Bruges – 2. Morning Reflections

Bruges Boat

The boat trip is a recommended introduction to the city. Available at most quays in the centre, it costs ten euro for the half hour trip and is well worth it. The boats are small, slung low in the water  and fit a dozen or so. Close your mind to the cameras and apparel, drag a finger through the water and see the brick rise up from the canal, glowing with the centuries. Merchant palaces and church spires soar like impossible crystals above the reddish brick. A couple converse with a woman beside me, they in English, she in French. There is understanding and mystery, smiles and photographs. If you are a participant in the permanently picturesque, you harmonise with the painting that is emerging. The French woman is young or old, depending on the quaysides that we pass. The English couple are occasionally dappled with the shadows of Flemish dress, awaiting the caress of the artists brush. On disembarking, my companions are puzzling over arrangements for a place to dine, caught in a pantomime of gestures and smiles. 


I drift off to a cafe promising a hearty breakfast. The next half hour or so is rich in elements of Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch. There were no sausages, and the rashers dematerialised too. Egg and bread remained, however, and a cup of tepid coffee. 

From the 14th century Brugge attained a prominent position as the capital of Flanders. The world’s first stock exchange was set up here by the Van Der Bourse family, attaching their name to the trade ever since. The 15th century became the city’s golden age, commerce and art flourished and Bruges produced such artists as Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck; the Flemish Primitives. The name Primitives is a bit misleading. These were pioneers in the art of oil painting and were stunning, meticulous representationalists. There is an excellent collection of their work, and other later Flemish and Belgian masters at the Groeninge Museum off Rozenhoed Quay.


Brugge went into decline in the 16th century as neighbouring Ghent prospered.The city became a sleepy backwater, ironically a fact which contributed to the preservation of its medieval charm. The isolation and stagnation inspired the Symbolist novel Bruges La Mort by George Rodenbach in 1892. This lit the flame of its revival as a tourist destination, though Bruges is gloomily characterised as the city of death. The story tells of a man, Hugues, who mourns the death of his young wife. He keeps a Temple of Memories including paintings, photos and a long lock of her hair. Within his grief he also becomes obsessed with a dancer he sees at the opera, Robert Le Diablo, Robert the Devil. The dancer, Jane, bears a close resemblance to his wife and after some awkward courting he invites her home.

More recently, the film In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, sets Bruges as a noirish backdrop against a tragi-comedy of love and death. This more than anything was a factor in my resolution to visit.


Certainly, these days Bruges in summer is thronged by visitors, but it isn’t overrun. There’s so much to see, and room to see it, that it is a flaneuers dream. Up, down and sideways, you can bathe your eyes pleasantly in Bruges. And, as in any city worth its salt, that includes a visit to the premier art gallery for a journey into the past. The 18th century was the city’s Austrian period and this era saw the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts which formed the basis for the collection in the Groening Museum. This museum, within a maze of gardens and courtyards, seems small from without, but within holds a wealth of material. Headphones are free, and give an excellent account, free of the artspeak that often bedevils these devices.


On entering the Groeninge, first up is a painting by Antoon Claessens: Mars, Surrounded by the Arts and Sciences. Here, the painter exhorts the liberal arts above ignorance, with Mars centre stage, trampling on a donkey-eared ignoramus as the muses of the various arts gather around. The painting pitches for the inclusion of painting and drawing on this exalted platform. 

Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon from 1436, shows all the mastery of detail and rendering, while unifying the work in serene and bold composition. Stepping into these paintings is a journey back in time to the heyday of Brugge, its dreaming spires and palaces, its surging commercial life, and most importantly its people. Religion is to the fore, with strong connections to the spirit world. Sitters are accompanied by their patron saint.


In Jan Provoost’s triptych only the outer wings remain, telling an intriguing, if partial story of the donor and his wife. As was the custom, the sitters are portrayed with their patron saints in tow. Here, the Donor is accompanied by Saint Nicholas, his wife by Saint Godalieve. Godalieve is a patron saint of Bruges itself and here she appears in the foreground with a scarf wound around her neck. In the background, she is pictured being strangled with this scarf by henchmen of her husband. This story is echoed in Rodenbach’s novel. As Jane tires of her lover’s obsession with his dead wife, she teases him and mocks his Temple of Memories, finally taking a step too far as she dances with the lock of Hugue’s wife’s hair. Hugue, enraged, descends into delirium, and strangles Jane with the lock of hair. On the reverse, a different narrative unfolds. This stark, graphic tableau portrays the man exchanging money with a live skeleton. A faustian deal, perhaps, buying time from death. In the backgeound, the artist is portrayed in stern disapproval.


Much of the work of the Flemish masters depicts the ethical conflicts in life. Cautionary tales of terrible retribution on corrupt persons in trade and law. One judge gets flayed alive in graphic detail for taking bribes. In Bosch’s Last Judgement, the retribution comes from God, the consolations of the good life being the reward of paradise, the punishment for venality the horrors of hell. The Breughel’s, Pieter the Elder and Younger, root their work in the daily struggles, and celebrations of life. In such startling detail and vivacity that we’d swear they smelt of brewing and woodsmoke, of crackling snow and glowing ovens, our bellies full or empty but all the time throbbing with the stuff of being alive. 

The ages slip away as I float through the gothic and romantic, and glimpse the seductive reefs of surrealism. Paul Delveux and Rene Magritte paint mindscapes in appropriate reflex of our modern condition.


Outside the brackets of the museum, that wondrous timewarp, the world throbs and whirls in its relentless mayhem. But there is solace too. I might search for love or happiness, and all the contradictions that quest embodies. I might search for myself but will need first to become lost. There might be a perfect moment, or even a chance to find the Golden Fountainhead. Anything seems possible here. Without a route to take me, I flow with the human river, and come to the Boniface Bridge. This is a magnet for lovers, and they pose at its apex anxious to draw down its benign influence, and that somehow a photograph might capture their soul in all the timeless ambience it generates.


Bruges – 1. Arrival


A long overnighter, taking the red-eye into Brussels where I have a vexed transfer to the train system. The postings are a bit opaque, but I stumble on the 11.03 to Ostend, via Brugge. Escaping the embrace of the city’s glass and steel, the Atomium glints in the distance as the train crosses the Maritime Canal. Flat Flanders fields shimmer in the morning heat. After Ghent, I almost alight at the wrong stop, thanks again to poor onboard postings, but a young Frenchman intervenes and at last I gain Bruges.

Or, as they call it here, Brugge. Brussels may be Francophone Belgium, but here we are in the Flemish speaking region. The language is a regional variation of that spoken throughout the Netherlands. The name Brugge derives from the old German for mooring place, and there is certainly much of that about here. A spiders web of waterways marks the region, falling ever so slowly towards the North Sea. Brugge is more than a thousand years old, a fortification against marauding Vikings and Norsemen, settling into a vital trading port to become a commercial and cultural capital in late medieval times.

The railway station is a large modern building, but pleasant and navigable, on the southwestern periphery of the city centre. I can see the city beyond the trees across the busy circular highway. Google tells me it’s a twenty minute walk, which proves to be an accurate assessment. Full laden with heavy bag, my sweat bouncing off the cobbles with the blaring heat, I zigzag my way to the centre.

Bruges Vismarkt

By Rozenhoed Quay I am at the touristic focus. Bruges bustles, watercraft laden with sightseers plough the canal, craft stalls blossom beneath the trees, the clip clop of horse drawn carriages punctuates the buzz, and above it all a wonderland of spires and towers grow like stone crystals into the clear blue sky. At the end of Rozenhoed, the canal dog legs through ridiculously picturesque architecture; terraces with cafes, bars and shops are thronged, all reflected to infinity in the waters. My place is a few yards on. Apartment Breydelhof is certainly central, I can see it from here but it is just turned two o’clock, not quite check in time. I plonk down on a stone bench by Vismarkt. This rectangular fishmarket is ringed by a classical colonnade. It operates every morning and by afternoon the north end is occupied by art and craft stalls. Sporadic social events arise; I would see a jovial dance class there the next evening.

I wonder if, in times of waiting like this, in places like this, if the ancient church spires might set their clocks to flip through the centuries. Say, pick a time, any time, and with just one Rip Van Winkle snooze, find yourself transported there. The tranquility of canals forms the perfect mirror for those of vacant and reflective mood. They are slow glass, allowing the centuries to fall in and be released again to the receptive eye. I dream I am in a field of slow glass and loose what grip I have of time. Oh to haunt the city like a ghost, from the waving water reeds to the dreaming spires. But I must stir myself as the sun angles through the colonnade.


My apartment is rich with the character of age. An atmospheric room with a vastly high ceiling, allowing an upstairs loft for sleeping. There’s a shared terrace outside the windows. Unfortunately the windows, for all their height are not French, so a certain undignified clambering is called for each time I want to take advantage; but well worth it just the same. Old brick succumbing to the invasion of greenery, overlooked, but discreetly, by redbrick two storeys. A glass of wine to gather my wits, recharge my batteries and prepare.  I have things to see, visions to source, and resolve my quest to find in Brugge the Golden Fountainhead!

Bruges Blind Ass

On an early evening stroll through the city, the sun is slanting and the crowds thinning. From Vismarkt a bridge leads to Blind Donkey Street, a narrow medieval alley passing under an archway where the vista opens up to the Burg.  This grand civic square is dominated by the magnificent town hall, stadhuis, dates back to the year 1376. Nearby is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where a phial of blood from the body of Jesus Christ is its most treasured relic. One side of the square is occupied by busy bars and restaurants, and I find a space there in the last rays of the sun.

Bruges Stadhuis

The Main Square of the old city is a hundred yards or so further on. The Market Square is vast and above it soars the eighty three meter tower of the Belfort. This civic building was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and the distinctive tower is very much the symbol of the city. The outdoor terraces are crowded with football supporters. Exuberant Austrians in vertical stripes which, for once, don’t make them look thinner. Loud and happy, I wish I could join them, but feel a fondness for the local side whom they face in a crunch Euro qualifier tonight.

Bruges Belfort

I loop back to the Burg. At its leafy northern extreme is hidden Delany’s Irish Bar. Obviously not hidden from me. Something to do with magnetism I think. A pint of Leffe, or two, and the world is glowing golden. But perhaps not quite the Golden Fountainhead. Meanwhile, a last minute goal gives Brugge victory over Lask and progress to the group stages of the Champions League. Everyone’s happy. Even I’m having a Leffe.


Bray’s Florence Road

Florence Rd

Alighting from the DART, the main route home, whether by bus, taxi or shank’s mare, leads up Florence Road. Past the delights of Albert Walk and Henry and Rose fish n chipper, the road is straight, mostly residential and lined with pollarded sycamores. There’s a manicured bowling green to the South and a grand Victorian terrace, Florence Terrace along the entire block to the North. Otherwise, the housing mostly consists of detached bungalows with an Arts and Crafts feel and distinctive orange tiled roofs. These date to the 1920s and also feature in other streets around the town centre. 

As with much of Bray there is a whiff of merry olde England, but not quite. It’s as if you turned your back for an instant and all the trees and undergrowth took a surreptitious step forward, encroaching on the serenity just that little bit too much. This alternative spooky ambience is emphasised by  a few fin de siecle detached Gothic houses. At the crossing with Wyndham Park, Florence House and Arno House from the late 1880s form an imposing gateway to the shaded sylvan area beyond. Further on is Bray Library, a granite Carnegie library from the early twentieth century. 

Crossing Eglinton Road, the rational straight lines of Dargan’s planning bend somewhat towards the lines of the original old manor town. The methodist church is to the left and beyond that the street dons its working clobber as it heads up to meet Main Street at the t-junction. The Church of the Most Holy Redeemer closes the vista spectacularly. In fact, Florence Road didn’t push through to the Main Street until 1903; a date commemorated on the gable of Bannon’s Jewellers.

This view, in acrylics, is from the eastern stretch of road approaching Wyndham Park, looking southwest. Florence Terrace is behind us. Ahead we see the silhouette of Arno House, built in 1889. It is late winter after work, tea time. The sun has just set in the West and the lights are fading on.