It’s called the Venice of the north and with good reason.
The charming canals and medieval buildings are a magnet for couples looking for a romantic backdrop to their Valentine’s Day.
Most recent figures show 8.3 million people visit Bruges from all corners of the world and there’s nothing like a canal tour to understand why.
It’s still chilly, the perfect opportunity to cuddle up as the boat cuts through the glassy water in the morning mist.
Boat rides are a tourist’s favourite and now visitors have one more reason to enjoy the experience.
In mid-January, the city introduced the first electric boat as part of a plan to fully replace the existing 20-strong fleet of diesel models.
Pierins Philip is Bruges’ Alderman for Tourism. He says the city first attempted the switch to electric engines ten years ago but plans were put on hold due to technical and safety issues.
Now thanks to engineering advancements, city officials have finally given the green light to a water transport overhaul.
“Now technology has changed and we have the first very good electrical boat now here on the canals that we are using. Every two months another boat will be replaced by an electric boat. So we need three years further (and) all the boats are going to be electric,” Philip explains.
The electric boats are powered by lithium super B batteries and cost 280,000 euros (305,000 dollars) each.
Five companies operate canal tours in Bruges, each owning four vehicles. The Gruuthuse company was the first to go electric.
Pierre Pesch is the driver of Gruuthuse’s electric boat.
“There are no exhausts here of course, it’s completely, I mean neutral, isn’t it? But of course these boats are much quieter compared to the diesel engines, of course those drab diesel engines. Times are changing, aren’t they? So are we,” he says.
Twenty-first century pressures including climate change are driving change in this Medieval city, as it tries to maintain its picture-perfect, historical looks which have won its plaudit as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The city’s agenda is to back bicycles, electric boats and limit the numbers of tourists who take quick stop offs from cruise ships.
Bruges mayor, Dirk De Fauw, says cars are still allowed in the city although disincentives like hefty parking fees are keeping away many drivers.
“Bruges is a bicycle city; nearly 90 percent of the persons are owner of one or more bicycles,” he says.
“More than 40 until 50 percent of the transport between house and school and between the house and the working place is people use the bicycle. We want to have more bicycles in the city and less cars in the city.”
Trucks and tour buses are already banned from the historical centre; the latter can only briefly stop in front of hotels to drop off tourists.
The construction of underground parking is planned, aiming to attract drivers from nearby France or the UK.
The city also plans to eventually replace public buses with electric models, although officials caution that this will depend on financial support from the local government.
The implementation of eco-friendly solutions in Bruges will take years but Dutch tourist Hago van den Berg is already giving the plan the thumbs up.
“Perfect. I think now with all the environment you have to have electric boats, cars, more in the city.”
For Elsa van den Berg, Hago’s wife, what matters most is that Bruges is providing the perfect backdrop to the couple’s much-needed romantic break.
“We’re here because we wanted to go out for a weekend together. We have a little daughter of about two years old and it was time that we had some time for each other”, Elsa van den Berg says.
Successful trading here enabled Bruges to become an important commercial and art centre during Medieval times.
In the 15th century, it was one of Europe’s richest cities and home to Flemish masters such as Jan Van Eyck.
Tourism officials say the city is already booked up for Valentine’s Day.
City official Annick Vandamme recommends the city’s chocolatiers.
Two years ago the city launched a fair-trade chocolate bar – Sjokla – produced by local chocolate-makers with a blend of cocoa beans from producers in Cameroon as well as other places.
Sjokla, which means chocolate in the local dialect, is sold at dozens of shops throughout the city.
“We are very proud of it. We do this because chocolate is kind of the DNA in Bruges. We have more than 60 chocolate shops in Bruges and we find it very important to keep the quality high but also respect the local craftsmanship of people who are working in the chocolate industry,” Vandamme says.
You can’t pass many of the quaint shops without seeing heart-shaped and romantic offerings for Valentine’s Day.
Here the Grand Café offers just locally sourced produce.
Eco-conscious couples can enjoy their Valentine dinner knowing that many restaurants here are striving for sustainability.