The Venice of the North

BRUGES in French, BRUGGE in Flemish

Sunday-Monday, April 14-15, 2019

To make the most of our out-of-town boat errands we sandwiched between the tasks two Belgium cities we wanted to explore:  Bruges and Antwerp. We had visited the former when visiting with our Belgium family (Ta, Koen, Seppe, Frieke, & Wannes and pup Cuba) in 2002. But, Max didn’t feel well, it was cold, and early Christmas shoppers packed the streets. And, we had missed Antwerp in our previous travels, making it now a prime destination before starting summer cruising.

So, off we drove early Sunday morning, first dropping off Scandinavian cruising guides to some friends in Blankenberge, Belgium then to Bruges.

This once-fortified city was one of the richest in Europe during the Middle Ages thanks to the trade of cloth. And, the city wears this mantle of medieval entitlement well, starting with its stately buildings

and scenic canals, which give Bruges its well-earned descriptor Venice of the North*.

*Another nickname this city earned is Brugse Zotten (The Bruges’ Crazies) from the time of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519). Due to his having been held captive here for four months, he denied Bruges the right to hold fairs. The residents tried to appease him with a huge party in his honor. In addition to being allowed to have fairs again as well as levy taxes, the townsmen requested the right to build a madhouse. Reportedly he replied, “Close all the city gates and it is a madhouse”. By the way, the local beer is called Brugse Zot and, since the early 2000s, is sent by pipe out of the city to be bottled, as we saw in the Brewery’s floor.

For an excellent background of Bruges during its medieval period read Dorothy Dunnett’s eight-book series THE HOUSE OF NICCOLIÒ. I hated reaching the last page of the final book. Frankly, I think it would rival “The Game of Thrones” if someone managed to translate her story into a TV show.

But, you can see Bruges on the screen in the film noir “In Bruges” with Colin Farrell. Definitely another worthwhile view of this town, although we later met two travelers who hated it, so consider my recommendations as very subjective.

The history of Bruges and the province of Flanders becomes clear as mud when you start reading about the power struggles between various rulers and wanna-be-rulers over control of this European territory. So, below are excerpts providing a glimpse of this city’s past:

  • The site began as a landing on the Zwijn estuary of the Reie River (Bruges’ name is derived from a Roman bridge over the river). Later flooding of the area created channels as well as a link to the North Sea and an opportunity to increase trade.
  • The town later served as the fortification of Baldwin the Iron Arm (love these names), the count of Flanders, against Vikings/Norman invaders in the 9th century.
  • The House of Burgundy entered into the picture when Count Louis II of Flanders’s heiress Margaret III (1350-1405), the last Countess of Flanders, married Philip the Bold (1342-1404), the youngest son of French King John II and Duke of Burgundy.
  • Due to its monopoly on English wool (considered the finest grade) used in the weaving of Flemish cloth, Bruges became one of the richest European cities during the 13th- and 14th-centuries, along with nearby Ghent and Ypres.  With such a reputation, it’s not surprising to hear of the royals purchasing Flemish tapestries to warm their damp and chilly castles. Some of the most famous and stunning ones- black & white as well as full color -are the Jagiellonian tapestries ordered by Polish Kings Sigismund I & II in the mid-1500s for their Krakow royal residence, the Wawel Castle. Out of the approximately 170 made, miraculously over 100 still remain.
  • The city’s wealth led to internal struggles including one between the guilds and the governing power, resulting in the Brugse Metten (Bruges Matins) May 18, 1302:  guildsmen murdered anyone who couldn’t pronounce the Flemish phrase ’schild en friend’ (shield and friend). A statue in the main square memorializes the two leaders of this revolt, Pieter de Doninck (head of the Weavers Guild) and Jan Breeder (head of the Butchers Guild).

  • Bruges, whose status in the cloth trade attracted the attention of the economic powerhouse, the german Hanseatic League, joined this commercial organization in the 14th century.
  • In the 15th century the Dukes of Burgundy helped foster Bruges’ trade dominance. Not only aristocrats and merchants prospered but also artists, such as  Jan van Eyck (1370-1441) who became the court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467) (not sure why he acquired the nickname ‘the good’ but I did read he had at least 18 illegitimate kids so he was obviously good at something besides begetting riches).
  • But, just as water positioned Bruges as a vital trading port on the North Sea, it also took this gift away when the Zwijn waterway began silting up. The Hanseatic League moved to Antwerp with merchants soon following, and by the end of the 15th century Bruges slipped into dormancy.
  • The Eighty Years War (1566-1646) between the Spanish rulers and the Dutch created a split between a Protestant secular governance in the Netherlands and a Catholic royal rule in the Spanish Netherlands (basically, present-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and a part of northern France).
  • Bruges began its revitalization in the 1800s when wealthy tourists discovered this idyllic city wreathed by canals.

  • Spared during German occupations in WWI and II Bruges became a UNESCO site in 2000 and was designated the European City of Culture in 2002.
  • In 2015 the city hosted 7.8 million tourists. A bit overwhelming considering only 20,000 of the just under 120,000 residents inhabit the city center.

Okay, I’m finished with the history lesson, now off to explore.

With less than 24 hours to see the sights we booked a room within easy walking distances of the sites, which isn’t difficult since one can cover the whole area within two hours of walking. We quickly stashed our luggage and exited into medieval times.

Believe it or not, we didn’t tour many museums because we wanted to simply soak up the ambiance during our short stay here. Which meant we strolled the streets in spring sun beginning in the Markt, (the main square) where the Halle with its famous, 83-meter (272 feet) belfry stands.

The belfry was added in 1282 with the octagonal upper section completed 200 years later.

With 366 steps to climb we opted out of that exertion but did peek into the courtyard

and snapped a photo of a photo showing the view if we had climbed all those steps.

Similar to other cities we’ve toured a small carnival plopped itself on the main square flashing colorful lights advertising kiddie rides and games.

All a bit surreal against a backdrop of imposing buildings; yet the modern fair added a light-hearted touch to the surroundings dominated not only by the 13th-century Belfry but also the late 19th-century, Neo-Gothic Provinciall Hof (seat of the provincial government).

Spotting a city tour bus

we hopped on for 50 minutes of a bored driver who would pull up to a site, point his arm and let the multi-lingual headphones provide their limited commentary. The only time he smiled occurred as we were exiting next to the tip jar.

Just to give you an idea of the throngs milling about this spring day (foretelling the mob scenes to come as spring turns into summer), I took a photo out of the window:

Not too informative of a ride but it did provide an opportunity for our picking out where we’d want to go next.

And, two sites we selected centered on the importance of religion (not unusual since churches seem to sprout like mushrooms in these medieval towns), the first being Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (aka O.L.V.-Kerk, aka The Church of Our Lady)

Built on a plot inhabited by previous churches (first from the 9th-century, followed by a Romanesque one in the 12th-century) the current structure began 1210 in the Gothic style and continued birthing additional parts (steeple tower, chapels, etc.) into the 16th and 17th centuries. Bizarrely (to me) in the 18th century, after the French Revolution, the church was for sale resulting in the parishioners buying it back.

During the centuries saintly relics, those pilgrim magnets, i.e., money-makers, pumped up attendance and the church’s coffers insuring O.L.V.’s religious importance. But, entering structures of this magnitude with their soaring ceilings and impressive decor, such as the 12 apostles lining the main aisle of the nave, one doesn’t need dead people’s organs to feel spirituality hovering in the air.

Today the church serves as a museum with one of its most notable pieces being the statue ‘Madonna and Child’ by Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564). Commissioned by a Cardinal who later became Pope Pius III for the main alter of Siena, Italy’s cathedral, it ended up as a gift by Bruges merchant Jan Mouscron to O.L.V.

Because you can’t get within less than 20 feet of this guarded piece of art (I zoomed in to capture the image above), there’s an unimpressive duplicate, although, that, too, is encased in a glass box. When I noticed Max peering at it, I pointed to the real one. He was happy to hear it wasn’t the original as he didn’t think the copy looked too great. (Nor did this statue replace Michelangelo’s Pieta as his all-time favorite.)

The need for security is understandable considering the statue was stolen in 1794 during the French Occupation, returned in 1816 following the Peace of Vienna, only to be seized by the Nazis in 1945, then found along other priceless pieces of art in an Austrian salt mine. And, it was placed back in its original site for paying visitors to now see.

Other notable work catching my eye included:

two elaborate oaken confessionals carved over two years in High Baroque style (1697-98)…

two ceremonial tombs of Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482) who died falling off her horse and whose husband, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian of Austria (1459-1519), commissioned this tomb in 1502 with her son, Philip the Fair (1478-1506), adding the gilt-work,

all on top of her bricked-in remains (empty burial tomb seen below through glass floor)

and lying nearby is Charles the Bold (1433-1477), Duke of Burgundy who died at the Battle of Nancy, in the other glittery tomb after Charles V brought his remains to Bruges in 1558 and his son,  Philip II (who fought William I of the Netherlands for control of the Low Countries during the 80-year war) commissioned this one in 1562.

Unlike Michelangelo’s statue these monuments were safely squirreled away during the French Revolution only to be returned in 1806, and you could get with ten feet of them…

The pulpit created in the mid-1700s features a woman (‘Faith’) sitting on a globe who’s proclaiming the ‘Good News’ while holding the proverb “Understand what is wise, O ye of little wisdom; listen, and I will tell you many great things; for what passes my lips is righteous and true”, obviously what’s true has something to do with Jesus or God and not advertising Burger King’s Impossible Whopper…

finally, lots of paintings hung on the walls with one, to me, of the most striking being ‘The Crucifixion’ attributed to Antoon van Djick (1599-1641).


Of course, we can not not tour something with even a whisper of an MDT (Max Disaster Tour ), and we found one of those in The Basilica of the Precious Blood (a 19th-century photo of this building appears earlier in this post)

The Chapel sits on the 9th-century fortification occupied by the first count of Flanders, Baldwin Iron Arm.

Crusading Count Thierry of Alsace (1099-1168) built a Romanesque, two-story chapel. Dedicated to St. Basil, the lower chapel creates a sombre and muted atmosphere with its unadorned stone walls and dim lighting,

while the upper story, added in 1530’s, matches the exterior with regards to ornate architectual elements. With no flash allowed some of my photos, as you’ll see, are unfortunately blurry but will give you a hint of the richness within these walls.

And, it’s in the Upper Chapel where one can witness and partake of the bizarre, daily ritual of parading past a cylindrical vial holding some of Jesus’ blood; and, those who know me can probably imagine my eye roll at that bit of ‘truth’. But, hearing this event would occur in 15 minutes we decided to take one of the seats in a small area (seen below) off to the right of the main altar (seen above) to get our dose of sacredness.

Supposedly the Patriarch of Jerusalem bestowed this valuable bit of Jesus to Count Thierry, a fanatical crusader, to thank him for his bravery during the Second Crusade (1147-49).

However, later research indicates the relic most likely came to Bruges from Constantinople in the early 13th century. Oh well, at least the Jesus’ blood part is true…

By the time the relic made its appearance on the altar, a guard motioned people, by now standing as well as sitting in front of the altar, to begin lining up one by one. When my turn came I climbed the eight steps or so, approached the relic, smiled at the woman overseeing it, then dropped my eyes to see a stained bit of cloth.

A bit anti-climatic for me but I can only imagine how powerful this must be for those who believe in it.

However, for me, all I can imagine is the power of the all-mighty coin; yet, to be fair, surprisingly we were not charged extra to see the relic.

When not being brought out for 30 minutes of homage by tourists such as ourselves, the encapsulated blood resides in a gold and silver, gem-encrusted reliquary.

The highlight of this worship occurs every Ascension Day (when Christ finally goes to Heaven 40 days after his resurrection).

After our holy episode, it was time to leave Bruge, but not without gazing once more at this sumptuous jewel of a Medieval city and saying to one another, we’d love to come back. Only this time I can skip the blood.

And, that ends our 24-hour stroll through this medieval treasure.

Next, Antwerp!




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