstanding the grandiose buildings, little architectural details of interest are everywhere in Bruges, both in ornate important buildings.


And on little shops. Look at the painting over the door and the little statue in an alcove above it.


As much as it is nice to visit, I would hate to live there, running into pedestrian traffic jams 9-10 months out of the year as you try to make your way to the bakery on a Saturday morning.


We stumbled on this strange line-up in the middle of nowhere, with no gate, sign, or anything else indicating what the line was for. I thought of jumping in, like people did in the worst days of the Soviet Union, or today’s Venezuela, thinking if people are lined up, there must be something for sale, possibly something rare, like toilet paper. But in the end a horse carriage showed up and picked the first four in the line for a ride around town.


People were also lined-up in large numbers waiting for boat tours.


Sometimes nicknamed the Venice of the North (like Amsterdam), parts of the city can only be seen by boat, as some canals don’t have streets or sidewalks next to them. But like at the Belfry, we had no patience for line-ups. I can only imagine the horror in August.


One of the many attractions in Bruges is the Groeningemuseum. It houses a collection of Flemish masters spanning 6 centuries, like this early 16th century painting, “Death and the Miser”, by Jan Provoost.


And this 1885 painting by Edmond Van Hove, depicting Galileo Galilei attempting to convince Santa Claus that the Earth revolves around the Sun. While his theory only managed to get him jailed for life, in the end his arguments proved convincing and the Catholic Church recognized that the Sun does not in fact turn around the Earth, in 1992! Yes, one-nine-nine-two! 22 years ago.


And on the topic of religion, here is something I cannot explain. I am hardly a biblical expert, but as far as I know, the parents of Jesus were of rather modest means. What would possess an artist to depict the birth of Mary as happening in a golden bed surrounded by richly clad aristocratic women in early Renaissance fashion?


Museum tickets included admission to a small adjacent museum. Perhaps you are looking for the sign that reads “Paintings currently on loan”, but no, those are the paintings. This tryptic by Dan Van Severen is a beautiful example of neo-feminist Afro-Japanese dadaism, communicating with passion the paradigm of class warfare in a post desublimation deconstructionist context. So obvious it’s almost vulgar.


Bruges is home to what is probably the world’s only Fries Museum. There is a restaurant in the basement and you will never guess what we ate.

Now: 6 surprising things you probably didn’t know about potatoes:


1 – Antoine Augustin Parmentier popularized potatoes in France by making people think they were valuable. In his day, cultivating potatoes was actually illegal. He managed to reverse this law, but the humble potato remained unpopular, seen as feed for pigs. Parmentier planted new varieties of potatoes in Paris and had armed guards keep watch over the fields, which created fascination and jealousy in local people. At night, the guards went to bed and people would steal the potatoes, eat them and plant them in their own gardens. The effect was apparently enormous, although their great usefulness in times of famine may also have played a role. (PS: the book is by Labat, not Parmentier)

2 – Potatoes were thought of as the fruit of the Devil. The medieval world was divided in a very strict hierarchy of all things, ranging from God to dirt (hence the expression “lower than dirt”). More specifically, the scala naturae went like this:

1. God

2. Angels

3. Humans

4. Animals

5. Plants

6. Minerals

All of these “levels” were also subdivided (except God). So humans went King-Lords-peasants (then peasant man, peasant woman, peasant boys, peasant girls). Animals went eagle to cockroach, and then to the lowest of all (from the Genesis), the snake. Plants went from the oak to underground things, the lowest of the low, the realm of the Devil. So potatoes were thought to cause all sort of diseases and encourage sin. Here is what British surgeon John Gerard wrote about potatoes in his 1597 “The Herbal or General History of Plants”: “I planted some in my garden, they are nourishing and fortifying and provoke debauchery”.


3 – Early potatoes were not comestible. As it turns out, early variety of potatoes growing in South America were too alkaline to be eaten. By chance (and probably after a few days of very unsuccessful hunting), the inhabitants of modern day Peru discovered that if you abandon them in the sun and they undergo a cycle of frost and thaw, the alkalinity is lowered and they become suitable for human consumption. They eventually came up with varieties edible straight from the ground. Today there are an incredible 5,000 documented varieties of potatoes.


4 – Fries were invented because the ice was too thick. People along the Meuse river used to harvest tiny little fish in winter and fry them whole before eating them. One very cold winter, the river froze and fishing became impossible. Apparently, someone had the idea to cut potatoes down to the size of small fish and fry them. As a result, his friends were impressed and every year, many thousands of North Americans die of heart attacks and complications from type II diabetes. This is the most accepted theory on the invention of fries, although it is not properly documented or supported.


5 – If something sounds like a bad idea, it probably is. Fries and vending machines don’t go along at all. Michelle and I saw one in a New Zealand campground last year. It produced disgusting lukewarm soggy oven cooked “fries”. The Belgians would have none of that, so someone built a actual frying dispenser. It broke often, stank and was also an overall bad idea.


6 – Making fries can earn you honours (as well as minimum wage). In Belgium, years of frying can make you a Knight of the National Order of the Golden Cornet! Higher levels are available to those with exceptional contributions to the industry.


7 thoughts on “Beautiful Bruges and 6 surprising facts about potatoes I bet you didn’t know!

  1. Vive la débauche ! Vive les frites ! Et comme on dit dans ton Acadie maternelle, lâche pas la patate.

  2. Pingback: Blog du Voyage — Six trucs que vous ne savez pas sur la frite (et que faire à Bruges)

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