Tuesday 4th August
Today we took the local train from Ghent to the popular historic canal city of Bruges, just 20 minutes away on our coolest day in Europe so far, just 23 degrees!
Bruges has a remarkable history. in the C5th coastal region around Bruges was invaded by the flooding waters of the North Sea which took two centuries to recede, leaving behind it a fertile clay plain criss-crossed with estuaries and channels. Bruges came into being as a castle defence against the Vikings in the early C9th. It became a major trade centre and the capital of Flanders and like Ghent gained substantial power until its river access to the sea silted up and its importance decreased. Today it is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the remarkable antiquity and preservation of its guild houses and public buildings and is one of Europe’s most visited cities.
The huge Markt Square is dominated by three remarkable buildings, the Palais Provincial, the Town Hall with an impressive Gothic interior, and, dwarfing both, the Market Halls and very tall belfry. All of these buildings are joined by a series of very well preserved guild halls, now houses and restaurants. Bruges is a shopper’s paradise with some remarkable tapestry, porcelain, antique, chocolate and waffle shops! A Belgian waffle and cream is to die for!
On the artistic front, the absolute highlight is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, one of the very few works of Michelangelo outside Italy. Like many European art icons it has had a chequered history. Originally purchased by a merchant in Bruges it was bequeathed to the Bruges Notre Dame Church (Onze-Lievre-Vrouwkerk), then taken to Paris after French revolutionaries defeated Netherlands forces until returned in 1816. The sculpture was stolen again by Nazi Germans who hid it deep in salt mines in Austria. It was rescued in a race with Russia after intervention by American General Eisenhower in a story told in the recent film The Monuments Men. Like The Pieta in St Peter’s the sculpture makes a big impact on me..it speaks peacefulness, determination, assurance and hope. It was smaller than I expected, and like The Pieta, it is now protected by bullet proof glass.
Close by is the former St John’s Hospital building which now houses an excellent museum of hospital instrumentation and medical work but also an impressive collection of Mediaeval Flemish art works amongst which the stand out is Memling’s Altarpiece of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist.
Bruges is a brilliant city and a week spent in the city would not be wasted. We only gave it one day but we will remember it always.