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.