Fall 2017, I represented my University at the Frankfurt International Book Fair. The trip was official but I made sure to have time to explore the city plus Cologne, the closest heritage city to Frankfurt. Back then, the only city I wanted to see outside of Germany was Brussels for a very practical reason: lack of time. It was a short visit – an overnight stay in Brussels would suffice.
It was my friend Oscar who pushed me to extend my travel somewhere norht of Brussels: Bruges. I was persuaded because Oscar had a hint that I would fall in love with the city more than Brussels. “Besides, it would only take you an hour via the reliable Eurorail” he quipped.
Alright, I was persuaded: Brussels on the first day then had to do an early check-out the next day, traveled to Bruges, left my huge bag at the luggage locker station, toured the city, then went back to Brussels to catch my train going back to Frankfurt.
True to Oscar’s prediction, I fell in love with this Medieval City and would be willing to travel back there given another opportunity.
Bruges is a picture-perfect city. Oscar insisted that I must not miss Bruges in my first travel to Belgium because “Belgium and Bruges go hand-in-hand together.” Moreso, Oscar added: “When I think of Belgium, I do not think of Brussels but Bruges.”
It is a canal city like Amsterdam. Besides, at the edge of the city are windmills almost similar to those at the outskirts of Amsterdam.
Tourist ads call Bruges ‘the Venice of the North’. I have no basis for I have not been to Venice. I cannot completely say it is absolutely like Amsterdam. The charm of Amsterdam hints a sense of modernity while Bruges, a sense of the Middle Ages. But I may be wrong. I am not really particular with the histories of these cities. But nonetheless both cities are stupendously magnificent.
Going back to my love affiar with Bruges: the cobblestone paths, the baroquish stone churches, the ornate archways and bricked bridges, Bruges is 200% photogenic. Think of the canals with swans on the water, pigeons flying over the town plaza, horse drawn carriages in the cobblestone streets and flowers in the park; all these make it like a fairy tale from the pages of a book coming alive. Amateur photographers might even be mistaken as professionals.
Bruges is a monument in itself. This is the reason why it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inscribed in 2000 as The Historic Centre of Brugge, UNSECO cites it as an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble, illustrating significant stages in the commercial and cultural fields in medieval Europe.
What also fascinated me in the city its historical narratives – from a dark historical past to its rising as an important cultural space in the contemporary civilization of Europe. Until the Second World War, the town plaza witnessed thousands of deaths – natural and man-made such as the black plague, accsued heretics burned at the stake and deaths of other political prisoners. Not to mentione, Hitler also targeted Bruges due to the number of artworks by important art figures such as Michaelangelo (Shout out: the Monuments Men).
And speaking of artworks and Monuments Men: Bruges is home to Madonna and Child housed at the Church of Our Lady. Believed to be the most famous representation of the Virgin and the Child Jesus, the marble sculpture was scuplted in Italy and exported to Belgium in 1504. This sculpture is significantly different from other adaptations of the Mary holding the Child Jesus. Many earlier (and even latter) sculptural representations of Madoona and the Child feature a kind and warm mother gazing at her child – a baby. Michaelangelo’s depicts a sorrowful mother, who perhaps interpreted by him as a foreshadowing of her son’s passion, suffering and death.
The sculpture was removed (“stolen,” actually) twice from Bruges since 1504. The first time was during the aftermath of the French Revolution when French revolutionaries conquered the Austrian-Netherlands border sometime in 1794. That time, Bruges people were orderd to surrender several valuable artworks to Paris. Included in the list of artworks Bruges citizens surrendered was the Madonna and Child. However, when Napoleon was defeated in Waterloo in 1815, the sculpture was returned to Bruges.
The second and most popular removal from Bruges was in 1944, during the Second World War. Nazi soldiers smuggled several artworks all over Europe. And yes, this piece of gem was smuggled only to be found in a salt mine in Austria, which was depicted in the movie Monuments Men.
It was only after I left the city, inside the train going back to Frankfurt when I realised I had not taken a photograph of the sculpture. I was so disappointed. The only picture I currenlty have of the sculpture is my vivid memory of its magnificence. I was able to document the medieval structure of the Church but not the sculpture. I had a reason: I was in awe – in full awe. The elegance and magnanimity of the sculpture petrified me. That my curiousity and critical appreciation just wanted to stare and gaze at it over and over again.
The city is also the birthplace of two Flemish painters who are considered as the most cited artists during the Middle Ages: Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling (a German but was awarded Bruges citizenship). Eyck’s work with brother Hubert van Eyck Ghent Alterpiece is considered the most popular Medieval painting in the history of arts, which I had an opportunity to see in 2018 when I visited San Bravo Cathedral in Ghent. Hemling, on the other hand, is famous for his triptych The Adoration of the Magi, currently on display at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Another fascinating thing about Bruges: two other sites within the city walls are UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Belfy of Bruges as part of the Belfries of Belgium and France inscribed in 1999 and expanded in 2005; the Bruges Beguinage as part of the Flemish Beguinages inscribed in 1998.
How to end this post? I guess I just need to go back to the city being photogenic. Just take a look at how my camera captured the city. Beautiful, isn’t it?