Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) is a gem of a museum piece- almost miraculously so. It rose early enough to create its own prosperity and identity before most other cities in Northern Europe, and it faded soon enough to escape the cataclysms of the Reformation and Industrial eras.
– Bruges built its fortune upon the trade and processing of wool products from England and Scotland, and upon goods from the continental interior. By the late 1100’s, ships began arriving in the city’s Zwin River from as far as the Hanseatic League and Venice with goods from as far as the Middle East and Russia. Trade was conducted along the canals, and Bruges quickly became arguably the most important port in Europe. This complex trade led to the development of more sophisticated financial systems, and in 1309, Bruges opened what was possibly the world’s first stock exchange.
Such was the city’s prosperity that when the queen of France visited in 1301 she is quoted as saying: “I thought I alone was queen, but I see that I have 600 rivals here”. Bruges’ richness also helped develop the earliest artists of the Northern Renaissance, most notably Jan van Eyck.
Only a year later, the French garrisoned an army in the city to settle a dispute among the ruling and merchant classes, and on the night of May 18 a revolt against French rule began with the “Bruges Matins”, in which a mob filled the streets killing anyone who could not properly pronounce the Dutch phrase: “schild en vriend” (supposedly difficult to pronounce for a French speaker). Almost the entire French population (estimated at 2,000) was massacred. Over the next few years, local militias throughout Flanders drove the French out, thus permanently cementing the city in Dutch/Flemish culture.
At its peak, Bruges had a population of 200,000, and by many accounts was the second largest city in Europe after Paris. The miraculousness of Brugge as a “museum piece”, however, comes from its precipitous decline. Around 1500, by one of the many whims of the North Sea, the Zwin River began to silt up. Lacking its lifeblood, the city fell into obscurity as business moved to Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp.
It became a forgotten city, Die tote Stadt of Korngold’s 20th century opera. Its dormancy, however, was its preservation. Hardly, if any, Baroque, Classical, or 19th century developments ever touched this town. In the past century, however, Bruges has picked up speed again, this time due to tourism.
The result- a pretty much intact medieval city, not terribly different from its original state. As such, it draws its requisite tourists, and can be seen at times a sort of historical theme park (but thankfully without much of the commercialization).
To walk its streets is surreal. A fever dream of sorts. The real magic is at night, when the daytrippers disappear, and the few tourists that are left hole up with locals at the bar or sit in the Grote Markt listening to the ethereal and ornate rings from the bell tower. The ancient streets then are dead quiet, the canals still, and one can feel the ghosts rising.
Heilig-Bloedbasiliek/Basilica of the Holy Blod
This is a place of wonder. In 1150, Thierry of Alsace returned from the 2nd Crusade with what is supposed to be the blood of Christ. This church was completed in 1157 to house the relic which has been encased in the same glass cylinder ever since. At one point during the Middle Ages, the pope granted indulgences to those who made a pilgrimage here.
Within, there is a rainbow lit chapel. There is a line of people who have come to see the Holy Blood; all for various reasons. There are the sight-seers, and those with the utmost of reverence. At your turn, you walk up the red steps, make a small donation for the upkeep of the church, and then kiss or touch the glass, which is being watched over by a statuesque priest. Within the glass there appears to be a bloody wrapping of gauze.
This has been happening for 900 years. And that fact alone is a piece of awe.
Posted on May 16, 2011, in Belgium, travel and tagged architecture, belgium, bruges, brugge, enchanting, flanders, flandres, historic, medieval, middle ages, profile, travel, travel writing, vlanderaan. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.