As you walk through the heritage city of Bruges, you’ll have plenty to admire. From fantastic architecture and history at every turn to the fantastic waterways and scores of cafes and restaurants to dine in. One thing you might notice is a magnetic family of swans gracing our canals. What’s so special about the swans of Bruges I hear you ask? Our local swans carry with them a legend involving riots, executions and stories passed from generation to generation.

The Legend of the swans in Bruges

Emperor Maximilian from Austria was not a popular man. After his wife died in 1482, he developed a hatred for the city of Bruges and imposed a law that prohibited all festivities, including the annual fair and other important festivals. He relied on his friend and advisor Pieter Lanchals to implement heavy taxes to pay for the wars he waged as head of the Habsburg family.

The people of Bruges, known for their feisty and determined ways, revolted. They began rioting across the city, burning houses, and killing supporters of Emperor Maximilian. This went on for over 6 years until the ruler visited the city once more and both he and his advisor were captured in 1488. They were imprisoned at the Craenenburg House (which can still be visited on the main square) and tortured. Maximilian was forced to watch as they beheaded his friend and trusted advisor Lanchals – also known as Long Neck.

Legend says, the emperor eventually escaped and took his revenge on the local people. As a tribute to his friend, he forced them to keep 101 white swans (long necks) on the water of Bruges for all eternity. If they failed to do so, Bruges would fall to ruin. Whether a work of fact or fiction, the townspeople and the city have honoured this curse since it was laid down.

Legend number two

Another popular story about the swans of Bruges involves captivity and imprisonment. The story says that in the 13th Century, a merchant locked up his daughter because she had refused to marry the man he had chosen for her. She was kept prisoner in the basement of her home. Notwithstanding, the damsel in distress was visited by two beautiful swans everyday who kept her company. Once she was released from her prison, the young woman was left a fortune and donated it to the city so they could continue to take care of the swans’ offspring for as long as possible.

The City Swans

In reality, the keeping of swans was seen as a symbol of wealth and prestige, something Bruges had in abundance owing to its merchant trading. To further emphasise its prosperity, the City procured the right to keep these magnificent mammals from the Count of Flanders. As far back as history has recorded, the City has put a lot of effort into the care and conservation of its canals, including the majestic swans. We make sure swan numbers never drop below one hundred and have named the official Bruges Chocolate Brugsch Swaentje (‘Bruges Swan’). After a recent outbreak of avian flu, a seasonal disease that also affects other species including horses and dogs, the swans were taken into protective custody. We take the care of our swans very seriously – just in case!

The Black Swan

The swans of Bruges have added a touch of elegance to the Reien for centuries but in 2014, a scandal broke out involving these majestic long-necked creatures. While traditionally swans are all white, a black swan appeared to join the flock, seemingly out of nowhere. Local groups, conservationists and even regional newspapers found themselves baffled; should they remove the rouge swan out of fears of safety and disease, or should it be allowed to stay peacefully? She became a local attraction with scores of people seeking out the odd swan. It reminded people of the legend of the Bruges Swans. Locals have embraced this origin story, going as far as to baptise their black visitor ‘Burilda Lanchals’.

The city attempted an unsuccessful capture of the mammal, and it appeared she had gone missing just over a month after the attempt and it is assumed she went on her way peacefully.

No one knows which, if either, of these stories are true but we are proud of the majestic swans in our waterways and do our best to keep them safe and happy. Visit the swans, and everything else our wonderful city has to offer when you book a stay in Green Park Hotel Brugge. Our location on the edge of the city is close enough to explore the best of Bruges’ attractions, conduct business or enjoy a family trip while allowing you a peaceful, quiet night’s sleep to regenerate. Book direct for our best available rates.

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