A City That Exists in a Fairytale

There’s a map on the grassy bank of the Dijver canal, opposite the Groeningemuseum, made entirely of white lace. Commissioned by the City of Bruges, Chris Kabel’s artwork spans the centuries and the city’s principal industries, lace-making dating back to the 15th Century and 21st Century tourism. The medieval buildings and canals of the UNESCO World Heritage Site perforate the woven lanes, parks and historic squares, while the constant flotilla of tourist laden canal boats sails behind, visible through the intricate needlework.

The Lace Map in Bruges, Belgium

Centuries before the Belgians were lace-making they were brewing beer, and so began our own thirsty midweek pilgrimage with a glass of the local Brugse Zot Blond from the city-based Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery. The beer is named after the so-called foolish locals, who had entertained the visiting Emperor Maximilian of Austria back in the 15th Century with acrobatics and costumed processions during the festival of the Holy Blood.

The people of Bruges had hoped the visiting dignitary would grant them funds to build a new institution for mental illness, but instead he suggested they simply close the city gates as the city was one big ‘fool house’. Rather than being offended by the tight-fisted imperator, the people of Bruges are proud of the association, the brewery itself linked with the institute that was eventually built.

Waterborne madness

A bridge over the canal, in Bruges

Caught up in the madness, or perhaps the beer that had quickly gone to our heads, we joined the masses and jumped on a canal boat tour, whisking us through the waterways before the impending rain could dampen our spirits. Cheap as frites, it’s worth a hop on one of the many tightly packed dinghies, just to get your bearings and understand quickly how achievable and worthwhile seeing all of the city is; though when you jump off, you may feel like you’ve just ridden one of those water-based theme park rides aimed at young children, without the brightly coloured dolls and saccharine songs.

We refuelled on a huge pot of mussels in white wine and a glass of refreshingly light Brugs white beer, another local brew. The wheaty-citrus flavour beer complemented our food and slipped down nicely, greatly enhancing our beer-connoisseur qualities and tasting-note abilities. 

All around us football fans in town for the Champions League match that evening were turning into gourmands, discussing the quality of the food and the taste of the beer. But we had much to do before the huge crowds gathered in Markt to be shepherded off to the Jan Breydel Stadium, so we headed away from the busier Markt and Burg and instead wandered the quieter cobbled streets to the east, before heading back to the waterways and parks of the south.

Nuns and hot waffles

Bruges Beguinage

Grabbing a hot waffle, coated with bananas, chocolate, whipped cream, sprinkles and, in case it wasn’t sweet enough, sugar, we took our gluttony towards the tranquil and more discreet confines of the Béguinage, the only preserved convent in the city. Within its whitewashed walls, semi-monastic beguine women lived together to protect themselves and whatever property they still owned from the medieval world outside; not having taken holy orders however, beguines were able to come and go as they pleased and supported themselves through services to the sick and lace-making.

The beguines now long gone, an order of Benedictine nuns reside here, their presence somehow managing to silence the comings and goings of international tourists through their hidden courtyard. Poplar trees grow on the large central lawn and currently accommodate an art installation of tree houses by Japanese artist, Tadashi Kawamata.

Part of the Bruges Contemporary Art and Architecture Triennial 2015, where temporary works of art have been commissioned throughout the city for free public viewing, the houses are somehow both at odds and in keeping with their location, representing something fun, childlike and adventurous in an ordered, adult place where these things cannot take place; yet at the same time are peaceful, spiritual and have a natural, slower-paced feel to them. Like the emotions they engender in our modern world, lacking ladders, the wooden houses are hard to reach. As we left the Béguinage and the tranquil green waters of Minnewater, known in English as the Lake of Love, we were reminded sharply of this when the R30 ring road and the bus station beyond came noisily and unexpectedly into view.

Belgian beer in Bruges

We spent the evening making our way through Belgian beers at varying establishments. Starting with a clear golden glass of Omer, then onto Duvel, from there a little glass of La Chouffe, before moving onto a darker, nutty-caramel flavoured Leffe Brune.  We ended the evening on a glass of Westmalle Dubbel Trapist beer, smooth as syrup and rich as sticky toffee pudding, the colour of dark congealed blood.

Holy blood

The trek up the three hundred and sixty six steps to the top of Belfort, the medieval bell tower that’s the centrepiece of the city, early the next morning got the blood pumping again and the showery gusts that blew us around once we reached the top succeeded in ensuring we were awake before the bells did. 

Bruges Belfort, Belgium

From there, we went to Burg and to the darkly religious Basilica of the Holy Blood. A strangely stunning grey facade punctuated with bright gilded statues of royals, covers both the austere Romanesque Lower Chapel, and a richly decorated Gothic Upper Chapel. As the name suggests, it is the homeof a rather macabre, or divine depending on your point of view, relic of Jesus’ blood, contained within a rock-crystal vial, said to have been brought back from Jerusalem during The Crusades and is the source of the annual festival that takes place every May.

A Veneration ceremony was taking place in the Upper Chapel while we were there and visitors were allowed to approach the relic and say a prayer whilst holding their hands above it. It was hard not to be moved by the stream of people of all nationalities taking turns to pour their thoughts and hopes and fears into the relic, their emotions sometimes hard to contain as they walked away into an onslaught of colour and imagery in the chapel, from the stained windows, to the panelling and grand marble and gold statues.

The place seemed so imbibed with meaning, as though to impress the importance of it all, and it had it’s effect; the history and art and human stories were evident everywhere and in places glorious to see, and yet the darkness of the relic itself and the Gothic hall with its imposing and domineering symbolism also left its impression.

Inside the Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges

Outside, the dramatic Gothic structure of the City Hall houses the equally striking Gothic Hall murals and colourful vaulted ceiling, while next door, beneath the triumphal white and gold façade of the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges, you can find a contrasting 16th Century assizes courtroom in dark, carved timber panelling, with a monumental black marble, oak and alabaster fireplace. Opposite both buildings stands Glaswegian artist Nathan Coley’s text sculpture, A Place Beyond Belief, originally designed for New York after 9/11, but finds new meaning in each of its new locations around the world. When lit up at night, with the glowing, fantastical buildings looming eerily about you, it appears to be a reflection of the thoughts of all who pass by.

Our final trek took us out to see the 18th Century St Anna Windmills in the sun and to wind our way slowly back to town via the pretty Potterei canal. Every blink is a picture. The cobbled streets are litter-free and run along rows of picturesque Flemish buildings, all neatly ordered and well kept. Locals cycle past and over charming, red-brick humpback bridges with children seated behind and shopping dangling from the handlebars.  Statuettes of the Virgin Mary, patroness of Bruges, grace alcoves above many doors, in homage to the marble Madonna and Child by Michaelangelo, held inside the Church of Our Lady with its four hundred foot brick tower. Locals lounging on the floating pontoon of the Canal Swimmers Club installation, watch as their children swim in the clean canals.

Bruge in conclusion

Bruges at night time

Bruges is a… well, fairy tale; like Disneyland for adults it’s clean, safe, friendly, accessible, with everything that could interest you all within easy walking distance: history, art and architecture, bike-riding and canal boats, religion and retail, chocolate, chips and beer.

After being there a few days, cocooned within the egg-shaped island made by the encircling Reien canals, it’s a bit of a shock to see the busy ring road and remember the ‘real world’ going on outside. You begin to think that everywhere you will visit in future will be hard to live up to: ‘it’s nice, but it’s not Bruges.’ Anywhere else in the world, your inner hard-bitten cynic would crawl out of you like the Boschian insect it is to tell you it’s all fake, it’s all there to make you part with your money, that you are just on the transitory production line of consuming tourists, taking boat trip after boat trip, photo after photo.

Well, yes, you are, but there’s also a genuine belief in the place that comes through in your interactions with the people who live and work there; they are not dressed up in princess and animal costumes, pretending to be other than they really are. Everyone we met was genuinely proud of Bruges and it’s life-sized museum feel and wanted us to see the best in it and you can’t help but do exactly that. You don’t even mind that there are hundreds of other people, doing exactly the same as you.  

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