Bruges (or Brugge as it is known to the few of us who speak the internationally renowned language of Flemish) is a quaint tourist town in a country that most people cannot find on a map. But once upon a time in medieval Europe, it was the center of economic power. Its narrow winding streets that today serve as bicycle paths were once the conduits of commerce for wealthy merchants. Its canals that today ferry tourists through the "Venice of the North" once connected the town to the world. The lesson from the rise and fall of Bruges is encapsulated in the "Four Ts" — transportation, talent, trade and taxes.
With the sea only five kilometers from its doors, Bruges was blessed with natural transportation advantages. The town capitalized on those advantages by investing in infrastructure and building canals that connected to seaports. The investment paid off, and the provincial area of Flanders flourished to worldwide prominence. Bruges understood that investment in transportation was key to economic prosperity.
A small handful in Bruges reaped the immediate benefits from economic growth. Those not so lucky to be born into wealth or nobility were no less enterprising or ambitious. Bruges is famous for its canals, a vestige of the wealthy merchant class. Bruges is also famous for its lace, a vestige of the entrepreneurial prowess of the lower classes. Capitalizing on the textile trade, the poor developed innovative techniques to sew bits and scraps into fine lace. The product was so delicate that soon the world wanted what they were making. Bruges understood that developing talent was key to economic prosperity.
When talent meets transportation, trade naturally follows, and Bruges benefited from trade more than anywhere else in the world at the time. Bruges' strategic geographic location made it a natural distribution and logistics hub. But the town was more than simply a pass-through location. Bruges strategically and intentionally became a center for manufacturing. As European markets grew and became more interconnected, Bruges took its place as the center of commerce. Bruges understood that trade with the outside world was key to economic prosperity.
As the cycle of transportation and infrastructure, talent development and trade propelled Bruges to heightened success, the town gained the attention of gluttonous politicians. Maximilian, their villainous Hapsburg overlord, needed revenue to fund his military campaigns against the French, and the obvious target was the commercial success in Bruges. Maximilian's minister had the unenviable task of sharing the news of tax increases with the town and lost his head (literally) in the medieval version of a public truth in taxation hearing. Maximilian was undeterred. He got his taxes, and Bruges lost its competitive edge. Bruges understood that taxes and politics can quickly kill the goose laying the golden egg.
This tiny town that once boasted some of the grandest buildings in the Western world faded into oblivion, and the people of Bruges did not live happily ever after … until recently when the town was rediscovered and revived with the "Fifth T" of tourism. Bruges is a beautifully preserved city of medieval architecture that stands as a reflection of its past glory — a glory built on transportation, talent and trade and ultimately demolished by taxes.