Bruges – 4. City of Light


The French under Napoleon ruled Bruges from 1795 until 1814 when the area became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That only lasted until Belgium gained its independence in 1830. French was initially the official language, but Flemish was recognised by the start of the twentieth century. It is the principal language of Brugge and northern Belgium. 

Bruges makes a fine character in a novel. The quays, the labyrinth of streets and canals, the Beguinage, churches and belfries, the real and reflected appear simultaneously in the visual and written world. In Rodenbach’s novel, photographs are used to add an extra dimension to this identity.

IMG_4756“Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges La Morte, the Dead City, entombed in its stone quays, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulsing of the sea had ceased beating in them.”

Words, image and mood melt into a form of music. Stand anywhere in Bruges and sense the still water of the canals, search for the distant pulsing of the ocean. Look into the depths, and see them stare brazenly back. Hugue is smitten with Jane, the dancer. who, as in a mirror, is a reflection of his late wife. An actress is but a mirror, fashioning the face of your heart’s desire. You have used that mirror and, when you think of it, everyone loves themselves. Narcissus is portrayed, too ardent by far, mesmerised by his own reflection in a pool. So, when Hugue commutes with his wife through a mirror, with whom is he really talking? And when Hugue strangles Jane, his wife’s reflection, who is it that he kills?


On the second evening I dine in a place called the Old Bruges. One side looks onto a little square where the canal turns, the other onto the now quiet Vismarkt. I order Flemish Stew which is a goulash equivalent, and a few steins of beer. Beer is expensive, but it’s strong, with a rich variety available throughout the city. And, I suppose, a certain unreliability of narration may ensue, here or there.

Nearby, a young Australian holds court. I overhear most of the conversation, without committing it to memory all that accurately. It was enjoyable more in the manner of an abstract painting, or a drum solo. The story includes a dwarf and a prostitute. The narrator’s acquaintance prompts, jovially, that the line should read: a dwarf and a prostitute walk into a bar. Who knows where this is heading. Who shall give and who receive? Does someone call them a pink lady and a small one? 


The story merges in my head with McDonagh’s narrative In Bruges, wherein Colin Farrell’s character befriends a vertically challenged actor during a Bacchanalian interlude. The dwarf will intervene with devastating and ironic effect in the film’s denouement. Farrell has, after all, killed a small boy, an altar boy, in his botched assignment. This macabre dance with death circles the dizzying spire of Our Lady’s, where love and sacrifice are given expanded meaning. Farrell, no more enamoured of the city, complains he doesn’t ‘want to die in Bruges’.Or perhaps he’s just curious for more. 

Later, I am in Delaney’s Bar, seated next to a couple from the nearby Dutch town of Breda, a place I know of vaguely. There was a battle there, long, long ago. It features in a book by Carlos Perez Reverte. They have a festival based on the colour orange, which probably dates back to King Billy. As the dry heat of the day wanes to a cooler humidity. It will rain, says the young man. But when? Oh, give it ten minutes. In his hand, the screen on his phone shows a jagged peak within the next ten minutes. We wait, and it comes to pass. These are the days of miracle and wonder, so it is no surprise that people can capture electricity in their hands and with it arrogate the magic power of prediction. Here was a man with the power of rain in his hands. I asked him could he make it stop, as I was about to make my way home. But he laughed and said that no, he could not.


I sloped off by way of colonnades and the shelter of trees, the cobbles slick with rainwater and electric light. That was when I found myself lost, if you catch my drift. In the giddy valley of cathedral spires and teetering turrets, the alleys threw themselves into ever increasing spirals, farther and farther away. I asked directions of a waiter, who had retreated from the heat of the kitchen for the balm of a well earned smoke. He pointed me back the way I had come. Reluctant to accept this defeat, I returned to where I had spied a sliver of canal slip behind some buildings and took what I judged to be a parallel lane. Dark, deserted, and eminently paranoia inducing, it twisted and turned before curving at last onto Rosenhoedkai. I was no longer lost, but not quite found.


A love struck Romeo sings the streets a serenade,

laying everybody low, with a love song that he’s made,

finds a convenient streetlight, steps out of the shade,

says something like, you and me babe, how about it ,,,

Stars spring from the canal depths. Along the quays, nighttime beckons. I’ve been whistling past the graveyard so that the melody haunts me still. An opera for our age, terse and tunnelling through our formation. Mark Knopfler singing, as an aria should, of love and an Italian girl.


All I do is miss you, and the way we used to be,

all I do is keep the beat and the bad company,

all I do is kiss you, through the bars of a rhyme,

Julie, I’ll do the stars with you, anytime.

The next day I return to the old city walls to complete my semi-circling of the city. The eastern precinct includes the Coupure and the outer canal. This houses larger and more long haul canal craft. You can book canal tours here but the atmosphere is distinctly local and feels remote from the bustling tourist scene at the centre. My camera battery went kaput at the same time, so I’ve only my soul and memory to call upon, which seems about right.


I had intended availing of the Breydelhof’s free bicycle, but these boots are made for wandering, and who knows where they’ll take me. Last night I was lost in Bruges, and today I try for a similar state in daylight. With some success. Crossing old tracks I experience the pleasure of recognition, the uncertain traveller’s concept of home.

Mainly, I was distracted by my own meditations. As evening waxed, I had been thinking of the possibility of finding God in a bar, as Joan Osborne might have speculated.

If God was one of us

just a stranger on the bus, just a slob like one of us,

trying to make his way home.

I must find my way back up to heaven all alone. God might be in the next bar, which is pulsing unsteadily across the Vismarkt. Slouched there at the corner peering into the shrinking muniscus of his pint, apart from the crowd and not exactly pleased to see me. Catching him there, I could ply him with drink, insist on answers to those great questions: why are we born to suffer and die, where might I find the Golden Fountainhead. It must be here somewhere, in this city of chocolate, waffles, and fine beers. 


There is an Argentine restaurant on Flammingstraat, north of the Market Square. They serve steak, grilled to perfection. Within the darkwood interior, evening sunlight intrudes in a solid shaft, a slant off the horizontal. We are all reduced to silhouettes. It is the perfect condition for the near slumber of after dinner. My stein of beer still froths. I look down the room towards the window. Other diners dance mellowly in the glare while theatrical gauchos flit in attendance or ennuie. I am briefly blinded by the glare, abruptly occluded by my waiter. We share an acknowledgement, and as he moves aside, I see at last, the Golden Fountainhead.brug4fhead

Bruges – 3, To the Lake of Love.


The distinctive Gothic shape of the Boniface Bridge is quietly emblematic of Bruges, the city of reflection. It embodies that melancholy meditation of memory and love, that perfect moment when all time flows through an ostensible cusp, briefly and sharply experienced. Just beyond, the Church of Our Lady soars heavenward. Its one hundred and fifteen metre brick spire is the second tallest in the world. The church dates back to the thirteenth century and took two centuries to complete, encompassing a variety of styles from Gothic to Baroque.In the sixteenth century Our Lady’s acquired a statue by Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, a rare example of the artist’s work travelling beyond his homeland during his lifetime.


Bruges is a storybook of bridges and towers. After the initial frenzy of photography, the city re-establishes its quiet beauty on the soul. You find yourself within a photograph that is centuries old, enduring and subtly changing, captivating and offering profound release. Beyond the Boniface Bridge, and heading south, the crowds thin somewhat. 

The Canal shimmies away from the quaysides and is bordered by the serene Beguinage. The Beguinage was a walled area within the city which offered a retreat for the Beguines, a lay sisterhood founded in 1245. These lived and dressed as nuns but did not take the vows, so they could return to the real world at any time.This location was crucial in Bruges La Morte. The cover features an illustration of the bridge. Floating on the waters that flow beneath, the figure of Hugue’s late wife is modelled on John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. It was drawn by Fernand Khnopff, whose work Secret Reflection hangs at the Groeninge Museum. Khnopff was a leading Symbolist painter who spent his childhood in Bruges. The mystique of the floating city would inform his later work which influenced the Belgian Surrealists, Rene Magritte and Paul Delveaux.


The Beguines are suggested in the role played by Jane as she snares Hugue’s desire when he attends a performance of Robert the Devil. Jane dances the lead role in a sequence known as the Ballet of the Nuns. Robert the Devil is an actual Opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, with a libretto by Eugene Scribe. It was a triumph of the visual power of stagesetting when first performed in Paris in 1831. The story gives a nod to the historical character, Robert the Magnificent of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror, who was known by some as the Son of the Devil. Jane plays the role of Abbess Helena who returns to life with her nuns and arise from the graveyard. They divest themselves of their habits and, shaking off the dust of death, dance a celebration of the physical joys of life. Scandalous, and sensational, the Ballet of the Nuns was a huge influence on the development of dance, transcending its classical constraints to push towards the more sensual artform of modern times.

Rodenbach adapted his novel for the stage and it received a German translation by Siegfried Trebitsch called Die Stille Stadt, the Silent City. Trebitsch was a friend of Julius Korngold and the two discussed the potential of turning the story into an opera. Julius’s son, Erich, in his early twenties was enthusiastic about the project, collaborating with his father on the libretto under the pseudonym Paul Schott. He composed the opera giving it the title Die tote Stadt, the Dead City. In this version, the melodramatic and crazed climax occurs within a dream, softening its impact.


The original German title brings to my mind Thomas Moore’s melancholy Oft in the Stilly Night. Where Moore’s Vale of Avoca puts friendship at the centre of happiness, conjuring a perfect day in an idyllic landscape, Oft in the Stilly Night is melancholic, a lonesome voice leaking into the darkness.

Oft in the stilly night, ere slumber’s chains have bound me,

fond memory brings the light of other days around me.

Like Hugue, or any solo traveller at that certain moment of reflection, the environment is a multifaceted construct, built of memories and moods as much as its physical components. Within the crowds and chaos of the city there will be an isolated being, channeling the ancient history of the space throughout time, and through the prism of their own memory.

The smiles the tears of boyhood’s years,

the words of love then spoken,

the eyes that shone now dimmed and gone,

the cheerful hearts now broken.

Into these vacuums of darkness and solitude there is a welcoming space for those manifestations of the Muse, for music, poetry and art. For Rodenbach, art was a kind of religion.

Thus in the stilly night ere slumber’s chains hath bound me,

sad memory brings the light of other days around me.


Bruges, being a city of reflections, can quickly shift. From melancholy to gaiety, it’s seldom more than a step away from a changing atmosphere. Ancient and beautiful, but also busy. Visitors cloud its atom like electrons, a dusty swirl by boat or boot or horse and cart. I balance precariously at a sidewalk bar, and the horses turning their carriages pass close enough to touch. The crowded small square is festooned with art and crafts and above it all the teetering spires of the sky.


But, you can always find a place to be alone, whatever timeframe you inhabit. Further along, lies the Minnewater, a regular artificial lake where the waters feeding the canal system lie waiting, a few metres above the city waterways. The Minnewater is known as the Lake of Love. Passing the lock gatehouse is to enter a calmer sphere. A quiet park enfolds the lake with a relaxed residential area surrounding that and the adjacent Beguinage. At the far end there is the Lovers Bridge, though all bridges in Bruges are magnets for lovers. This one is named for the doomed lovers of myth, the beautiful young Minna and Stromberg, a warrior of a rival tribe. It is a variant of Romeo and Juliet. Of love and death. Standing guard is the Powder Tower, part of the old city’s outer fortifications. 


Returning to the park, modern music beckons me to the water where a quartet of hedonists have established their own milieu and are dancing in a sea of ganja mist. In the quiet of the park once more, a hostelry looms out of the trees. In the afternoon heat and the deserted ambience, I feel I may have stumbled on the source of the Golden Fountainhead. The bar is to the rear of the Gothic building, where a matronly woman serves me. I take my beer onto the extensive and deserted terrace and sit a while contemplating the stillness of the waters. Minnewater, my solo pastime, a quiet conversation with an intelligent shade of the colour blue.IMG_4867

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.