On our last morning in Brugge, the sun finally made an appearance, and I had no particular agenda other than going for a wander and cramming as many frites in my mouth as humanly possible whilst still in Belgium. After a lengthy stroll through the Sunday antiques market (of which more later), my boyfriend and I decided to check out the Folklore Museum because it had a resident cat (as good a reason as any, and it was also significantly cheaper than the Historium (probably the only time you’ll ever see me declining to visit a museum with authentic smells) Side note within a side note, in Dutch, historian is historicus, which I think is awesome).
The Volkskundemuseum is a good fifteen minute walk along the canal from the main tourist area, in a residential part of town, so it’s a little tricky to find without the aid of a map. It is housed within a long row of 17th century cottages along one of the ankle-destroying cobblestone streets so commonplace in Brugge, and is part of the Musea Brugge group, so admission is free if you have a Brugge City Card. Otherwise, it is a reasonable 4 euros.
I think the term “folklore museum” is slightly misleading, as when I think of folklore, I picture trolls, or ogres, or Baba Yaga, you know, fairytale stuff, not handicrafts. Folk or Craft Museum would probably be a more apt description of the contents. The collection is divided up into about 20 rooms, each devoted to a different trade. The signs are all in Flemish, but there are free English guidebooks at the front desk that at least give an overview of what’s going on in each room.
We found the cat (he’s called Aristide after Aristide Bruant, singer of Le Chat Noir) fairly early on, as he kept wandering in and out of the first few rooms, and he permitted a small amount of petting before disappearing for good. The very first room was a schoolroom, and we progressed through trades including cobbler, cooper, and storekeeper. Every room had a waxen tradesman in it, and was set up to resemble the workspace or shop each man would have worked in. In addition, there were a few bonus objects in glass cases, including some religious artefacts, and a shoe collection.
According to our guidebooks, the final room of the first section was supposed to be a tobacconist, but instead contained a curious mishmash of carnival rides and games. As there was no English signage, I’m not entirely sure what happened there, but it did seem out of place next to the rest of the museum.
We then passed through a courtyard, and re-entered the museum through a working pub, Zwarte Katze (the Black Cat). Well, working in the sense that they sold drinks and food, but no alcohol. As the place was totally deserted when we there, it would have been awkward to stop and demand service. There was a room above the tavern done up like the publican’s family bedroom, with a rather impressive collection of chamberpots. I guess everyone must have had their own. Hygienic that way, at least.
Back downstairs, we stepped into the delightful premises of the local candymaker, and his fine collection of candy moulds. Sadly, there was no actual candy for sale, except back at the empty pub. Fortunately, I can do without boiled sweets when scrumptious Belgian chocolate beckons from every other shop back in town (and those gummi grapefruit slices I’m quite partial to. I don’t know why they don’t sell them in the UK).
The candymaker wasn’t the only one of my favourite tradesmen represented, as there was also an apothecary, armed with his splendid jars (and a comical mustache). Finally, the craftspeople were rounded out with a hatter and tailor, the latter of whom was listening to popular songs of the ’40s on his radio when we walked in. (I say “listening,” but obviously he was an inanimate wax figure. I’m not like that weirdo who gets it on with Kim Cattrall in that awful Mannequin film).
There was a final exhibition on lace held in an upstairs gallery, which I found rather engrossing, as it touched on working conditions in addition to the lace-making process, with a variety of bobbins, and of course, lacework on display. Of all the crafts represented in the museum, this was the only one that would have been traditionally done by women, often under unpleasant conditions.
The hallway leading towards the exit featured a sampling of traditional business signs, including an oversized cigar and glasses, and a strange carrot shaped object that I think was also used to advertise a cigar-maker (or was it a barber? I didn’t get a picture, and now I can’t remember). Anyway, the Volkskundemuseum offered an overview of a good cross-section of traditional Belgian trades (and mannequins!) but didn’t really provide more than something to look at, as the cat was the only interactive thing inside! I think it was ultimately a better way to pass an afternoon than fighting through crowds at the larger tourist attractions, as we had the place virtually to ourselves, but it would have been nice if it had gone beyond being a mere arrangement of life-size dioramas (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). 3/5
Now, I’d be remiss in ending this post without mentioning some of the highlights of Brugge, so here we go. As I mentioned at the start, Brugge hosts a massive antiques market on Sundays that encompasses most of the city, and a large park near the train station (good luck navigating your suitcases through!). Being Belgian, and therefore wonderfully quirky, this is no humdrum antiques market; instead, it is the finest collection of extraordinary crap I’ve ever seen! Above, we have a head that bears a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart hanging out next to a Christ Child and some random paintings. And if there’s another thing that I love that was to be found in even greater abundance than mannequin heads, it was terrible taxidermy. Yes, that is a gun-toting rabbit you see above, surrounded by other furry friends. You have no idea how badly I wanted to buy him, but my boyfriend claimed I wouldn’t allowed to take it through British Customs (I still have to check on that, because I am hightailing it back to this market to stock up on home decor if EU taxidermy is permissible. So there!)
Another amazingly strange feature of Belgium is the wide variety of vending machines available, which is kind of perfect for someone who dreads human interaction as much as I do. Below, we have bread and strawberry vending machines. I mean, really, can a country be any more perfect?
And finally, I’ll close this monster post by mentioning the frituur and gelateria that sustained me through much of my stay in Brugge (ok, actually I ate at them both every day I was there). Da Vinci gelato was amazing and creamy, and fairly inexpensive too, as Continental ice cream tends to be (stupid London prices), and ‘T Brugsch Friethuys delivered perfect crispy golden brown friten every time, (much better than the ones from the famous frituur stands in front of the church) served up by an adorable mustachioed old man, who told us to enjoy them with the sincerity that comes from taking pride in one’s craft. Both are on Geldmuntstraat, which is one of the roads coming off the main Market Square. So really, what are you waiting for? Get yourself to Brugge!