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.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.