Bruges: Springtime Three Night Visit

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March 18th 2022
Published: March 18th 2022
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Bruges Belgium

December 2021, all booked up and ready for a train journey from Newcastle upon Tyne UK to Bruges Belgium. Three nights away in beautiful old city.

Omicron hits and plans are delayed until..........

March 2022, our changed arrangements go ahead. On a train leaving a little later in the morning from Newcastle than we would like, but all in hand.

The trip to London is on a new Azuma train. All is on time despite stops in Durham, Darlington, Northallerton, York, Doncaster, Newark, Peterborough before our arrival at Kings Cross.

The Eurostar welcomes us, takes us under la Manche and treats us well, arriving at Brussels Midi at 6pm.

The final leg. I’d cancelled our tickets from Brussels to Bruges because the previously made timings were out of kilter with our change arrangements, but we realise now that this was unnecessary, as it becomes clear now that tickets are open for a 24hour period, (something not apparent on Trainline info).

A bonus! The tickets are a quarter of the price when bought at a station machine (and in addition, all tickets include a return trip if within 24 hours....). Armed with these we board a train earlier than expected and gain a few minutes upon our arrival time in Bruges.

A ten minute walk from Bruges Station along a canal path brings us to Les Invités B n B. A very attractive place. Smart renovation and posh fittings abound. Bart is our host and nothing is too much to ask.

We set off for some restauration. De Gastro is recommended, but after a long day reaching it seems a walk too far. Finally installed at a table we take a sigh of relief, one local beer (Du de Bourgognes) and a red wine (pinot noir). M finishes garlic prawns with relish, I try a Flemish beef pot with chips and salad. All good. The view across the road is the postcard canal shot of Bruges, the Rozehoedkaai and the Belfry illuminated and repeated as a reflection in the water.

After nourishment, the walk back seems less far (despite an erroneous 'shortcut' chosen by my good self).

Day 1

Breakfast in the airy dining room is a delicious affair including charcuterie, cheeses, fresh fruit, yoghurt, pastries, fresh bread, orange juice, a Belgian chocolate, coffee and a view on to a courtyard space with small pool.

It has started to rain.

We decide to take Walk Tour 1 from Guidebook 1. Armed with brollies we start up our street, Katelijnestraat, take a right at The Church of Our Lady, past the Gruuthuse Museum, along Dijver by the canal over the Blezekstraat Bridge under the arch way of the gold encrusted City Hall through the Burg and up to the Market Square with its bell tower, cafés, attendant wet horse-and-carriage combos and cyclists on vélocipedes of numerous designs and colours.

Already somewhat soaked we head for a bar and hot beverages, awaiting more clement weather.

The sun remains caché but the sky lightens a little and we head west along the main shopping street, Steenstraat. Best shopping find is bijou Dutch kitchen utensil shop called Dille et Kamille. Like a mini HABITAT, it contains charming, understated and useful fayre. We buy easter presents in felt and beechwood, two drinking glasses and have to restrain ourselves from taking on much more cargo to the suitcases home.

Then to the Concert Centre. It’s a twenty year old brick building. More elegant in form than you would describe as Brutalist, but it’s certainly the most modern looking edifice in all of central Bruges that we’ve seen, and it stands out.

The tourist information guy within is incredibly open and able to communicate. Everyone here makes an attempt to tune in to their client’s language then converse in it. He researches what live music is available on the two remaining nights we are around.

There’s a radio choir singing arrangements of popular song, or a celebration of the building in contemporary dance on the following night. The second option sounds a bit more original so we opt for that and buy a couple of tickets.

The geographical egg that is ancient Bruges, an oval shaped island, is bordered by canals within a marsh that leads up to the sea coast in the north. A footpath accompanies the canal, and we follow the nearest from the Concerthall heading south before turning left to graze the Minnewater or ‘Lovers’ Lake’, a broad rectangular stretch of water off the peripheral canal on the way to the Begijnhof. This Beguinage, is a green square enclosed by whitewashed housing and a church. It’s the site of an all female chaste order established in 1245 which remained apart from the church, not taking vows, until the east Beguines left in 1928 century and soon Benedictine nuns took over the site. The green is filled with trees, their trunks off-vertical clashing with the perpendicular lines of the housing. But most noticeable, in March, were the thousands of yellow daffodils in full bloom. We had hit the best time in the year for the display.

The church, modest in its decoration inside and out, compliments the simplicity and egalitarian nature of the houses of a repeated modest size.

Nearby are the herb gardens of the St John’s Hospital apothecary and a lane called Stoofstraat where a café profered bagels for lunch. M.’s with goats’ cheese and apple, mine with smoked salmon and omelette (a pleasant combination in which the omelette dominated despite the greater sophistication in the preparation of the fish). I dink bottle conditioned Zot Beer made in Bruges, still living in its second fermentation.

After lunch we headed for a three day museum’s ticket and commence with a visit to The Church of Our Lady, bedecked with beautiful wood carving in the choir and elsewhere where the tallest pulpit constructions stand above the congregation. In a side chapel is a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (the only sculpture of his to have made it out of Italy within his lifetime). It’s been stolen twice, once by French Revolutionaries in 1794, returned after the defeat of Napoleon act Waterloo, and secondly by retreating German soldiers in 1944, inside a red mattress and found a year later stored in a n Austrian salt mine.

We try to enter the Gruuthuse Museum in the late afternoon but are told that there is only 30minutes until closing time and that it was better to use the ticket’s one visit to each museum in three days entitlement tomorrow. So, instead, we go to the Arentshuis Museum where Bruges-born British artist Frank Brangwyn has the place more or less to himself. His father, an architect and designer left for Wales when Frank was a small child. The boy grew to follow his father’s footsteps, an autodidact, who largely taught himself and by working in William Morris’s studios, traveling widely, painting a series of British Empire Panels, commissioned murals, stained glass, ceramics, furniture, wood engravings, lithographs and much more. We like his energetic oil paintings best and a picture which features in the guide book, but is actually by a Japanese artist, Yoshijiro Urushibara, who collaborated with Brangwyn between 1908 and 1934.

There’s just enough energy in our fuel tanks to walk past the Fishmarket) which doesn’t smell of fish from daily markets, but is used on some mornings we are assured) along Steenhouwersdijk to the Green Canal and up to an ancient dyers district where wool was the big earner in times gone by.

We headed back on a route which followed a hypotenuse of a right angled triangle back home down Vispanstraat rather better than my ‘short-cut’ digression of the night before. On the way there is a huge mural in red of a woman posing and swallows flying by.

Knackered, back in our digs, we decided to eat close by at la ‘Promessa de la Terra’ and the pizzas were good as if manna from the Promised Land.

Day 2

We’re fortified with a fine breakfast (with bonus fried egg with paprika and pepper) thus ready for No 2 Walk in M’s No 1 Guidebook. Suitably, it starts at the Egg Market, where a monument with the Bruges’ Lion and Bear bare bear teeth and big up their status as mediaeval city branding, ever since it was pickled up in 1761 by Pieter Pepers.

It’s a longer more wide ranging trek into less touristy parts which heads east along Pottenmakerstraat to the pottery district of Potterierei along the Long Canal.

It’s evident that there’s not much stone in the buildings here. Brick is king. So I imagine that clay is an asset of the city which allows ceramics, bricks and the lining of canals.

We find a house with a pot displayed within a niche on its front gable end.

And there is a huge abbey and, alongside, an ancient old folks home and a chapel consecrated in the honour of Our Beloved Lady. It’s where numerous mediaeval potteries were sited and is now a museum connected to the beautiful ornate church. There are tapestries, pottery, stained glass windows, furniture, and a cache of hideous ecclesiastical bling (with occasional saints’ bones poking through the silver-work). St Ursula gets an icon, she is saint of young persecuted girls after being abused and murdered by men herself……

Walking north were captivated by a large barge that has just entered a lock that leads the Damme and Zeebrugge. We watch as the level of water in the lock is lowered and eventually the vessel, complete with the captain’s two Audi’s on the stern upper deck, powers on, the cantilever bridge sinks slowly to the ground, barriers are raised and traffic begins to circulate again. It’s big engineering in comparison to a counterbalance hand operated footbridge that we saw in Potterierei.

A right angle bend brings us to the first of four 18C windmills which were re-erected/renovated in the late 20C on Kruisvest.

Just before the third windmill we hang a right and stop for a coffee in the delightful Windmill Bar. It’s small, friendly and full of artefacts, sheets of dry wheat and tresses of hops. Regulars drink elevenses glasses of white wine and chatter as we drink in the atmosphere and coffee.

In the back streets of Carmestraat and Balstraat none of the churches are open to the public, but it is charming to see a very residential area in full bustle, much building renovation with impressive stand alone cherrypicker machines, and school children bombing about on bikes as they head home for a Wednesday afternoon off time table.

There’s a naive monument on the corner of a house, a niche dedicated to Little Anna of the well. In the tradition of Ursula, I suppose, she was thrown by villains into a well. But she did not die because Our Lady of the Potteries froze the water ensuring that she did not drown. Must have been a bit of frostbite, on the other hand…..

Jan van Eyckeplain (Van Eyks Square) is reached: e’re reaching the end of our circuit. It’s in front of the impressive tower of Poortersloge (closed on Wednesdays….) we snake our way round to the Theatre with a sculpture of the Birdman from Mozarts Magic Flute then find an Asian snack resto for lentil soup, pita, cheese and swarma. The Zot Beer is not bottle conditioned this time, but almost as good.

We turn our attention to the Gruuthuse Museum for an afternoon exploring the history, wealth, changing geography and importance of Bruges as a trading city.

From 13C importance as a European trade centre to 14C Bourgogne Ducal importance. The influence of the Hansiatic League is evidence by the stepped inverted V shape of the gable ends. You could be in Lubbock or any of the Baltic Hansiatic ports.

The Golden 15C was when Bruges was at its peak, then it fell upon hard times with a silting of the waterways to the sea paralleled with a loss of importance heralded by the death of Mary of Burgundy in 1482.

It was, ironically, a novel ‘Bruges la Morte’ in 1892 by George Rodenbach (which painted Bruges as a mysterious, sleepy lost place) and its 35 illustrated plates, which sparked a whole new era of tourism matched by a renovation of the sea port (Zeebrugge) and the canal links to it,

Unscathed by two world wars it was made a UNESCO site in 2000.

The most interesting part if the museum for me was in the attics. It was the oratorium of oak with a vaulted ceiling supported by tiny carved angel busts. After donations of tapestries to the Church of Our Lady next door, the Gruut family were allowed to blow a hole in the church wall, up in these gods, and create this wooden viewing platform with windows on to the choir. Kneeler cushions make a provision for comfortable praying and with a window open the music and ritual would drift into the Gruuthuis attic space.

Also at a similar high storey of the building is a viewing tower on to the garden and Lovers’ Bridge. Very beautiful, with narcissi in full bloom.

The evening ‘dance event’ at the Concerthall is a celebration of the design and scope of the building. Six dancers, un-costumed, and a fine zither player took 90 minutes to tell their story using the whole auditorium, audience seating areas on all levels, and an extensive undecorated stage. The audience were invited to choose their vantage points and to move around if they desired. We were on the main stage.

Each section, starting with the repeated chanting of a count to seven, was punctuated by each dancer’s own signature manoeuvre. Towards the end there were solo improvisations by four or five of the performers.

The most novel section was the creation of a floor plan with white tape and chalk drawn marked positions using bodies as pairs-of-compasses.

Sadly, the solos seemed unconnected to the themes of maths, geometry, design and 3D space. And each section was a bit long.

Interesting to attend a novel one-off dance event.

Trying to find a bite at 9.30pm proved difficult. And we ended up in the tourist bar restaurants on the Market Square. I should have gone for moules frites like Marion. But instead I opted for Flemish rabbit in beer and prune gravy. There were two prunes and two small chunks of rabbit, but the gravy hadn’t been graced with any beer, stock or much else other than caramel and cornflour. But they were open and we benefitted from their availability.

Third Day

Sweet dreams and a fine breakfast. A short pack with suitcases ready for our 12.30 departure, then we headed in bright sunshine for the Groeninge Fine Art Museum for Van Eyck 1400s until the present day. The Van Eyck ‘Madonna with Canon van Der Paele’ is stunning in its photographic detail, lustrous fabrics, carpet, perspective dept and colour. Difficult to believe it is such an early painting. So, why is this school with Hemling and others called ‘Flemish Primitive’? ‘Flemish Sophisticatied’ is closer to the mark.

For me, the eras of painting that follow a time-line throughout the whole exhibition display a quality of painting less impressive than those earliest canvases. They are all lifeless portraits, largely telling a story of position and wealth, sometimes placing the commissioners on either side of a biblical scene.

Or later, hugely romanticised cameos of mythical events.

One curiosity is the portrayal of children lost in childbirth or early life with family groups. They are show as contemporaries to their peers, I.e. of a similar age, but with a small red cross on their foreheads.

It was the 19C landscapes that perked up my attention. Such a relief from the wealth and self-centred subject matter of the earlier works.

The 20th century expressionism seemed bold but a bit inaccessible. It seems that I’m a baby boomer hippy nature boy.

We catch all the trains on time back to London. Some small embarrassment when we complain about the lack of platform info in Kings Cross when then is only a short time until departure. The patient LNER representative points out that there is yet more than an hour to go and we realise we haven’t turned back our watches as we reached UK…..

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