In a wide-open polder landscape, Damme is a historic fortified town that grew up in Medieval times as a trading outpost for nearby Bruges.
Under Napoleon a big strip of the town was demolished to make way for the Damse Vaart, a canal that was to be one piece of an ambitious but unrealised network of waterways joining Northern France with the Low Countries.
When Damme was under the Spanish yoke during the Eight Years’ War the town was reinforced with earthwork bastions, ravelins and moats, in a seven-pointed system that is still unmistakable today.
On the cobblestone Kerkstraat you’ll come by hundreds of years’ worth of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and exciting clues from Damme’s time as a garrison town in the 17th century.
If there’s a single sight that you have to visit in Damme it’s the now deconsecrated church dedicated to the Ascension.
This Scheldt Gothic building went up during the 13th century, and had attained a cathedral-like scale by the 14th century when the distinctive flat tower was added.
Catastrophe came in 1578 when the church was looted by the Geuze, and more followed over the coming centuries when Damme’s decline required the transept and nave to be demolished in the 18th century.
The splendid Late Gothic choir is still intact, and on the pillars along the central aisle are 13th-century carvings of the apostles that survived the religious violence of the 16th century.
April to September you can climb the tower’s 206 steps to survey Damme and the zigzagging lines of its old fortifications.
Damme’s town hall is a Brabantine Gothic masterpiece completed in the 1460s on the foundations of an older hall.
Along with stepped gables at each end and a 17th-century wooden cupola, the hall’s exterior features a double staircase, crocketed pinnacles, a traceried balustrade and six niches with 19th-century statues.
These mainly depict the Counts of Flanders, but also include Charles the Bold (Duke of Burgundy) and Margaret of York who were wed right here in Damme in 1468. The carillon holds 39 bells, two of which were cast in the 14th century, and just below that is a working clock from 1459. As well as weddings, municipal meetings continue to take place at the Vierschaere hall inside.
And both this and the adjacent Raadzaal have marvellous sculpted beams from 1465.
On this broad cobblestone street, cutting in from the Damse Vaart canal you’ll happen upon much of Damme’s built history.
The Stadhuis, Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Hemelvaartkerk and the historic hospice Sint-Janshospitaal are all on Kerkstraat, while the monumental residence, Huyse de Grote Sterre, will also be in full view.
There are 12 listed monuments in all on the way, but Kerkstraat is also Damme’s commercial artery, with locally owned boutiques, galleries and more than its fair share of places to eat and drink.
The low-lying polder countryside all around Damme is a cyclist’s dream, made even easier to explore thanks to more than 930 kilometres of paths on the Brugse Ommeland Cycling Network.
You can coast beside canals and through forest and polders, and will never be far from a historic fort or picturesque village.
The network’s green-white signposts and numbered junctions (knooppunten) will help you find your way with ease.
For extra inspiration there are more than 50 designated cycling trails running through Damme or passing close by.
One long-distance trail is the 280-kilometre Nordzeeroute between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Den Helder in the Netherlands.
Keeping things local, “Hollandstellung” and “Damme aan het Front” are two trails installed with information boards pointing out the history of the area in the First and Second World Wars respectively.
One image always associated with Damme is this windmill standing sentry on the west bank of the Damse Vaart canal as you arrive.
In its current form the Schellemolen dates back to 1867, but a mill has been standing on this spot since 1479. Inside are two sets of millstones for grain and one for oil in the basement.
The Schellemolen closed as a commercial mill in 1963 but was bought by the province of West Flanders in 1971 and has been milling since 1977. You can go inside on weekends in the spring and summer
6. Stadswallen van Damme
In the 17th century during the Eighty Years’ War between the Netherlands and Spain, Damme became a garrison town reinforced by layers of ramparts and moats in the shape of a seven-pointed star.
These defences are still easy to identify from the top of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Hemelvaartkerk.
The ramparts and polder have become a nature reserve that is a wintering site for thousands of geese, namely pink-footed geese and greater white-fronted geese.
In summer, grebes, tufted ducks, cormorants and great blue herons are commonly sighted in the water and wet meadows.
An accessible paved path follows the contours of the star, next to lines of poplars and a willow coppice.
Where Kerkstraat meets the defensive moat you’ll come to the vestiges of Damme’s casemate, now a winter home for bats.
7. Damse Vaart
The way many people arrive in Damme is via this 15-kilometre canal, linking Bruges with the Dutch border town of Sluis.
The Damse Vaart was actually the brainchild of Napoleon, who wanted an inland means of moving large numbers of troops.
The system was to connect the cities of Northern France with Antwerp, but the Damme-Sluis portion branch was still incomplete by the time he was out of power.
In 1818 William I of the Netherlands ordered the canal’s completion, which required a big chunk of Damme to be demolished.
There are five trips a day each way between Damme and Noorweegse Kaai in Bruges, between the start of April and end of September.
And once you’re in Damme, the tree-lined towpath will beckon you into the endearing polder landscapes around the town.
8. Huyse de Grote Sterre
The handsome building with two gables to the right of the Stadhuis is known as Huyse de Grote Sterre and has centuries of stories to tell.
In the Late Gothic style, this is actually two commercial buildings, De Sterre and Crayenest, joined together in the 1400s or 1500s.
In the basement there’s evidence dating the two buildings back to the 1200s.
When the Spanish held sway in Flanders in the 17th century, this building became the property of the King of Spain, and the coat of arms above the portal dates from the 18th century when it was the residence of canon J. van der Stricht.
This is combined with his motto “Pacem opto” (I choose peace). At the end of the 20th century the Huyse de Grote Sterre was suffering from years of neglect and partially collapsed in a storm in 1992. Now the building is fully restored and contains Damme’s tourist office, a heritage shop and a museum about the picaresque character Till Eulenspiegel.
In 1867 the novelist Charles De Coster published his masterpiece, “The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak”, in which the hero is born in Damme.
This put Damme among many cities around the Low Countries, Germany, Bohemia and as far as Italy to be associated with Till Eulenspiegel.
For the uninitiated Eulenspiegel is a roving folkloric prankster, written about since the 16th century.
In these bawdy episodic tales, he exposes people’s vices, be they greed, vanity or hypocrisy, and gives them a comeuppance that normally involves plenty of scatology.
The museum Huyse de Grote Sterre investigates the history of the character over five centuries, calling on copies of manuscripts, painting, sculpture and prints dating back to the 1500s.
Set on Kerkstraat, but also continuing down Bergstraat to the southwest is a hospice and almshouse established in the 13th century.
The Sint-Janshospitaal was initiated by the city council and offered care for the sick and shelter for passersby, given by the Augustinian sisters and brothers.
The main Medieval structure, fronting Kerkstraat, has Early Gothic architecture and was built between 1270 and 1285. The wing to the west was added in the 15th century, and further extensions were made in the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Part of the building still functioned as a care home all the way up to 2014. As of 2020 the complex is owned by the city and awaiting restoration.
In the meantime the site stages exhibitions as part of the Damme Stadsfestival between September and December.
If you do get in to view the Baroque 17th-century chapel, there’s statuary from the 1400s to the 1600s, and a fragment of a sculpture of Christ ascribed miraculous qualities but destroyed in 1578 by the Geuzen.
11. Jacob van Maerlant Statue
One of the foremost Middle Dutch authors of the Middle Ages, Jacob van Maerlant, lived in Damme during the 13th century.
Van Maerlant, who died around 1300 started out translating French romances into Middle Dutch, and later devoted himself to historical and scientific works for the enlightenment of the Flemish and Dutch nobility.
With more than 230,000 verses he is among the most prolific of all Medieval authors, and coined expressions that have become entwined with Flemish national identity.
He was buried under a blank stone at Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Hemelvaartkerk, reasoning, according to tradition, that it wouldn’t be him but his corpse under there.
And you’ll come across his statue in front of the town hall, carved by Bruges sculptor Hendrik Pickery (1828-1894) and unveiled in 1860.
Damme’s literary heritage makes it an apt location for a book market taking place every second Sunday of the month.
In the summer months the market is held on the little cobblestone square in front of the Stadhuis, fittingly at the foot of the statue of Jacob van Maerlant, and in winter it moves into the town hall.
The market trades between 10:00 and 18:00 and although there’s always a big breadth of categories, every month brings a different overarching theme.
These are posted on Damme’s official tourism website and range from horticulture to poetry, travel, history, gastronomy, children/youth and foreign languages.
13. Hoeke Windmill
This tower mill is impossible to miss in the polder landscape next to the N49. In Medieval times Hoeke, now a little hamlet, was a fully-fledged town and there’s mention of a mill in 1344. Records show that in 1481 there was a windmill where the current one stands.
And while the present building went up 1840, the machinery within bears the year 1772. Grain was milled here up to 1936, and the building was safeguarded with protected monument status in 1981. This led to a couple of restorations and since 1985 the Hoeke Windmill has been in working order.
Now under the wing of the Erfgoed Vlaanderen, protecting Flemish heritage, the Hoeke Windmill can be visited every Sunday between 10:00 and 12:00.
14. Verbrand Fort
As part of a line of defences erected during the War of the Spanish Succession at the start of the 18th century, this redoubt was built a couple of kilometres out of Damme.
The Verbrand Fort (Burnt Fort) was an outpost of the larger Fort van Beieren, the outline of which is still visible to the south-west of Damme.
With a square plan, Verbrand Fort, so called after its wooden watchtower burnt down, is easy to locate in the nook created by the Schipdonkkanaal and the Romboutswervedijk.
Since 2001 the site has been a nature reserve, and in 2011 the earthwork ramparts were restored.
There’s a large interpretative board recounting the site’s history and detailing the many waterfowl and passerine bird species that come to this wet meadow habitat to forage.
15. Damme Golf & Country Club
If you’re up for a spot of golf the town’s namesake course is barely ten minutes away.
The 18-hole championship course, peppered with trees and water hazards, strikes a balance in offering a fun test for accomplished players, while keeping newcomers in the game.
If you play off the back tees the course has a tough total length of more than 6220 metres.
There’s also the nine-hole President’s Nine, landscaped by Belgian course architect Bruno Steensels and playing like a links course for its undulating sandy hills.
Novices meanwhile could make a start at the nine-hole Compact Course, also great if you need to brush up on your short game.