Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Belgium 2017 - Road Trip to Bruges - Part 1

After thoroughly exploring Antwerp, we planned a three-night road trip where we would take the train to Bruges and then Ghent, before returning to Antwerp for a final day prior to leaving for Brussels.  We had packed a smaller travel bag in anticipation of these excursions, so that we could leave the bulk of our luggage at our home swap location.  It is about a 2-hour train ride from Antwerp to Bruges, a 1-hour train ride from Bruges to Ghent and another hour from Ghent back to Antwerp.  The train system in Europe runs like clockwork and the fares within Belgium are relatively inexpensive.  Our home swap hosts helped us buy a Belgian Rail Pass for 77 Euros, which was good for 10 rides from any destination to any destination within Belgium.  It is amazing to only pay 7.70 Euros to travel between Belgian cities when it costs about 3 Euros to take the bus within a city.  The rail pass can be used by multiple people per trip and involves filling out one line on the card per passenger, with the day of the week, date of travel, starting location and final destination.  While the train traveled to our destination (usually making multiple stops along the way), a ticket agent would come by, inspect our pass and punch holes against our travel itinerary lines to confirm our payment for the ride.  This made it really easy for us, since it saved us from lining up to buy train tickets for each of our stops.  We planned to use 8 rides including our final trip to Brussels once we left Antwerp, so we paid our hosts for the 8 rides and mailed them back the pass with the remaining 2 rides once we reached Brussels.

I have wanted to visit Bruges ever since I watched the 2008 dark comedy “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson.  While the plot is about a pair of hitmen hiding out in this idyllic setting after a botched assassination, the true star of the film is Bruges’ historic city centre with its beautiful meandering canals lined by quaint houses and restaurants, and spanned by stone bridges.  Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this romantic locale more than earned its reputation as the “Venice of the North” and lived up to all expectations set by the views seen in the movie.  Bruges is every bit as quaint, romantic and beautiful as depicted in the movie.  The only caveat is that it is also quite the tourist destination so many of the popular sites will be packed with people.  It was not too bad since we arrived mid week at the end of April, but I could only imagine how it would be in the heart of summer. 

Having only 2 days to explore Bruges, we wanted to be as close to the city centre as possible.  When searching for a place to stay, we used the travel website, which provides a map showing all the choices found within a desired area so that you can select by location.  We chose the Hotel Mallenberg, which was modestly priced at 105 Euros per night (tax included) and had a terrific location steps away from the major tourist sites of the historic city centre.  As an added bonus, we were delighted to find that the hotel itself was an older Flemish-styled brick building with the classic crow-stepped gable façade.  While our room was totally modernized, the basement level, where the complimentary breakfast was served, still featured brick and stone walls and built-in alcoves that seemed to be part of the original structure.

Our hotel was situated next to Burg Square, a large cobble-stoned square that used to be the site of a fortified castle, and is now encircled by some magnificently ornate buildings.  The beautiful Gothic-styled Town Hall (“Stadhuis”) was constructed from 1376-1421 and has been the location from which the city has been governed ever since.  The building features columns of stone sculptures of biblical characters and past Counts of Flanders interspersed with long, narrow stained glass and rose windows and three turrets rising above a roof that is accented by red canopied windows.  I’m not sure why it did not occur to us at the time to go into this building with the amazing façade since apparently the interior is equally stunning as well and was open for public visits.  No matter how much research I do prior to going on a trip, later on while blogging about our experiences, I always realize that we missed something great.  Belatedly, I found a photo of the interior on the internet while preparing for this blog.

Next to the city hall is a smaller but equally beautiful Civil Registry Building, built during the Renaissance period in 1537.  It was also used as a Court House for centuries, as illustrated by the bronze sculpture of the blindfolded Lady Justice holding her scales at the pinnacle of the centre dormer window of the building.  On either sides of her are sculptures of Moses and his brother Aaron.  At the base of the building is a plaque of Bruges’ coat of arms featuring a lion and a bear.  A pedestrian passageway leading to the old fish market” (“Vismarkt”) can be found between the Town Hall and the Civil Registry.  On our Bruges walking tour, we heard a legend (tall tale?) about how it got its name of “Blind Donkey Alley”.  Apparently in the late 14th Century, people from Ghent invaded Bruges and stole a gold dragon sculpture from the top of the Bruges Belfry and used a cart and donkey to make their escape.  But when the donkey reached the alleyway which marked the city limits, it refused to cross.  The robbers blinded the donkey so that it would not know where it was and led the donkey out of Bruges.  But in honor of the donkey’s heroic efforts, the passageway got its name.  The gold dragon sculpture now sits atop a tower in Ghent, but of course, that walking tour provided a totally different story of how it got there.

On the other side of the Town Hall is a highly ornate building housing the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a Roman Catholic church built in the 12th Century as the chapel for the Count of Flanders.  The exterior features gilded statues and medallions of Counts of Flanders and their spouses. A small, austere Romanesque chapel (St. Basil Chapel) can be found on a lower level, but the one to see is the larger, vibrant, colourful Gothic chapel on the upper level.  Named “Chapel of the Holy Blood”, it is decorated with stained glass windows depicting sovereigns of Flanders including Philip the Bold, paintings and sculptures, a curved wood-planked ceiling embellished with floral motifs, a pulpit shaped like a globe and a gilded retable at the centre of the high altar, backed by a massive painting depicting Christ shedding his blood, and the retrieval of the relic that gave the basilica its name.

The basilica is named for its most prized possession, a vial purported to contain a piece of cloth stained with the blood of Christ, which according to legends was brought back from the 2nd Holy Crusades by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.  The lower panels of the mural behind the high altar depict Thierry of Alsace receiving the relic from the King of Jerusalem and then presenting it to the chaplain of the basilica.  The vial was once a Byzantine perfume bottle which was then encased in a glass cylinder capped on each end by gold coronet covered with carvings of angels.  At one end of the chapel, an old clergyman sits in front of the reliquary, which you can walk past and inspect for a small donation to the church.  On Ascension Day, as part of the annual Easter celebrations, the ceremonial “Procession of the Holy Blood” takes place with the relic being the featured attraction.

Right next to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, we found the restaurant Tompouce, which had everything we were looking for in a lunch spot.  It was right next to our hotel so that we could drop off our bags, have lunch and then return to check in.  Being a chilly day, we were attracted to the sign promising a covered, heated glass terrace with a great view of the Burg Square.  And finally, the menu advertising mussels in curry sauce sealed the deal.  These mussels were plump and juicy with a thick, flavourful  curry sauce cooked with onions and celery.  This was a much better mussels experience than our first attempt in Antwerp.  The shrimp croquette appetizer was also very good, coming with a small salad and a side of tiny shrimps.  Rich had a Chimay Trappist beer and I ordered a hot chocolate to finish off the meal.

Market Square (“Markt”) has been the main hub of Bruges for centuries, acting as a general meeting place and the site for festivals, fairs, concerts, performances and tournaments.  It has acted as a marketplace since the 10th Century, hosting a weekly farmers’ market which continues to the present day.  We arrived in Bruges on Market Day and found the square covered with food stalls hawking fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and flowers, and multiple trucks which detracted from the historic look and feel of the area.  But by the afternoon, the square had been cleared and we were able to walk around and get a good look at the buildings including former banks, guild houses and Flemish residences with the crow-stepped gables which have since been converted into shops and restaurants.  On the east side of the square is the Provincial Court or “Hotel de Ville” which is just slightly less ornate than the Town Hall in Burg Square.  Dating back to 1477, the oldest building in the Markt is the Boechoute House, which features a terrestrial globe on its roof which measures solar time.  The markings of what I originally thought was a clock at the front of this building turns out to be directional, possibly to measure wind direction?  Two buildings to the right, the Craenenburg House was used to briefly imprison Maximilian I of Austria when he was captured by local militia in 1488.

The highlight of the Market Square is the Belfry, an 83 metres (272 feet) tall Medieval bell tower originally built in 1240 as an observation post which housed a treasury and municipal archives at its base.  For 10 Euros, you can climb the steep, narrow winding staircase of 366 steps that lead you towards the top of the Belfry.  Several platforms along the way act as rest stops as well as mini museums where you can read information about the tower as well as view items like the wooden chest in the treasury that used to hold gold pieces, the clockwork mechanism, the Great bell that was originally rung manually, and the carillonneur’s chamber containing the keyboard that plays the 47 carillon bells.  Rich did not want to make the climb, so I tackled it alone.  After buying my ticket, I had to wait for my turn to proceed.  The Belfry had quite the sophisticated turnstile system that kept track of how many people entered and exited in order to control the capacity at the top.  Once the maximum number of people had entered, the entry turnstile would not function until someone departed through the exit turnstile.  This provided a very efficient flow of people coming in and out.

It was a long, difficult ascent to the top and sometimes, the steps were so steep that it felt like you were climbing up a vertical wall, grabbing onto the next railing or rope to keep your balance.  But the gorgeous panoramic view of Bruges at the top made it all worthwhile.  I could see Our Lady Church, the Burg Square, our hotel, and the canal traversing through the city and more.  While I was taking my photos through the wire mesh that covered the windows, the giant bells directly above us started to ring and were deafening.

In the centre of the Markt stands the statue dedicated to Jan Breydel and Pieter De Coninck, two guildsmen who led a major uprising called the “Bruges Matins” against the French king in 1302.  Breydel, a butcher and Coninck, a weaver, led the Bruges militia in a nocturnal attack of the French garrisons that resulted in the massacre of most of the French troops.  This revolt culminated in the Battle of the Golden Spurs, fought several months later between French knights on horseback versus foot soldiers amassed from civic militias from multiple Flemish cities who joined in the fight.  The battle was fought outside the city of Kortrijk, just south of Bruges, on a battlefield covered with streams and ditches dug by the Flemish militias, making it difficult for the cavalry to advance.  Using this advantage, the well-trained Flemish foot militia defeated the mounted, heavily armoured French knights, leading to a change in the nature of warfare henceforth.  The battle was named for the 500 pairs of golden spurs captured on the battlefield.  Although the victory was short-lived, with the French recapturing control of the area in 1304, this was still a significant triumph and source of national pride for Flanders, marked by the sculpture erected in the square in 1887.

We took the Legends of Bruges Free Walking Tour to get a bit more background and history about Bruges, as well as hoping to be shown some more obscure sites than the Market and Burg Squares which we had already thoroughly explored on our own.  One such location was the Half Moon Brewery (De Halve Maan), a 150-year-old brewery run by the Maes family, who successfully crowdfunded the money to build an underground pipeline from the brewery to its bottling plant 3.2km away, alleviating the need for tankard trucks to traverse through the old town.  Part of the pipeline is on display running through the cobblestone grounds in front of the brewery.  Another interesting site on the tour was the Ten Wijngaerde Princely Begijnhof, a sanctuary and residential community for pious women since the 13th Century and a convent for the Benedictine nuns since 1927.  The complex includes a church and 30 houses dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  The main gate is accessed by the 3-arched, stone Wijngaard Bridge.  One of the legends that was told on our walking tour involved the stone tomb-like post at the foot of the bridge, marking the beginning of the Beijnhof property.  According to legend, the Beijnhof had its own laws and so a fleeing fugitive could not be arrested once he passed that point.

In the movie “In Bruges”, hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to Bruges by their boss Harry (Ralph Fines) in order to hide out after Ray accidentally kills a little boy while executing a hit on a priest.  While there, they interact with the cast of a movie being shot, including a midget actor named Jimmy and a female drug dealer named Chloe.  During our walking tour, the guide made numerous references to spots that were featured in the movie “In Bruges”.  Many scenes including the movie’s finale were filmed in the Markt Square and the Belfry including two occasions when Ken climbed the steps of the Belfry.  We strolled over the romantic Bonifacius Bridge where Ray woos Chloe and gets her phone number, which led to Our Lady Church and the Gruuthusemuseum where Jimmy's movie was being shot. Just outside the museum, the beautiful Arentshof Park hosts a set of bronze sculptures by Rik Poot, depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, symbolizing War, Famine, Pestilence and Death.

Other iconic Bruges locations featured in the movie “In Bruges” included the Groeningmuseum of Flemish Art which Ken forced Ray to visit in order to gain some culture, the old fish market called Vismarkt, where Ray ran through during a climactic chase scene, various locations along the canal including the Hotel Orangerie where Ken and Ray embarked on a canal tour, and the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, a stylish hotel, decorated with works by artists such as Matisse and Klimt which was used as the location where Ken and Ray stayed and were forced to share a room. 

In addition to walking around the area, we also took a 30 minute canal boat tour that let us see the buildings and bridges from a different perspective.  Because the tour was given in the three languages commonly spoken in Belgium (Dutch, French and English), it was sometimes difficult to understand which building or landmark was being described because by the time we heard the description in English, we either already passed it or had not reached it yet.  Still, it was fun cruising by the large swans and traveling under the bridges.  One bridge was so low that we all had to duck our heads in order not to hit the top of it.  Near the Beijnhof, we rode through the area called Minnewater, also known as the “Lake of Love”, based on a legend about star-crossed lovers Minna and Stromberg from rival tribes.  There was a large contingent of swans swimming in Lake Minnewater.  Another legend tells that this was decreed by Maximillian of Austria in the 15th Century to punish Bruges for executing his town administrator Pieter Lanchals, whose coat of arms contained a swan.

With still so much more to see and do in Bruges, we planned a second day, which will be described in the next blog.

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