Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday post – Memories of Belgium 2015 Part 2: Bruges. I was planning to make this only a 2 part post – but the memories of these places are far too many to share in 1 post – so it will be 3 part blog. This week, I will share my time spent in Bruges and next week (April 9). I will share my memories of Ghent and my overall impression of Brussels and the Jacques Brel Youth Hostel.Last week, I mentioned one of the main factors that prompted me to go to Belgium was the movie “The Monuments Men.” Particularly to view the beautiful statue of the Madonna and Child. I just had to see for myself the beauty of this statue in person. This week we get a chance to visit this remarkable piece work by none other then Michelangelo and more
Making my way to Bruges
August 7, 2015, I headed to Bruges. After waking very early in the morning, I made my way over to the train station to catch the first train that would take me to Bruges. Reading the train schedule was a little tricky as it was mostly in french, and my french is a grade 2 level at best. But there is plenty of staff around to help the tourists understand where to go to get tickets and make sure you don’t miss your train. With large picture windows on the train, you get a chance to see the beautiful countryside as you pass through quaint villages and the rolling farmlands.
The small medieval city of Bruges is located approx. 1 hour north of Brussels and is a trendy destination for day trips from the communities around Belgium. The centre of Bruges is a 15-minute leisurely stroll from the train station. Walking along the cobbled streets, you can’t help but fall in love with this place. With old-world charm everywhere you look, from the ancient statues that adorn the buildings to the vendor selling freshly picked flowers, canals to the Markt (The market square). One can’t help but ask if they have travelled back in time
Church of Our Lady Bruge
The Church of Our Lady dates mainly from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This Church is “…a monument to the wealth, sophistication, taste, and devotion of this mostly Catholic city. The steeple (tower) stands at 115.6 meters (379 ft) in height. It remains the tallest structure in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. The Church is stunningly beautiful. Carvings are made out of ancient wood and marble, the shrines, the nave (main altar), the paintings, the stained glass windows, marble tombs, the craftsmanship is simply stunning. The Church of Our Lady is a working church. This means, Masses (church services), choir practice, prayers happen daily. Upon entering, remember this is a holy place, and are asked to be respectful of those who come for prayer service. Since this is an active Church, it is sometimes frowned upon to take pictures. Some places of worship request you purchase a photography permit. I can’t remember if the Church of Our Lady requires a photography permit. When I visited the Church, the Daily Prayer Service took place, and I personally didn’t feel comfortable taking many photos. It is always recommended to ask if photography is allowed.
The Madonna and Child
In the southern aisle is the altar known as the Cappella Sacra (Sacred Chapel). Created in the 18th century, here you will find the Madonna and Child, also known as The Madonna of Bruges, is the Church’s pride. Michelangelo carved The Madonna and Child out of 1 piece of marble between 1501 and 1504, making it over 519 years old. What makes Michelangelo’s depiction of the Madonna and Child so unique is the stature of Jesus. Jesus is standing upright, almost unsupported, only loosely restrained by Mary’s left hand. Making it appear that Jesus is about to step away from his mother. Whereas earlier representations of the same subject tend to feature the Virgin Mary smiling down on the infant in her arms. Another extraordinary fact about the statue is that it is the only known statue to have left Italy during Michelangelo’s lifetime. The Cappella Sacra is roped off, and visitors aren’t allowed to step up to the alter or the statue, thus protecting it. It isn’t hard to imagine why this piece of art is/was desired by many.
Wait there's more
The Madonna and Child isn’t the only thing to see in this medieval church.
You won’t want to miss the ceremonial tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold. The tombs were designed in a late/early renaissance style. Made out of black marble with reclining effigies made from bronze were completed in the mid-16th century. In front of both tombs, you will find a triptych by Barend van Orley.
There is also a treasure trove of exceptional pieces in the choir aisle: paintings and exquisite woodcarvings all with other painted tombs from the 13th and 14th centuries, etc. There are outstanding paintings by Pieter Poubus (Last Supper and Adoration of the Shepherds) and Gerard David (Transfiguration). Still, after Michelangelo, the choir area holds the most interest. Elsewhere you’ll find the funerary chapel of Pieter Lanchals containing frescoed tombs in maroon and black and Van Dyck’s starkly atmospheric painting of Christ on the cross.
It is easy to spend a full day in the Church of Our Lady wandering the aisles and the tombs, soaking up the atmosphere of history and art.
The Maria van Bourgondie Restaurant
Behind the Church was Maria van Bourgondie Restaurant. The patio was set with relaxing bamboo chairs around tables with white linens and waiters dressed in a uniform styled outfit complete with gold-trimmed shoulder lapels and white gloves.
I ordered the rib-eye steak and was pleasantly surprised when the sous chef came out, showed me the cut of meat they would be cooking and wanted to know if the steak’s cut and marbling were to my liking. 30 minutes later, my meal arrived, and I was not disappointed. The meat was cooked to perfection, the fresh garlic mashed potatoes were to die for, and the braised Belgian endives were tender and almost sweet. While my glass of Cabernet Sauvignon helped to cut through the juiciness and fattiness of the cut.
I never felt rushed to finish my meal; in fact, it was quite the opposite; I almost felt obligated to stay, and people watch as I sat and finished my coffee. If you are looking for 5 stars on food and service, without the 5-star price, you must go to Maria van Bourgondie in Brugge.
Exploring the City
Bruges is surrounded by water, and one of the best ways to see the city is by a canal cruise. There are five landing stages for a half-hour trip that allow you to appreciate the city’s most noteworthy delights from a completely different angle. A 30-minute ride is 10.00 Euros and 6.00 Euros for children up to 11; this includes some narratives. Some of the sites you will see are hotels, private homes with direct water access, museums, swans and more. My favourite places along the tour were a building, built-in 1675, and a private residence where the homeowners’ dog looked out over the canal, keeping an eye on everything.
After my 30-minute canal ride, I slowly made way over to the Markt. Yes, it is spelled correctly lol. This is the main square where locals and tourists gather to meet for coffee at one of the many cafes/restaurants or start a city tour. The markt has held a weekly market here since 958AD. Locals and tourists agree that “this IS the place to be in Brugge, full of life, buzzing with people, music & restaurants.” One of the most popular sites in the square is the Belfry and its tower. There are usually long line ups to climb to the top to see Bruges’ and the countryside’s awe-inspiring views. If you wish to climb the tower, it is recommended to arrive early in the morning to avoid the long lines.
On the opposite side of the markt square is the Historium.
The Historium is a type of museum offering the visitor a unique and historical experience. The historical experience allows the visitor to travel back to medieval Brugge (15th century). The one-hour visit merges decor, film, music, and special effects into a magical experience that excites all your senses. Using audio guides, you’re escorted through themed rooms as you follow Jan van Eyck’s apprentice Jacob. While you on your journey, you are virtually standing in the middle of historical scenes such as the old port or master painter Van Eyck’s studio. This tour is more than seeing and hearing. You step into the past where you will smell, feel, and experience what it was like in the 15 century. It really is a sensual, invigorating experience. When the tour is complete, you are at the top of the gothic building, where you will enjoy the view over the square and beyond. When I was there in 2015, guests were given a voucher for a free beer or non-alcoholic beverage to enjoy. As it was a scorching day and I don’t drink beer, I chose to enjoy bottled water.
There is still more to see and experience
After enjoying the views from the Historium, it was time to start exploring the side streets of Bruges. I walked down was Wollestraat, and it seemed like every other shop was a chocolate shop. I guess it is true, the Belgians take their chocolate very seriously. I did come across a tea house called Het Brugs Theehuis. It wasn’t a cafe, but a whole store dedicated to tea, teapots, teacups, sets, Belgian loose leaf teas and more. I was in tea heaven. I love a good cuppa tea lol. It turns out the manager is an ex-pat from Canada and loves tea; when I told him, I was having difficulty finding a place that sells and serves tea. In Belgium, the manager explained that coffee and beer are more common for people to enjoy. As he explained this, I noticed he lifted a pot of tea and saucer from under the counter and poured a cup. “Try this tea, I just made myself a pot, and you seem like a nice gal; why don’t you join me for a cup.” I reluctantly agreed, and I admit that it was the best tea I had on my trip. While we chatted, he told me about different things to see while in Bruges, foods to try, and things to stay away from (tourist traps). Before long, I had made a friend, enjoyed a great tea, and purchased a Belgian loose leaf tea blend.
Oude Steen - Torture Museum
Continuing along Wollestraat, I came across a fascinating Museum. My new friend would call a “Tourist Trap,” The museum is called the Torture Museum of Bruges (“Oude Steen”). This museum is located in probably one of the oldest historical European prisons, “De Oude Steen” (“The Old Stone”). The exhibits show how cruel instruments were engineered to cause unbelievable pain on the human body and mind. Designed to allow the visitor to walk through at their own pace and go back and forth between exhibits. You can get a good look at the devices, and photography is encouraged. With more than 100 years of execution and torture devices in the museum, each one is displayed and placed chronologically. The realistic wax figures will give you an unforgettable impression of the pain these devices were meant to inflict upon the human body. See the “Chair of Torture – used to extract confessions; The Torture Rack – a sophisticated machine used to dislocate the bones of a person, and The Judas Cradle – a pyramid-shaped and sharpened device, on which a victim was lowered via ropes. These are just a few of the many torture instruments waiting for you at the Torture Museum of Bruges.
After my visit at the Torture Museum, I slowly made my way through the narrow and cobbled streets stopping and doing some window shopping as I made my way back to the train station to catch my train back to Brussels. As the train raced back towards Brussels, I found myself thinking of my day, looking at the pictures I took and smiling. What a memorable day. There is so much to see and do. I will be revisiting Bruges and spending a lot more time exploring this magnificent medieval city
Next week I will be sharing my thoughts about the beautiful city of Ghent and my over all impression of my time in Belgium.
Until next week, stay safe, stay healthy.
Mary – The Traveling Baroness