In (and out of) Bruges

On Tuesday 1 September, 2009, we finally watched the film In Bruges (2008), starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Finnes and Brendan Gleeson. The film brought back invaluable memories of the city. (We spotted the window dog!)

On Wednesday we left Luxembourg City for Bruges. It was a long train ride but we finally made it. Our trip so far has been characterized by alternating days with rain and sun. It is therefore unsurprising that Wednesday we had a rainy day but today was fiercely hot. I have previously thought people who wear sunglasses somewhat pretentious and think themselves ultra important; I have now seen the light (or rather, the shade) when it comes to sunglasses.

While at the Gothic conference, I noticed how the word ‘liminal’ was used in many of the papers I attended. It occurred to me that all of the places associated with travel (hotels, restaurants, train stations) can be considered liminal. Then, it occurred to me even our life is itself a liminal state between living and dying.

We arrived in Bruges on Wednesday afternoon. The city is nearly faultlessly beautiful.

However, as it is high season, the city is overrun with tourists. This takes away from its beauty to a certain extent. But it is always like this to travel: many people need to choose between the calm but bleak Winter and the jovial but busy Summer.

Our hotel, Hotel Lucca, is located about five minutes walk from the Markt. The hotel is in a beautiful old building which has seen better days. As such, it feels trapped in another time; old-style European accommodation caught in the modern era:

Likewise, certain parts of the hotel are contained in newer shells, as the eighteenth-century neo-classical exterior conceals a fourteenth-century cellar where guests have breakfast. The hotel, we later learnt, was a lodge for merchants. It was also associated with Giovanni Arnolfini, the banker whose wedding is featured in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting, ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’:

The rooms are old-fashioned but have their charms. Because the keys are skeleton keys, a handsomely-prepared scrapbook in the hotel lobby includes this less than helpful piece of advice: “Tourists spend hours fumbling with old skeleton keys in rickety hotel doors. The haphazard, nothing-square construction of old hotels means the keys need babying. Don’t push them in all the way. Pull the door in or up. Try a little in, quarter turn, and further in for full turn. Always turn the top of the key away from the door to open it. Some locks take two key revolutions to open.” In fact, all you need is patience and roughness; perhaps this is contradictory, but is nevertheless the key to these keys.

Last night, as Jeff went out for a walk, I could hear competing concerts from my hotel window. (Jeff later told me that there were two shows going on at the same time.) Here’s the view from our window:

The music went on until late and unlike in other cities we have visited so far, a lot of people still congregated in the Markt after dusk. There were also a large number of people on the streets relatively early this morning. This is in noticeable contrast to for example Maastricht where the streets were absolutely empty at this hour.

We wanted to see some more paintings by Jan van Eyck and planned to visit the Groeningemuseum. However, when we got there, we discovered that it is closed until October. We wondered why the museum would be closed in the middle of high season and speculated that perhaps something urgent needs to be tended to or there were some complications and the work took longer than expected.

We decided therefore to skip the crowds and go to the nearby city of Ghent. We walked to some interesting places on our way to the train station. For example, here is one of the sets of almhouses that can be seen throughout the city:

We also saw the Minnewater where there were a number of swans. The story behind the swans in the city is an interesting one: “In 1488 the people of Bruges had executed one of the town administrators belonging to the court of Maximilian of Austria, husband and successor of duchess Mary of Burgundy. The town administrator was called ‘Pieter Lanchals’, a name which means ‘ long neck’. The Lanchals family coat of arms featured a white swan. Legend has it that Maximilian punished Bruges by obliging the population to keep swans on their lakes and canals till eternity. Most of these legends and romantic interpretations come from the 19th century. Believe them or not : the beautiful ‘Minnewater’ deserves them.”

We arrived in Ghent at around noon. The city was not as immediately appealing as Bruges. But as we walked deeper, we felt that it was in many ways more authentic than its touristier sister city. In fact, ‘authenticity’ is the catchword that the city is using to label itself for tourists (“Ghent, dazzlingly authentic”). The highlight in Ghent was a visit to Saint Bavo cathedral:

Although admission was free, the cathedral to our eyes was just as grand and interesting as other churches we had paid to gain entrance to. For example, it was as I recall, the first time I saw triptychs in actual use instead of hanging in a museum. It was nice to see these works in three dimensions with the side panels coming out instead of lying flat on a gallery wall. Walking through the church, we saw many paintings, silver items, sculptures, tapestries and other artworks and couldn’t help but marvelled at the grandeur of its original state.

While we were there, someone played the organ which gave the entire place a very Gothic feel. I am sure that in the past, this kind of music was intended to inspire awe or fear in the listeners and to suggest the power of God. The pipe organ was not as grand as the one in the church of St. Bavo’s Haarlem but you could actually see the musician playing in front of the organ. It looked like a very physical activity with many levels of keys and pedals to be manipulated.

The jewel of Saint Bavo cathedral of Ghent is the famous “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (1432) by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. The piece is commonly considered to be one of the most impressive artistic masterpieces in Belgium as well as an influential painting of the Middle Ages. This is part of it from the lower central panels:

Tomorrow, we are off to Brussels for the last stop on our brief Benelux tour. But before we go, we hope to take an early morning walk around Bruges to catch the city before it fills up with other temporary (liminal?) residents.

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