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Bruges is situated in the north west of Flanders in Belgium, about 70km west of Antwerp and 40km north west of Gent. The port of Zeebrugge is 14km to the north and Ostend 25km west. The present city dates from the middle ages and largely escaped the destruction wrought on many Belgian cities by two world wars. During the first world war the German commander set his defensive line against the British south of the city but when his lines were broken he retreated to north of the city so that no fighting took place in Bruges. During the second world war the German commander in the area facing the advance of the allied armies was ordered to shell Bruges. He refused to obey the order saying that he could see no strategic advantage in destroying such a beautiful city and so Bruges was once again saved by this brave man.
We have visited Bruges on occasions before but this is the first time we have been here in Harmonie and have a winter berth in the Coupure (French for "cut") only a 10 minute walk from the city centre. In the year 2000, Bruges was declared a World Heritage Site encompassing 10,000 buildings of which half are of great architectural or urban value.
The medieval city is partly surrounded by a canal carrying large commercial barge traffic of up to 2000 tonnes. Smaller canals radiate from this ring through the city and our winter mooring at the Coupure is situated on one of these canals, used exclusively for moorings with no through traffic. We do get some wash as large barges pass the end of the mooring but there are many lift bridges to be negotiated so these vessels proceed slowly through this section. Although only a short walk from the city centre which is always teeming with tourists, the Coupure is in a quiet residential part of the city. The canal is lined with chestnut trees and pretty brick cottages are set along cobbled streets. We currently pay €5 per metre each month for mooring which is cheap but €1 per 100 litres of potable water and €0.25 per kw hour for electricity which is expensive. Rubbish bags cost €22 for 50 bags and we use about 2 per week. Considering the location though it is a great deal and we have already taken advantage of city living, attending an orchestral Beethoven concert at the rather austere modern Concertgebouw and watching an English film at the cinema. The port is now full of mostly British replica Dutch barges and Harmonie is one of the few originals here.
There are more than 50 Chocolatier here and restaurants by the hundred! We have indulged in one establishment called the Hobbit which serves ribs for €16 but as many as you can eat so you sit there with a beer and stuff yourself stupid! Bruges has an extensive programme of events during the winter months. There is a beer festival, a dance festival focusing on contemporary dancers from Quebec, organ concerts in the churches, a jazz club, a snow and ice sculpture festival, a Christmas festival, a Christmas market, an outdoor ice rink in the market square, lace exhibitions and finally a day of gastronomy with food tasting events all over the city involving such renowned chefs as Heston Blumenthal.
The large canal surrounding Bruges is called the Kanaal Gent-Oostende and on one side is a busy ring road, on the other parkland, mature trees and a fietspad (cycleway) as is passes around Bruges. From the 16th century the city used to be ringed by 25 windmills of which only two of the originals remain, however, the city fathers have brought in and erected two others from other parts of Flanders. The Sint-Janshuis mill dates from 1770 and has been restored to fully working order.
At the entrance to the Coupure is a cycle and pedestrian bridge which the harbour master (Steady Eddy) lifts for boats to enter the mooring. It is a modern construction of unique design, the bridge platform being suspended on many wire ropes from two steel tubes spanning the canal above. These tubes can be rotated by electric motors so they act like big winch drums, coiling the wire ropes and therefore lifting the bridge platform.
The big market square in the centre is dominated by the belfry tower. It was built in three stages from the 13th to the 15th century and it is easy to see the different styles of architecture. It is 83 metres high and contains a 47 bell carillon which plays a different tune every quarter of an hour. Every Wednesday there is a market in the square and we stock up with really good quality fruit and veg in addition to cheese, bread and usually a kip (chicken) cooked on a spit with potatoes roasted underneath in the chicken fat... wicked!
We have also become attached to drinking hot chocolate. You buy bags of little milk and dark chocolate buttons and simply add them to hot milk - a big improvement on Cadburys drinking chocolate.
Three of the most lovely buildings in Bruges are joined to each other. Just a short walk from the Market Square is Castle Square and along one side are the Basilica of the Holy Blood, City Hall and the Old Chambers. The Basilica supposedly houses drops of Christs blood given to a Flanders Count during the crusades. It dates from the 12th century and is Bruges oldest building being Romanesque in style. There is also an upper chapel which was restored in the Gothic style in the 19th century. The holy relics are carried through Bruges every year in the procession of the holy blood.
Next door is the splendid city hall, a Gothic masterpiece dating from the 14th century, the façade is covered in statues of famous historic Flemish heroes and dignitaries. Finally the Old Chambers, known as the Oude Griffie has a renaissance façade which has been recently superbly restored with many features highlighted in gold leaf for which it has won awards. The interiors of all these buildings can be visited and the City Hall is still in use for council meetings.
Two ways to see Bruges in a hurry are by boat and/or by horse drawn carriage. The former is good value, currently €6.50 buys you a half hour tour round Bruges exceptionally picturesque little canals. The latter currently charge €34 per carriage for a half hour tour but if you can get five seated to share the cost then that is also a good deal. They stop briefly at the Beguinage (more about that later) and nearby is the Walplein square where there is an interesting bronze sculpture entitled "the Greek Gods visiting Bruges" by an artist from the nearby village of Damme. It is pictured here and depicts a naked Leda and her swan taking a horse drawn carriage ride pulled by Pegasus!
Beguinages are to be found all over Belgium and Beguines were women who chose to live together as a community like Nuns but did not take any vows and could come and go as they pleased. The Beguinage usually consists of a walled group of houses around a garden with a church. This one in Bruges is best seen in the springtime when the garden is full of daffodils. The most picturesque ones we have seen are in Kortrijk and Turnhout.
As you will have gathered there is rather a lot to describe in Bruges and I have only scratched the surface. In order to keep the page as up to date as possible I will be uploading it from time to time as I write. We went to the UK again on November 5th for another one of Sues eye inspections and Trish Ports Guy Fawkes birthday, returning here on the 11th November.
The surgeon at Yeovil hospital pronounced Sues first intra ocular lens implant after cateract removal a great success and she is now on the waiting list for the same operation on the other eye. It looks like it will be about the end of January that we will have to go back again for that.
We returned via Norfolk line to Dunkerque and drove to Ypres as it was the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War and we wanted to remember the event at the Menen Gate in Ypres. Here is a monument to the thousands of soldiers who died in the battles of the Ypres salient and on every night of the year they are remembered when local buglers sound the last post.
Bruges has many lovely churches, some containing priceless works of art. In 1506, a merchant from Bruges acquired a beautiful white marble sculpture by Michelangelo in Florence entitled Mother and Child which he donated to his parish church, the Church of our Lady, where it resides to this day. It is the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy during his lifetime. This church has the tallest brick built tower in Europe at just over 122 metres and the second highest in the world after the Chrysler Building in New York.
From the sublime to the ridiculous is a wooden sculpture in a glass case at the entrance to the Coupure. It is divided into many sections suspended on wires and is supposed to move around as you pass being activated by your movement but it is not working at the moment. We see lots of visitors jumping up and down near it with no result! You find many sculptures, old and new, as you walk around the city.
A few kilometres outside the city is the pretty little village of Damme. It is linked to Bruges by canal and from the 12th century was the outport of the city. Ships would sail up the river Zwin to Damme, unload into barges which transhipped goods into Bruges. The river estuary silted up and became unnavigable during the 15th and 16th centuries so trade moved to Antwerp with the consequent decline of Bruges and Damme as trading centres and it was not until the 19th century that tourism revived them.
We cycled one fine autumn day along the canals into Damme. Bruges now has its modern outport of Zeebrugge and goods are transhipped by barge, feeder container ship and tanker along the canal that rings Bruges and into the European canal and river network. The barge pictured here, passing under one of the many lifting bridges, is about 700 tonnes deadweight so is relatively small compared with the 2000 tonne vessels which regularly pass by.
Damme is famous as the birthplace of Jacob van Maelant, the first author to write in the Dutch language who was buried here in 1300. His grave became known as that of the legendary Till Eulenspiegel, a fictional figure created by a German author and later adapted by a Belgian who set his stories in Flanders. Damme has now claimed him as its own and even has a museum devoted to the history of the character. The picture on the left was taken in the museum and depicts Till on the back of a Donkey, one of Sues favourite animals! He bears a remarkable likeness to one dear to my heart!
Note the bikes outside the pub next to the town hall where we enjoyed a glass of local ale in the autumn sunshine. Bikes rule in Belgium and you are more likely to be knocked down by one in Bruges than by a car as you are allowed to cycle the wrong way down one way streets. So beware when stepping off the kerb and only looking one way for traffic as a cyclist ploughs into your rear!
Norman and Mary Veit, old friends from Somerset, paid us a visit towards the end of November. They chose well as the evening they arrived we met them at the station and it was sleeting with a biting northerly wind blowing straight down the North Sea from the Arctic. The next day we were hit by a blizzard which deposited a couple of inches of snow.
We did the city tour on foot then visited the Ice Sculpture Festival where the temperature was minus five centigrade. It is well worth a visit and we were all wrapped up well against the cold. At one point you could climb some steps and slide down an ice slide which Norman tried but it was so cold the ice just stuck to his clothing. At the end there was a bar made of ice serving spirits in ice glasses where the barmen had to work shifts to keep warm. A Polar Bear was the final exhibit who's head moved from side to side and seemed to like Mary, but then she is from Purley! (from a Monty Python sketch for those too young to have known).
In another much warmer tent they had a video of the ice sculptors at work and a bar where we all indulged in Glühwein; what else in such an environment?
Early December saw the arrival of Les and Sally Harper from Kortrijk who introduced us to their friends Clive and Shelia from the barge Cedar moored along from us in the Coupure. We all dined together at the Botanique restaurant where the ribs are to be recommended. The menfolk spent some time at the Belleman pub during the day whilst the womenfolk went shopping for which they all have a black belt. Whilst supping ale we were invaded by about 30 or so people dressed in red bishops mitres with crosses on the front, a bit like the klu klux clan in red without the gown. They proceeded to sing songs and drink at a prodigous rate. They described themselves as a pub club from another town and were on a pub crawl of Bruges. We were well entertained. The mitres these guys wore were to do with Sinterklaas, or as we would call him, Saint Nicholas. All over Europe but especially in Belgium the "childrens saint" comes by boat from Spain and on the 5th of December the children put a shoe out for Sinterklaas to leave presents in. He comes with his servants who are called Zwarte Pie or Black Peter. We have seen Sinterklaas around Bruges with lots of little white kids with black faces and hands, singing songs and collecting money.
Clive has organised us for a new year feast at 't Nieuw Museum, a local restaurant, after which we will ajourn to watch the fireworks. With the various guests and barge owners there will be about 15 of us. He also informed us of a another "great feast" at the opening of the newly repaired old number one ship lift on the Historic Canal du Centre, (see here for photos and history). It will be sometime in the middle of May 2009 and all being well we plan to attend, come down the big new lift again and then go up the four old ones.
We visited our third cinema here in Bruges, the Liberty, to see "In Bruges", a British black comedy. Two Irish hit men are sent to Bruges by Harry, the boss played by Ralph Fiennes, and their first reaction was "where the f...s that". One of them, Ken played by Brendon Gleeson, loves it but the other, Raymond played by Colin Farrell, hates it: "If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn't, so it doesn't" and they get into all sorts of trouble with the locals and the tourists. Harry also loves the city and thinks its great that its in Belgium as not many people go there! Every other word is the F word with a fair few C words thrown. The cinematography of Bruges was excellent and we found ourselves recognising most scenes in the film. Some of the dialogue was funny like: "Nice girlfriend". "She ain't my girlfriend, she's a prostitute!" "Didn't think there were any prostitutes in Bruges". "You just have to look in the right places, brothels are good"! There is a famous painting here depicting purgatory which Raymond likened to living in Bruges! Hope the Brugeans who see this film have a well developed sense of humour as there were only 10 people in the audience when we went.
It was my 68th birthday on the 12th December and Aunty Susan took me out to the pictures again to see Elegy (Ben Kingsly and Penelope Cruz with no top on!) and then for a Chinese meal. The day after we went Christmas shopping and popped into St Salvator's cathedral for the first time. The cathedral roof was destroyed by fire in 1839 and the English architect selected to design the restoration was also commisioned to extend the tower which he made of a Romanesque design. You can see where he started from and where he finished, then the locals added a small spire to make it even higher so the adjacent Church of our Lady's tower would not overshadow the cathedral tower. One of the many paintings inside depicts the cathedral on fire and there is a unique collection of tapestries hanging each side of the choir which are modelled on paintings also hanging in the cathedral. We found the pulpit particularly impressive and the abundance of silver artifacts at the high altar and in side chapels. We were only half way round when they chucked us out for lunch so we will need to return!
We then met up with Clive and Shelia in the Belleman pub and downed a few jars which Clive kindly paid for as my birthday treat. If he thinks he can get round me that way he is absolutely right! We arranged to meet up again the following week to try the Tapas bar in Langestraat. Well we went to the Tapas bar and it was closed. This was the fourth time we had tried but it seems that they don't want our custom. Fortunately Clive and Shelia knew of another one called Bodega Lorena's just off Simon Stevin Square but they had not been there for 12 months. When we arrived they were greeted like long lost friends by the lady proprietor who even remembered what they liked to eat. The house wine was good as was the food, authentic, if a little expensive and cooked by her Spanish husband. With the Euro approaching parity with Sterling, most things are beginning to look very expensive to us.
This page is getting rather large so our winter sojourn in Bruges continues here.