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.
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!
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.
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.
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.