Tuesday, August 27
We were off to Bruges about 10:30. It would have been earlier except that we took half an hour to figure out how to program the GPS. With Pam as the driver and Marilynn as the co-navigator, we reached a parking lot just outside the old city in about a hour. Traffic was heavy and in a few places, we slowed to a crawl - another way Belgium is reminiscent of the Fraser Valley.
The parking garage is huge, part of a modern looking cultural complex that is only blocks from the streets of the old city that are lined with buildings from the 16th to 18th centuries. We walked first to the Church of Our Lady. There is more traffic in Bruges than in Ghent, so we had to be careful to stick to sidewalks and look out for both cars and bikes when we crossed the street. The streets are cobblestones, so you also have to watch your footing - high heels are not recommended. Bruges, like Ghent, was originally a commercial centre that relied in part on goods transported by canal. Bruges is known as “the Venice of the north” because it is ringed and criss-crossed by canals. Its city centre is concentrated within the circle of canals and has few modern buildings than Ghent. Although the buildings are centuries old, the lower floors are occupied by shops and restaurants selling very modern goods. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Our Lady is a medieval church, whose tower is the tallest structure in Bruges, Its greatest claim to fame is Michelangelo’s statue of the Madonna and Child, his only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was donated by its owner to the church in the 1500s. It was taken by both Napoleon and the Nazis, but returned both times to its rightful place. We viewed the statue and countless other works of art as we toured the church. As we left the cool of the church, we were hit again by the heat.
On our way to the Markt or Grand Place, we stopped for lunch in a small cafe in a passageway. Sidewalk cafes have more atmosphere but less air conditioning. We continued on to the Markt, a huge city square lined by colourful historical buildings dominated by the Belfry, a bell tower. As we walked around, we went into a building that advertised The Historium. The Historium offers experiences based on Bruges of the 1400s. It is housed in a early 1900s government neo-gothic building that boasts a tall thin tower. One experience is a virtual reality show taking you fro a trading ship to a cargo boat on Bruge’s canals to the Waterhalle, a huge structure, now gone, built over a canal where cargo could be unloaded and stored. Another experience is an audio and visual tour through rooms designed to evoke Bruges of 1435 as you follow a young apprentice on a search for his lost love and a parrot. The third choice was to climb the 145 steps of the tower for a panoramic view. To qualify to go up the narrow tower you have to pass through the door frame, a mere 45 centimetres wide. We opted for the virtual reality show and the tour, because none of us wanted to climb a claustrophobic tower. For everyone but Pam, that was our first virtual reality experience, one which we all enjoyed. We all had a heart-stopping moment when we found ourselves perched at the top of a sailing ship mast. Maureen asked if everyone else had ducked when the cargo boat went under a low bridge. Marilynn was fascinated by the fact that she could reach out her hand and see it appear in the film.
Upon leaving the Historium, we crossed the square to the courtyard of the old market hall. The market hall is fronted by the Belfry, which houses a clock and bells operated, like the Ghent tower bells, by a drum carillon. We joined others in the courtyard waiting for the bells to ring, which they did a few minutes after we arrived. Looking at the tower, you can see that the original tower was added to twice over the centuries, because there are three distinct sections done in different materials and styles
From the market hall, we wandered through the streets to find a canal boat tour. One had a half-hour wait, which we were not ready to do in the heat, so we carried on to another, which left right away. The driver polled the passengers to see if everyone understood English; they did, so he didn’t have to do his spiel in French or Dutch, which he was quite prepared to do. The canal boat travelled faster than the Ghent boat, so the tour seemed rushed, but on the other hand, the speed generated a nice breeze. Again, it was interesting to explore the city by canal and hear the history of some of the buildings and landmarks we passed.
After the boat tour, we decided to find the breeding ground of the swans, which we had passed on the tour. We walked down many streets, sometimes finding our path blocked by construction, but we did find the swans and the “kissy kissy” bridge, the tour guide’s nickname for the bridge that overlooks the swans. Apparently, it is a romantic place for courting couples and weddings to go. The bridge leads to the imposing entrance to a beguinage. Bruges from the 1200s on provided safe havens called beguinages for widows and spinsters to live. They were communitiesof women who did not take religious vows but lived a life of simplicity, poverty and chastity. Inside the walls of the beguinage by the swans was a central grove of trees surrounded by whitewashed buildings. It was a very peaceful setting, a green oasis in the middle of the city. It is now home to Benedictine nuns.
By this time, we were ready for dinner, so we walked down the nearby streets, assessing the sidewalk cafes. We settled on one offering traditional Belgian fare. Marilynn had Flemish stew (which was delicious, but had no vegetables). Maureen and Pam had waterzooi (described previously to us as a cross between a soup and a stew, but this version was a whole chicken breast in a creamy sauce. Again, delicious, but not was expected). I had rabbit in gravy, served with potato croquettes and a baked apple with cranberries, also very good. Restored, we walked through the city back to the car, arriving at the hotel in about forty minutes, a faster trip than than the morning, probably because the traffic was light at 8:00 in the evening.