Bruges Travel Guide
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“Somewhere within the dingy casing lay the ancient city,” wrote Graham Greene of BRUGES, “like a notorious jewel, too stared at, talked of, and trafficked over”. And it’s true that Bruges’s reputation as one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in western Europe has made it the most popular tourist destination in Belgium, packed with visitors throughout the season. Inevitably, the crowds tend to overwhelm the city, but you’d be mad to come to Flanders and miss the place: its museums hold some of the country’s finest collections of Flemish art, and its intimate, winding streets, woven around a skein of narrow canals and lined with gorgeous ancient buildings, live up to even the most inflated tourist hype. See it out of season, or in the early morning before the hordes have descended, and it can be memorable – though not so much on Mondays, when many of the sights are closed.
The obvious place to start an exploration of the city is in the two principal squares: the
Further afield, the gentle canals and maze-like cobbled streets of eastern Bruges – stretching out from
Bruges started out as a ninth-century fortress built by the warlike first count of Flanders, Baldwin Iron Arm, who was intent on defending the Flemish coast from Viking attack. The settlement prospered, and by the fourteenth century it shared effective control of the cloth trade with its two great rivals, Ghent and Ypres (now Ieper), turning high-quality English wool into clothing that was exported all over the known world. An immensely profitable business, it made the city a focus of international trade, and at its peak the town was a key member of – and showcase for the products of – the Hanseatic League, the most powerful economic alliance in medieval Europe. Through the harbours and docks of Bruges, Flemish cloth and Hansa goods were exchanged for hogs from Denmark, spices from Venice, hides from Ireland, wax from Russia, gold and silver from Poland and furs from Bulgaria. The business of these foreign traders was protected by no fewer than 21 consulates, and the city developed a wide range of support services, including banking, money-changing, maritime insurance and an elementary shipping code, known as the Roles de Damme.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this lucrative state of affairs, Bruges was dogged by war. Its weavers and merchants were dependent on the goodwill of the kings of England for the proper functioning of the wool trade, but their feudal overlords, the counts of Flanders, and their successors, the dukes of Burgundy (from 1384), were vassals of the rival king of France. Although some of the dukes and counts were strong enough to defy their king, most felt obliged to obey his orders and thus take his side against the English when the two countries were at war. This conflict of interests was compounded by the designs the French monarchy had on the independence of Bruges itself. Time and again, the French sought to assert control over the cities of West Flanders, but more often than not they encountered armed rebellion. In Bruges, Philip the Fair precipitated the most famous insurrection at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Philip and his wife, Joanna of Navarre, had held a grand reception in Bruges, but it had only served to feed their envy. In the face of the city’s splendour, Joanna moaned, “I thought that I alone was Queen, but here in this place I have six hundred rivals”. The opportunity to flex royal muscles came shortly afterwards when the city’s guildsmen flatly refused to pay a new round of taxes. Enraged, Philip dispatched an army to restore order and garrison the town, but at dawn on Friday May 18, 1302, a rebellious force of Flemings crept into the city and massacred Philip’s sleepy army – an occasion later known as the Bruges Matins: anyone who couldn’t correctly pronounce the Flemish shibboleth schild en vriend (“shield and friend”) was put to the sword. There is a statue celebrating the leaders of the insurrection – Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck – in the Markt.
The Habsburgs, who inherited Flanders – as well as the rest of present-day Belgium and Holland in 1482 – whittled away at the power of the Flemish cities, no one more so than Charles V, the ruler of a vast kingdom that included the Low Countries and Spain. As part of his policy, Charles favoured Antwerp at the expense of Flanders, and to make matters worse, the Flemish cloth industry began its long decline in the 1480s. Bruges was especially badly hit and, as a sign of its decline, failed to dredge the silted-up River Zwin, the town’s trading lifeline to the North Sea. By the 1510s, the stretch of water between Sluis and Damme was only navigable by smaller ships, and by the 1530s the city’s sea trade had collapsed completely. Bruges simply withered away, its houses deserted, its canals empty and its money spirited north with the merchants.
Some four centuries later, Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte alerted well-heeled Europeans to the town’s aged, quiet charms, and Bruges – frozen in time – escaped damage in both world wars to emerge as the perfect tourist attraction.
Jan van Eyckplein, a five-minute walk north of the Markt, is one of the prettiest squares in Bruges, its cobbles backdropped by the easy sweep of the Spiegelrei canal. The centrepiece of the square is an earnest statue of Van Eyck, erected in 1878, whilst on the north side is the Tolhuis, whose fancy Renaissance entrance is decorated with the coat of arms of the dukes of Luxembourg, who long levied tolls here. The Tolhuis dates from the late fifteenth century, but was extensively remodelled in medieval style in the 1870s, as was the Poortersloge (Merchants’ Lodge), whose slender tower pokes up above the rooftops on the west side of the square. Theoretically, any city merchant was entitled to be a member of the Poortersloge, but in fact membership was restricted to the richest and the most powerful. An informal alternative to the Town Hall, it was here that key political and economic decisions were taken – and this was also where local bigwigs could drink and gamble discreetly.
Beyond the east end of the Spiegelrei canal is an old working-class district, whose low brick cottages surround a substantial complex of buildings that originally belonged to the wealthy Adornes family, who migrated here from Genoa in the thirteenth century. Inside the complex, the Kantcentrum (Lace Centre), on the right-hand side of the entrance, has a busy workshop and offers very informal demonstrations of traditional lacemaking in the afternoon (no set times). They sell the stuff too – both here and in the shop at the ticket kiosk – but it isn’t cheap: a smallish Bruges table mat, with two swans, for example, costs €20–25; if you fancy having a go yourself, the shop sells all the gubbins.
Across the passageway from the Kantcentrum is one of the city’s real oddities, the Jeruzalemkerk (Jerusalem Church; same times & ticket as the Kantcentrum), which was built by the Adornes family in the fifteenth century as an approximate copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after one of their number, Pieter, had returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The interior is on two levels: the lower one is dominated by a large and ghoulish altarpiece, decorated with skulls and ladders, in front of which is the black marble tomb of Anselm Adornes, the son of the church’s founder, and his wife Margaretha. There’s more grisliness at the back of the church, where the small vaulted chapel holds a replica of Christ’s tomb – you can glimpse the imitation body down the tunnel behind the iron grating. To either side of the main altar, steps ascend to the choir, which is situated right below the eccentric, onion-domed lantern tower.
Next door to the Gruuthuse, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk is a rambling shambles of a building, a clamour of different dates and styles whose brick spire is – at 122m – one of the tallest in Belgium. Entered from the south, the nave was three hundred years in the making, an architecturally discordant affair, whose thirteenth-century grey-stone central aisle is the oldest part of the church. The central aisle blends in with the south aisle, but the later, fourteenth-century north aisle doesn’t mesh at all – even the columns aren’t aligned. This was the result of changing fashions, not slapdash work: the High Gothic north aisle was intended to be the start of a complete remodelling of the church, but the money ran out before the work was finished.
In the south aisle is the church’s most acclaimed objet d’art, a delicate marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Purchased by a Bruges merchant, this was the only one of Michelangelo’s works to leave Italy during the artist’s lifetime and it had a significant influence on the painters then working in Bruges, though its present setting – beneath gloomy stone walls and set within a gaudy Baroque altar – is hardly prepossessing.
Michelangelo apart, the most interesting part of the church is the chancel beyond the black and white marble rood screen. Here you’ll find the mausoleums of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, two exquisite examples of Renaissance carving, their side panels decorated with coats of arms connected by the most intricate of floral designs. The royal figures are enhanced in the detail, from the helmet and gauntlets placed gracefully by Charles’s side to the pair of watchful dogs nestled at Mary’s feet. Oddly enough, the hole dug by archeologists beneath the mausoleums during the 1970s to discover who was actually buried here was never filled in, so you can see Mary’s coffin, the urn containing the heart of her son and the burial vaults of several unknown medieval dignitaries, three of which have now been moved across to the Lanchals Chapel.
Just across the ambulatory from the mausoleums is the Lanchals Chapel, which holds the imposing Baroque gravestone of Pieter Lanchals, a one-time Habsburg official who had his head lopped off by the citizens of Bruges for corruption in 1488. In front of the Lanchals gravestone are three relocated medieval burial vaults, each plastered with lime mortar. The inside walls of the vaults sport brightly coloured grave frescoes, a type of art which flourished hereabouts from the late thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century. The iconography is fairly consistent, with the long sides mostly bearing one, sometimes two, angels apiece, and most of the angels are shown swinging thuribles (the vessels in which incense is burnt during religious ceremonies). Typically, the short sides show the Crucifixion and a Virgin and Child. The background decoration is more varied with crosses, stars and dots all making appearances as well as two main sorts of flower – roses and bluebells. The frescoes were painted freehand and executed at great speed – Flemings were then buried on the day they died – hence the delightful immediacy of the work.
The last independent rulers of Flanders were Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, both of whom died in unfortunate circumstances, Charles during the siege of the French city of Nancy in 1477, she after a riding accident in 1482, when she was only 25. Mary was married to Maximilian, a Habsburg prince and future Holy Roman Emperor, who inherited her territories on her death – thus, at a dynastic stroke, Flanders was incorporated into the Habsburg empire.
In the sixteenth century, the Habsburgs relocated to Spain, but they were keen to emphasize their connections with – and historical authority over – Flanders, one of the richest parts of their expanding empire. Nothing did this quite as well as the ceremonial burial – or reburial – of bits of royal body. Mary was safely ensconced in Bruges’s Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, but the body of Charles was in a makeshift grave in Nancy. The Emperor Charles V, the great grandson of Charles the Bold, had – or thought he had – this body exhumed and carried to Bruges, where it was reinterred next to Mary. There were, however, persistent rumours that the French, the traditional enemies of the Habsburgs, had deliberately handed over a dud skeleton, specifically one of the knights who died in the same engagement. In the 1970s, archeologists had a bash at solving the mystery. They dug beneath Charles and Mary’s mausoleums in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, but, among the assorted tombs, they failed to authoritatively identify either the body or even the tomb of Charles; Mary proved more tractable, with her skeleton confirming the known details of her hunting accident. Buried alongside her also was the urn which contained the heart of her son, Philip the Fair, placed here in 1506.
From St Janshospitaal, it’s a couple of minutes’ walk north to St-Salvatorskathedraal (Holy Saviour Cathedral) a bulky Gothic edifice that mostly dates from the late thirteenth century, though the ambulatory was added some two centuries later. A parish church for most of its history, it was only made a cathedral in 1834 following the destruction of St Donatian’s by the French. This change of status prompted lots of ecclesiastical rumblings – nearby Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk was bigger and its spire higher – and when part of St Salvators went up in smoke in 1839, the opportunity was taken to make its tower higher and grander in a romantic rendition of the Romanesque style.
Recently cleaned, the cathedral’s nave has emerged from centuries of accumulated grime, but it remains a cheerless, cavernous affair. The star turn is the set of eight paintings by Jan van Orley displayed in the transepts. Commissioned in the 1730s, the paintings were used for the manufacture of a matching set of tapestries from a Brussels workshop and, remarkably enough, these have survived too and hang in sequence in the choir and nave. Each of the eight scenes is a fluent, dramatic composition featuring a familiar episode from the life of Christ – from the Nativity to the Resurrection – complete with a handful of animals, including a remarkably determined Palm Sunday donkey. The tapestries are actually mirror images of the paintings as the weavers worked with the rear of the tapestries uppermost on their looms; the weavers also had sight of the tapestry paintings – or rather cartoon copies, as the originals were too valuable to be kept beside the looms.
Entered from the nave, the cathedral Schatkamer occupies the adjoining neo-Gothic chapter house, whose nine rooms are packed with ecclesiastical tackle, from religious paintings and statues through to an assortment of reliquaries, vestments and croziers. The labelling is poor, however, so it’s a good idea to pick up the English-language mini-guide at the entrance. Room B holds the treasury’s finest painting, a gruesome, oak-panel triptych, The Martyrdom of St Hippolytus, by Dieric Bouts (1410–1475) and Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482). The right panel depicts the Roman Emperor Decius, a notorious persecutor of Christians, trying to persuade the priest Hippolytus to abjure his faith. He fails, and in the central panel Hippolytus is pulled to pieces by four horses.
From the east side of the Markt, Breidelstraat leads through to the city’s other main square, the Burg, named after the fortress built here by the first count of Flanders, Baldwin Iron Arm, in the ninth century. The fortress disappeared centuries ago, but the Burg long remained the centre of political and ecclesiastical power with the Stadhuis (which has survived) on one side and St-Donaaskathedraal (which hasn’t) on the other. The French army destroyed the cathedral in 1799 and although the foundations were laid bare in the 1950s, they were promptly re-interred – they lie in front of and underneath the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The southern half of the Burg is fringed by the city’s finest group of buildings, beginning on the right with the Heilig Bloed Basiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) named after the holy relic that found its way here in the Middle Ages. The church divides into two parts. Tucked away in the corner, the lower chapel is a shadowy, crypt-like affair, originally built at the beginning of the twelfth century to shelter another relic, that of St Basil, one of the great figures of the early Greek Church. The chapel’s heavy and simple Romanesque lines are decorated with just one relief, carved above an interior doorway and showing the baptism of Basil in which a strange giant bird, representing the Holy Spirit, plunges into a pool of water.
Next door, approached up a wide, low-vaulted curving staircase, the upper chapel was built a few years later, but has been renovated so frequently that it’s impossible to make out the original structure; it also suffers from excessively rich nineteenth-century decoration. The building may be disappointing, but the large silver tabernacle that holds the rock-crystal phial of the Holy Blood is simply magnificent, being the gift of Albert and Isabella of Spain in 1611. One of the holiest relics in medieval Europe, the phial of the Holy Blood purports to contain a few drops of blood and water washed from the body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea. Local legend asserts that it was the gift of Diederik d’Alsace, a Flemish knight who distinguished himself by his bravery during the Second Crusade and was given the phial by a grateful patriarch of Jerusalem in 1150. It is, however, rather more likely that the relic was acquired during the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, when the Crusaders simply ignored their collective job description and robbed and slaughtered the Byzantines instead – hence the historical invention. Whatever the truth, after several weeks in Bruges, the relic was found to be dry, but thereafter it proceeded to liquefy every Friday at 6pm until 1325, a miracle attested to by all sorts of church dignitaries, including Pope Clement V.
The phial of the Holy Blood is still venerated and, despite modern scepticism, reverence for it remains strong. It’s sometimes available for visitors to touch under the supervision of a priest inside the chapel, and on Ascension Day (mid-May). it’s carried through the town centre in a colourful but solemn procession, the Heilig-Bloedprocessie, a popular event for which grandstand tickets are sold at the main tourist office from March 1.
The shrine that holds the phial during the procession is displayed in the tiny Schatkamer, next to the upper chapel. Dating to 1617, it’s a superb piece of work, the gold and silver superstructure encrusted with jewels and decorated with tiny religious figures. The treasury also contains an incidental collection of ecclesiastical bric-a-brac plus a handful of old paintings. Look out also, above the treasury door, for the faded strands of a locally woven seventeenth-century tapestry depicting St Augustine’s funeral, the sea of helmeted heads, torches and pikes that surround the monks and abbots very much a Catholic view of a muscular State supporting a holy Church.
The Groeninge Museum possesses one of the world’s finest samples of early Flemish paintings, from Jan van Eyck through to Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Provoost. These paintings make up the kernel of the museum’s permanent collection, but there are later (albeit lesser) pieces on display too, reaching into the twentieth century, with works by the likes of Constant Permeke and Paul Delvaux.
Arguably the greatest of the early Flemish masters, Jan van Eyck (1385–1441) lived and worked in Bruges from 1430 until his death eleven years later. He was a key figure in the development of oil painting, modulating its tones to create paintings of extraordinary clarity and realism. The Groeninge has two gorgeous examples of his work, beginning with the miniature portrait of his wife, Margareta van Eyck, painted in 1439 and bearing his motto, “als ich can” (the best I can do). The painting is very much a private picture and one that had no commercial value, marking a small step away from the sponsored art – and religious preoccupations – of previous Flemish artists. The second Eyck painting is the remarkable Madonna and Child with Canon George van der Paele, a glowing and richly symbolic work with three figures surrounding the Madonna: the kneeling canon, St George (his patron saint) and St Donatian, to whom he is being presented. St George doffs his helmet to salute the infant Christ and speaks by means of the Hebrew word “Adonai” (Lord) inscribed on his chin strap, while Jesus replies through the green parrot in his left hand: folklore asserted that this type of parrot was fond of saying “Ave”, the Latin for welcome. The canon’s face is exquisitely executed, down to the sagging jowls and the bulging blood vessels at his temple, while the glasses and book in his hand add to his air of deep contemplation. Audaciously, van Eyck has broken with tradition by painting the canon among the saints rather than as a lesser figure – a distinct nod to the humanism that was gathering pace in contemporary Bruges.
The Groeninge possesses two fine and roughly contemporaneous copies of paintings by Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464), one-time official city painter to Brussels. The first is a tiny Portrait of Philip the Good, in which the pallor of the duke’s aquiline features, along with the brightness of his hatpin and chain of office, are skilfully balanced by the sombre cloak and hat. The second and much larger painting, St Luke painting the Portrait of Our Lady, is a rendering of a popular if highly improbable legend that Luke painted Mary – thereby becoming the patron saint of painters. The painting is notable for the detail of its Flemish background and the cheeky-chappie smile of the baby Christ.
Also noteworthy is the spookily stark Surrealism of Paul Delvaux’s (1897–1994) Serenity. One of the most interesting of Belgium’s modern artists, Delvaux started out as an Expressionist but came to – and stayed with – Surrealism in the 1930s. This painting is a classic example of his oeuvre and, if it whets your artistic appetite, you might consider visiting Delvaux’s old home, in St-Idesbald, which has been turned into a museum with a comprehensive selection of his paintings (see The Atlantikwall).
The Groeninge also owns a couple of minor oils and a number of etchings and drawings by James Ensor (1860–1949), one of Belgium’s most innovative painters, and Magritte’s (1898–1967) characteristically unnerving The Assault; for more on Magritte
Opposite the entrance to the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk is St-Janshospitaal, a sprawling complex that sheltered the sick of mind and body until well into the nineteenth century. The oldest part – at the front on Mariastraat, behind two church-like gable ends – has been turned into the slick Hospitaalmuseum, while the nineteenth-century annexe, reached along a narrow passageway on the north side of the museum, has been converted into a really rather tatty exhibition-cum-shopping centre called – rather confusingly – Oud St-Jan.
The Hospitaalmuseum divides into two, with one large section – in the former hospital ward – exploring the historical background to the hospital through documents, paintings and religious objets d’art. Highlights include a pair of sedan chairs used to carry the infirm to the hospital in emergencies, and Jan Beerblock’s The Wards of St Janshospitaal, a minutely detailed painting of the hospital ward as it was in the late eighteenth century, the patients tucked away in row upon row of tiny, cupboard-like beds. Other noteworthy paintings include an exquisite Deposition of Christ, a late fifteenth-century version of an original by Rogier van der Weyden, and a stylish, intimately observed diptych by Jan Provoost, with portraits of Christ and the donor – a friar - on the front and a skull on the back.
The old chapel inside the Hospitaalmuseum displays six wonderful paintings by Hans Memling (1433–1494). Born near Frankfurt, Memling spent most of his working life in Bruges, where Rogier van der Weyden instructed him. He adopted much of his tutor’s style and stuck to the detailed symbolism of his contemporaries, but his painterly manner was distinctly restrained, often pious and grave. Graceful and warmly coloured, his figures also had a velvet-like quality that greatly appealed to the city’s burghers, whose enthusiasm made Memling a rich man – in 1480 he was listed among the town’s major moneylenders.
Of the six works on display, the most unusual is the Reliquary of St Ursula, comprising a miniature wooden Gothic church painted with the story of St Ursula. Memling condensed the legend into six panels with Ursula and her ten companions landing at Cologne and Basle before reaching Rome at the end of their pilgrimage. Things go badly wrong on the way back: they leave Basle in good order, but are then – in the last two panels – massacred by Huns as they pass through Germany. Memling had a religious point to make, but today it’s the mass of incidental detail that makes the reliquary so enchanting, providing an intriguing evocation of the late medieval world. Equally delightful is the Mystical Marriage of St Catherine, the middle panel of a large triptych depicting St Catherine, who represents contemplation, receiving a ring from the baby Jesus to seal their spiritual union. The complementary side panels depict the beheading of St John the Baptist and a visionary St John writing the Book of Revelation on the bare and rocky island of Patmos. Again, it’s the detail that impresses: between the inner and outer rainbows above St John, for instance, the prophets play music on tiny instruments – look closely and you’ll spy a lute, a flute, a harp and a hurdy-gurdy. Across the chapel are two more Memling triptychs, a Lamentation and an Adoration of the Magi, in which there’s a gentle nervousness in the approach of the Magi, here shown as the kings of Spain, Arabia and Ethiopia.
Memling’s skill as a portraitist is demonstrated to exquisite effect in his Portrait of a Young Woman, where the richly dressed subject stares dreamily into the middle distance, her hands – in a superb optical illusion – seeming to clasp the picture frame. The lighting is subtle and sensuous, with the woman set against a dark background, her gauze veil dappling the side of her face. A high forehead was then considered a sign of great womanly beauty, so her hair is pulled right back and was probably plucked – as are her eyebrows. There’s no knowing who the woman was, but in the seventeenth century her fancy headgear convinced observers that she was one of the legendary Persian sibyls who predicted Christ’s birth; so convinced were they that they added the cartouche in the top left-hand corner, describing her as Sibylla Sambetha – and the painting is often referred to by this name.
The sixth and final painting, the Virgin and Martin van Nieuwenhove diptych, is exhibited in the adjoining side chapel. Here, the eponymous merchant has the flush of youth and a hint of arrogance: his lips pout, his hair cascades down to his shoulders and he is dressed in the most fashionable of doublets – by the middle of the 1480s, when the portrait was commissioned, no Bruges merchant wanted to appear too pious. Opposite, the Virgin gets the full stereotypical treatment from the oval face and the almond-shaped eyes through to full cheeks, thin nose and bunched lower lip.
At the heart of Bruges is the Markt, an airy open space edged on three sides by rows of gabled buildings and with horse-drawn buggies clattering over the cobbles. The burghers of nineteenth-century Bruges were keen to put something suitably civic in the middle of the square and the result was the conspicuous monument to the leaders of the Bruges Matins, Pieter de Coninck, of the guild of weavers, and Jan Breydel, dean of the guild of butchers. Standing close together, they clutch the hilt of the same sword, their faces turned to the south in slightly absurd poses of heroic determination.
The biscuit-tin buildings flanking most of the Markt form a charming architectural chorus, their mellow ruddy-brown brick shaped into a long string of pointed gables, each gable of which is compatible with but slightly different from its neighbour. Most are late nineteenth- or even twentieth-century re-creations – or re-inventions – of older buildings, though the old post office, which hogs the east side of the square, is a thunderous neo-Gothic edifice that refuses to camouflage its modern construction. The Craenenburg Café, on the corner of St Amandsstraat at Markt 16, occupies a modern building too, but it marks the site of the eponymous medieval mansion in which the guildsmen of Bruges imprisoned the Habsburg heir, Archduke Maximilian, for three months in 1488. The reason for their difference of opinion was the archduke’s efforts to limit the city’s privileges, but whatever the justice of their cause, the guildsmen made a big mistake. Maximilian made all sorts of promises to escape their clutches, but a few weeks after his release his father, the Emperor Frederick III, turned up with an army to take imperial revenge. Maximilian became emperor in 1493 and he never forgave Bruges, doing his considerable best to push trade north to its great rival, Antwerp.