Bruges – A cultural surprise around every corner

Peter Morrell discovers a treasure trove of history and art in this beautiful Belgian city

Toerisme Brugge Town Square - Markt ©Jan Darthet
Medieval Gables

Medieval Gables

The Church of Our Lady

The Church of Our Lady

Toerisme Brugge Madonna and Child ©Jan D'Hondt

Toerisme Brugge Madonna and Child ©Jan D'Hondt

reportagebeelden opdracht 2008

Toerisme Brugge The Tomb of Mary of Burgundy ©Jan Darthet

reportagebeelden opdracht 2008

Toerisme Brugge Sint-Janshospitaal © Jan Darthet

Entrance to the Arentshuis

Entrance to the Arentshuis

The Town Hall

The Town Hall

Architecture from The Golden Age

Architecture from The Golden Age

Canal with Boat

Canal with Boat

Docks at Bruges

Docks at Bruges

Reflections on the Canal

Reflections on the Canal

The Belfry from the Canal 1

The Belfry from the Canal

Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele

Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele

Just a short hop across the channel and an hour’s easy drive from the port of Dunkirk and I am in the pretty city of Bruges. With its gabled medieval buildings, towers and spires, and intriguing archways and alleys it seems as if I have travelled back at least 400 years. 

Toerisme Brugge Town Square – Markt ©Jan Darthet

I’m here to check out Bruges as a short-break destination offered by DFDS Seaways. The ferry company, that operates from Dover, will be providing free trips across the channel to those booking winter-breaks during November and December for travel to designated hotels in the city during January and February next year.

I am here with culture in mind and Bruges certainly is an art lover’s paradise with lots of galleries, museums and churches to visit. I start by learning about Flemish art history at the The Groeninge Museum which gives an overview from the 15th Century right up to the present day. It includes impressionist and post war modern art, as well as masterpieces by the Flemish Primitives Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. 

It was the paintings from the earlier period that I found the most fascinating, as it was around this time that the city was enjoying great prosperity and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, set up court in Bruges. This new prominence attracted merchants, bankers and other prominent personalities from all over Europe to the city. Bruges also became the meeting place and source of inspiration for many artists, such as Van Eyck and Memling and fine arts reigned supreme. 

Van Eyck was key in the development of the new Flemish Primitive School of oil painting techniques. One of his most famous and some say his finest works, the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, is in the Groeninge and forms the basis of the city’s latest attraction at Historium, which I will be visiting later.

Stepping out from the museum into the weak winter sunlight and with the mournful toll of the bell from the Church of our Lady I wondered how much Van Eyck would have recognised of the city today. The answer is probably quite a lot, for the older part has been remarkably well preserved. Much of the medieval heritage remains intact: the narrow cobbled streets, elaborate architecture and the network of canals that gave birth to the city’s Golden Age from the 11th to the 15th Century. So it’s not surprising that the entire city centre has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

Toerisme Brugge Madonna and Child ©Jan D’Hondt

I followed the sound of the bell to the Church of our Lady. It is full of fine paintings and carvings dating back to the 13th Century and it’s here that I come across the first of many cultural surprises – a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child created by Michelangelo around 1504 and one of the few of his statues to be found outside of Italy. Originally intended for Siena Cathedral it was purchased in Italy by two Brugean merchants and gifted to the church in 1514. Behind the high altar are the magnificent bronze tombs of Charles the Bold, last Duke of Burgundy, and his daughter Mary who was tragically killed in a riding accident aged 25 in 1482.

The building itself exemplifies the craftsmanship of the Bruges’ artisans and its 122 metre brick spire, the second tallest in the world, is one of three spires that dominates the skyline.

Just across the road is Sint-Janshospitaal, one of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in Europe. At the museum, you can learn more about hospital life in the past and how the wards would have looked then. Furniture, paintings, sculptures, silverware, and pewter ware are the silent witnesses of the care for bodies and souls that took place in this hospital through the centuries. The old apothecary and the herb garden are also well worth a visit.

In the hospital chapel up pops Hans Memling again another unexpected and pleasant surprise. Memling created his most important masterpieces in Bruges including the famous Shrine of St Ursula, that he painted specifically for Sint-Janshospitaal and it’s still there.

In the front of the building I spied the entrance to a Picasso Museum, another hidden gem, nestling between Michelangelo and Memling. More than 100 original works by Pablo Picasso are on show, comprising engravings, lithographs and rare original illustrations. The works cover the beginnings of Picasso, the Spanish tradition, cubism, the African influence, surrealism, ceramics and portrait art.

The exhibition also unveils works by other famous artists who were peers of Pablo Picasso, such as Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Georges Braque and two of the master’s partners Dora Maar and Françoise Gilot.  Another fascinating find was a letter to Picasso, from his friend Rene Magritte, which included a rough pencil sketch of ‘Son of Man’.

Strolling back to the town square, I popped in to the beautiful 18th century Arentshuis Museum displaying illustrative art on the ground floor and the top floor devoted to the work of the versatile Bruges-born British artist Frank Brangwyn. The artist, who worked with William Morris, had an expansive and bold style that can be seen in the sketches for the murals he painted for his series, the British Empire panels. Over 3000 square feet of canvas in 16 panels were originally intended for the House of Lords but were deemed too colourful and lively” for the location. They are now housed in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea.

When I was there, the town square – the Markt – was alive with the bustle of the Christmas Market and a temporary ice rink. Dominating the square is another of the skyline’s spires, the 83 metre high Belfry complete with a carillon of 47 bells. The tower was a central feature of the 2008 film ‘In Bruges’. Housed in the base of the Belfry is yet another surprise, an exhibition of graphic art, sculptures and drawings by Salvador Dali. 

Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele

Just across the square inside yet another attractive old building is a brand new state of the art attraction called Historium. This multi-media excursion through medieval Bruges recreates the sights, sounds and smells of the city by immersing the visitor in life as it was in 1435.

Central to the journey is Jan Van Eyck who is in the process of painting the work I had seen earlier, the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. An unusual aspect of the painting is that the baby Jesus is holding a green ring-necked parakeet, thought to symbolise the soul of man. During the tour, which takes you through seven themed rooms, Van Eyck’s apprentice Jacob falls in love with Anna, the model for the Madonna. Frederico, the parakeet manages to escape and gives us a realistic and literally bird’s eye view of the city. This really is a very lively and entertaining way to bring history to life and give the visitor an idea of what it was like to be around in 15th Century Bruges.

Like art, fine architecture is everywhere and a great example is Bruges Town Hall, built in 1376, it is one of the oldest in the Low Countries and it’s from where the city has been ruled for over 700 years. The gothic hall is a work of art in itself, with splendid 19th century murals and a colourful vaulted ceiling.

To get a totally different perspective of the city I jumped on a small canal boat.  It really gives a good feel for how the city used to be when it was a port before the river to the North Sea silted up. It’s easy to imagine the all the activity on the wharves, when bales of cloth from the local weavers, said to be the best in the world at that time, were loaded onto ships.

With so much to offer Bruges is a real gem but my most valuable treasure on the trip was a 48 hour City Pass that provided me with discounts and free entry to most of the local attractions. I easily recouped the €35 cost in the first day.

Bruges really was very impressive. The medieval ambiance was enjoyable enough, but the many moments of cultural serendipity made it a very special and memorable place to spend a couple of days.  With Bruges being so easily accessible and with the special offer from DFDS  it‘s definitely a winter break that I would recommend.

You can read all about the restaurants, accommodation and other attractions in Bruges by clicking here…

Useful Information

DFDS Seaways is offering free ferry travel to visitors driving from the UK to Bruges who book two nights accommodation in one of the participating Bruges hotels between 12th November – 14th December 2012 for travel between 6th January – 26th February 2013
 
For more information and to see hotels included in the offer go to www.dfdsseaways.co.uk/travel-guides/belgium/hotels-in-bruges/
 
For more information on Bruges go to www.visitbruges.be
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