Belgium: “In Bruges”

February 14, 2016.  As the title of this post implies, Matthew and I planned a visit to Bruges after watching the gruesomely dark comedy by the same name.  I guess it’s a little weird that a film about a couple of hired assassins inspired our romantic Valentine’s Day trip.  But as the backdrop for intense brutality, the city’s magical Medieval atmosphere becomes one of the standout stars of the show.  (If you haven’t seen it, rent it.  You’ll love it.  And you’ll want to visit Bruges, too.)

Belgium has a fabulous modern train system. Just wish the timetables reflected reality a bit more. by the way, in Flemish, Bruges is spelled Brugge.
Belgium has a fabulous modern train system. If only the timetables reflected reality a bit more. By the way, in Flemish, Bruges is spelled Brugge.

Our trip to Bruges began with a train ride from Brussels that confirmed the truth behind the Belgian saying:  “Everything’s broken; but it still works.”  First, the train to Bruges didn’t appear on the depot’s main display.  Then, when we asked the staff for directions, each person had a different departure time and track on their computer screens.  Finally, the platform that advertised its destination as Bruges was actually going somewhere else.

We managed to catch the right train only because Matthew looked across the tracks and saw the Bruges-labeled cars at a different platform.  We and a whole host of other confused travelers ran like maniacs and barely managed to hop on as the train was pulling away.  When we inquired about the issue, the conductor said, “The other track has been broken since yesterday, so we just used this one.”  Nice.  A bit of a head’s-up might’ve been helpful for the staff and passengers.

This was about as close as we came to “suburbia.”  Many folks had at least a few chickens scratching in their backyards, and several homes boasted beautifully espaliered orchards.

Finally on our way, we watched the scenic countryside roll past the window.  One thing I’m always impressed by in Europe: how quickly you can get out of the city and encounter nature.  I’m so used to the suburban sprawl that extends for miles around American cities.  It’s not that European cities are substantially smaller.  Brussels’ population is only a third less than Metropolitan Chicago’s.  But Chicago is spread out over ten times the amount of territory.  (I did the math.)

Canals drained swaths of farmland, while surrounding wetlands dotted with clumps of sedges and scrubby trees harbored lots of wildlife.

It seems that European countries recognize their limited physical space and choose to preserve as much land as possible by creating incredibly dense cities.  As a result, a mere 20 minutes outside Brussels, we rolled through vast tracks of flat farmland and wetlands where sheep grazed and waterbirds foraged.  Another surprise:  I’d say almost half of the houses, apartment buildings, and businesses sported solar panels on their roofs — pretty impressive for a country whose waterlogged condition testifies to a fair amount of cloudy days and rainfall.

You can't beat Bruges for Medieval ambiance.
You can’t beat Bruges for Medieval ambiance.

In any case, after an hour, we pulled into Bruges and caught a bus to our hotel.  As we rode along, the size of the city astonished us.  We’d expected a tiny hamlet from our In Bruges exposure.  But what we found was a substantial Medieval town.  Row after row of timber-and-brick Flemish houses nestled along cobblestone streets.  Every corner bristled with Gothic spires.  A ring of canals meandered through and around the town, giving it a feel similar to Amsterdam.  I can’t say enough about how beautiful Bruges is, so I’ll let the photos do the talking in my gallery below.

Our cozy timbered room at the Hotel Patritius.
Our cozy timbered room at the Hotel Patritius.

We checked into our fairytale B&B, a gorgeous 1830’s mansion known as the Hotel Patritius, which is run by the lovely Spaey family.  (Incredible rooms, delicious breakfast.)  And then we hit the ground running.  But rather than giving you the full day-by-day, play-by-play, I’ll hit the highlights below and illuminate them with a few photo galleries.  Let me also give you an advance warning — this is my longest post ever ’cause I was simply too lazy to break it up into several entries — so grab a comfy chair and a cup of coffee before proceeding.

Colin Farrell ain't lyin'. The Bell Tower's stairs are no joke.
Colin Farrell ain’t lyin,’ kids. The Bell Tower stairs (366 steps) are no joke.

The Bell Tower
Of course, since In Bruges inspired our visit, we had to hit the Bell Tower right away.  Probably one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the “fat American family” (with suspiciously Irish accents) chases Colin Farrell around the courtyard for his not-so-gentle warning that they shouldn’t attempt the steep climb.  He was right.  It’s not a hike for the heavyset.  Beyond the innumerable spiraling steps, the stairwell itself is so narrow that many folks had to sidle up sideways.

Bruges’ original belfry, built in 1300, got its octagonal lantern in 1486, making it 290 feet high.

But what a reward at the top!  And I don’t mean just the incredible view out over the town.  The chance to watch the various ways to ring the bells is unbeatable entertainment.  Fingers in my ears to dampen the sound, I witnessed from closeup how an enormous giant barrel — pegged like the cylinder in a music box — triggers the levers that ring the time.  Then I peered into the little carillon room to spy on the carillon-player, who sat at his organ-like instrument, pounding out the tunes with his feet and fists.  Definitely the coolest moment of the trip.

By the 14th century, Bruges had become the largest cloth-trading center in northern Europe, and one of the biggest cities in the world. Burg Square is its historical birthplace.

Burg Square & City Hall
Bristling with spiny Gothic arches and glittering with gold leaf, this eye-popping plaza bears a marked resemblance to Brussels’ Grand Place.  For good reason.  Bruges’ City Hall (on the left in the photo) stood in as the model for the one in Brussels.

The bride is in blue, holding a bouquet of pink flowers.
The bride is in blue, holding a bouquet of pink flowers.

We happened to arrive at City Hall just as a bride exited the place.  Let me confess right now:  There’s nothing I love better than wedding crashing.  So I acted the fool for awhile and snapped some shots like a paparazza, then we headed inside the building.  The main draw is the Gothic Room, which is plastered in 19th-century frescoes that read like a giant comic book, telling the story of Bruges.  But the wooden ceiling gets my vote for delivering the knockout OMG moment.  Its dangling arches somehow remind me of stalactites hanging from a cave.  I’m not sure that this would be the best room to get married in, however.  It’s so colorful and majestic that anything less than an Elizabethan gown might feel like a letdown.

Here, angels holding inferior relics kneel to acknowledge the vial’s superior status. On the far left, an angel looks sad because she’s got bragging rights only to Veronica’s veil, the whip used on Jesus, and the dice tossed by the guards who gambled over his robe. And on the far right, another hopeful-looking angel has cobbled together everything else she can find — the crown of thorns, Jesus’s robe, and a few other paltry bits. Her stuff just doesn’t measure up, though, as a ring of cupids clearly forms a halo around the winning vial.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood
Gotta say, this church wins the award for best relic:  A vial of Jesus’s blood.  My skeptical self wanted to see the stuff up close, and luckily, we happened to pick a show-n-tell day for our visit.  (The vial is usually only available to gawkers on Fridays.)  As we joined the short line at the base of the display dais, a lady crossly waved us on, shouting “We’re closing, hurry up!”

On visitation days, the vial sits in a little glass box for the faithful to admire up close.

Everyone’s reverential mood now cut short, we clambered up the stairs where another lady stood waiting to take our money.  After a quick genuflection, we got a brief gander at a rock-crystal vial that held a fairly substantial amount of pink stuff.  Then the lady handed us a pamphlet containing the recommended prayer and a photo of the relic.

Look's like it's tailor-made for Michael Jordan. It's supposed to be a globe, but I'm thinking more like Globetrotters.
Looks like a pulpit tailor-made for Michael Jordan. It’s supposed to be a globe, but I’m thinking more like Globetrotters.

Business transaction complete, she briskly removed the vial from its case, wrapped it up in a cloth, and perfunctorily toted it away in what looked like an old metal tool box.  Okay, not the most transcendent moment, but entertaining, nonetheless.  The show wasn’t over yet, however.  The church interior itself, which was gutted by Napoleon in 1797, contains a vivid 19th-century, Neo-gothic mural that tells the story of how the blood got to Bruges.  Every year on Ascension Day, it’s still paraded around the streets by townsfolk dressed in Medieval costumes.  My favorite church furniture, though, had to be the pulpit, which bore a strong resemblance to an NCAA-regulation basketball.

A wealthy Bruges businessman bought the statue in Tuscany and his tomb rests beneath it.
While visiting Tuscany, a wealthy Bruges businessman bought Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child and brought it back home to sit atop his tomb.

Church of Our Lady
George Clooney’s The Monuments Men motivated our visit to this church.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s another good film to put on your bucket list.  It tells the true story of a group of scholars who ran around Europe saving artwork from the Nazis.  One of the key plot lines and most dramatic moments in the movie is the rescue of a statue in this church:  The Madonna and Child by Michelangelo (1504) — the only piece that left Italy in his lifetime.  And it’s pretty friggin’ spectacular.

At age 25 and the mother of a toddler, Mary (left) fell from her horse and died. Her dad died in battle in 1477.
At age 25 and the mother of a toddler, Mary (left) fell from her horse and died. Her dad was killed in battle in 1477.

The rest of the church isn’t too shabby, either, and includes some sinuous Renaissance carvings along the back of the choir, as well as the impressive tombs of local rulers Mary of Burgundy and her dad, Charles the Bold.  The most unusual crypts, though, are those that were found in a 1979 excavation beneath the altar.  They bear primitive paintings of the Holy Family that remind me of the “royals” found on the face cards in a deck of playing cards.

Pictured is a contraption designed to support a pregnant woman's belly. Who would've thought the hoola hoop was a Medieval invention? And what's she got in there, anyway? Is she a Middle Age Octomom?
Pictured is a contraption designed to support a pregnant woman’s belly. Who would’ve thought the Hula Hoop was a Medieval invention? And what the heck has she got in there, anyway? Is she the Middle Ages’ Octomom?

The Memling Museum & Flemish Primitives
Probably the most unique museum I’ve visited in a while is the Memling.  It’s housed in St. Johns, a former Medieval hospital.  So alongside incredible Flemish Primitive paintings by hometown boy Hans Memling, you can check out macabre medical equipment from the Middle Ages.  Nearby is the Groeninge Museum, which holds more spellbinding paintings by Memling, van Eyke, and their contemporaries.

I think my favorite moment of the visit, though, was a conversation I had with the museum shop clerk.  I noticed she had a DVD of The Monuments Men for sale and commented on how much I loved the movie.  She said, “Ooo, la, la.  That George Clooney.  He’s so sexy.  He came to visit here after he filmed the movie.  When I looked up through my window and saw it was him, I almost passed out.”

Who doesn’t want a creepy cartoon character made of chocolate?

Chocolate, Frites, & Moules
While in Bruges, Matthew and I enjoyed several fine meals of moules (mussels) and frites (french fries) — and we ate at least five pounds of chocolate.  The latter comes in every conceivable shape and form, from sacred, to frankly pornographic.  Belgium has got to be a nightmare for dieters and diabetics.

Romantic ambience on Valentine’s Day.

During our Valentine’s dinner, Matthew and I asked our waiter about the typical Belgian diet.  I wondered how often he ate steak frites (I was convinced it was a meal offered mostly to vacationing tourists.)  “I probably eat them at least three times a week; that’s typical for most Belgians.  We ride bikes and walk a lot,” he said.  I didn’t have the heart to ask him about his cholesterol level.

Bruges at Night
I’ll close my long soliloquy with a brief footnote that Bruges is one of the most romantic cities in which to take an after-dinner stroll.  And I think the photos below prove my point.

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