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Published: April 3rd 2018
Today turned out to be a Belgian national holiday, with many small shops and restaurants choosing to close their doors. The crowds in the street were sparse during the morning hours, but as we would discover later in the afternoon, much of Bruges remained open for business as usual. Once again, however, a light drizzle made for some dreary conditions until around 2:30 PM, when the temperature actually rose to the mid-50s--a veritable heat wave!
After eating Dee's fabulous lunch of tuna salad, avocado and cucumbers, we decided to take advantage of the warmer weather by walking to Queen Astrid Park (Koningin Astridpark). This park, which was once a monastery garden, is an oasis of peace and greenery within walking distance of the center of Bruges. It offers a gazebo, and a picturesque pond with a fountain, with flower gardens that begin to bloom in a few weeks. This was one of the few occasions during our trip when it's been warm enough to sit down on an outdoor bench for a few minutes!
We decided to pay a quick visit to the building that dominates the skyline at the southern exit of the park, the Saint Magdalene Church.
It was built in the mid-1800s during the Gothic revival, but the furnishings were not completed until 1910. The church was a great example of the neo-Gothic revival, but at some point it was apparently "decommissioned" as a true Catholic church.
During the 1960s, the interior was completely painted white and many stained glass windows and furnishings were lost. In the 1980s a restoration project began, though the results have been met with mixed reviews.
A non-profit group called YOT has been involved in keeping the space "sacred", although they have put some of their own stamp on the interior. Inside, neon lights spell out, "YES HERE NOW", which according to the description posted in the church is "A spiritual adage that forms the core of many traditions: 'the Kingdom of God' in the Judeo-Christian, the 'nirvana' in the East, 'the void' in Zen, etc. If man is fully present in the here and now the boundaries of time and space disappear and a dimension of 'eternity' occurs."
From the outside, the church looks like a typical house of worship, but on the inside it's truly a house of artistic experiment, with exhibitions, concerts, plays, Japanese themed
parties, and pretty much anything else. An enormous suspended 'frame' highlights the most sacred functions of the church, and neon lights abound, with a quill feather installation in a small side chapel of its own. All of this combined with background music being piped through the church sound system, while from the top of the ceiling hangs a swinging chair; Dee even gave it a try!
Still, the YOT group has continued to preserve and maintain the many furnishings, fine sculptures, and the ornate pulpit of the church. The "Stations of the Cross" carvings on the side walls are beautiful and well-preserved.
Outside the Saint Magdalene Church we discovered another interesting figure, which at first glance appeared to be real, i.e., a homeless man lying down on a park bench. Closer inspection revealed it to be a very lifelike statue of a human being bundled in a robe, but with holes in his feet.
It turned out to be a cast of the bronze statue known as Homeless Jesus
, designed by Timothy Schmalz in 2013, a Canadian sculptor and devout Catholic. It is intended to depict Jesus as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench. His
Near the entrance to Saint Magdalene Church.
face and hands are obscured, hidden under a blanket, but crucifixion wounds on his feet reveal his identity. The original statue is located in Toronto, Canada, but there are copies spread around the world, including in the Vatican, alongside the Pope's charity offices.
After leaving the church, we walked toward the Walplein to find a terrace cafe where we could have some drinks, but the cloud cover had returned, so none of the terraces were very appealing. At one point during our walk, quite by accident, we stumbled upon one of the small complexes of almshouses that can be seen around Bruges, mostly of them clustered around a cozy courtyard.
The one we encountered, Godshuis Sint-Jozef, was founded at the end of the 17th-century, and is located at the corner of Nieuwe Gentweg and Driekroezenstraat. As you enter the courtyard, the sense of peace and serenity is palpable, with a little garden surrounded by small, whitewashed bungalows. These were the precursors of public housing, established in the 14th-century by wealthy townspeople or guilds. They housed poor, elderly people or widows. More than 46 blocks of almshouses have been preserved, scattered throughout the city, 43 of which are still
occupied by elderly people.
Dee's comments: A cold, dreary day to start, but by 2PM the weather had changed, and we ventured out. The streets were packed with people, even though it is a national holiday. We stopped at a park that I'm sure is beautiful in springtime, but today the flowers were just beginning to show signs of blooming.
Our next stop was a very bizarre church, where I swung on a swing suspended from the ceiling in front of the altar---never seen anything like it! We then happened upon a small, picturesque courtyard with quaint little homes for the poor.
After making our daily stop at Oyya for a waffle and Mitch's milkshake, I made a nice dinner, and then off to bed. I am going to miss Bruges--the people, customs, scenery and food, but I won't miss the cold! Next stop, Tours--talk to you then!
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