June 2014

Wednesday 11th June

This year's non-Italian destination is inspired by the two considerable courses in Northern Renaissance art that I took last year, and the subsequent need to go see Memlings, Rogiers, Van Eycks, and the like. Also the Ghent altarpiece. On the food front there's the lure of chips, chocolate and the need to find out just what Belgian buns are called in Belgium. The burning question - raised on my Cakes page - seems to be whether what they call a couque aux raisins is even close to what we know as a Belgian Bun. Mission accepted!

The Eurostar journey was almost totally trouble-free. The only problem being me wrongly thinking I'd booked the superior seats with the in-flight meal thrown in. So instead of some nice wrap thing with hummus from Pret and maybe a cake, which we would've bought had we known, we had tuna sandwiches on sliced white bread and a micro-tube of Pringles from the dining car, now run by Waitrose. Oh well. The transfer to the Bruges train at Brussels was smooth, and we were in Bruges and getting good intro from our cab driver in no time. He even recommended the same veggie restaurant we'd read good things about - The Lotus - but it's only open for lunches.

Checked in to the Hotel Navarra. I seem to have lucked out with an incredibly quiet room again, but I suppose I shouldn't prematurely count my chickens.  We unpacked a bit and went for an acclimatising walk in the sunshine and under a blue sky and...boy, is this a pretty place! Impressive tall towers and spires and stepped gables and cute corners and canals everywhere, and no graffiti and it's all so clean and dog-poo free. Psycho-cyclists much in evidence, with the usual deathwish and the aversion to brake use, but you can't have everything. Following the jaw-dropping stroll we found a likely-looking Italian called Da Vincenzo where I had a very superior buffalo mozzarella margherita pizza, and the side salad was crisp and nicely dressed. Add to this a tasty wheat beer and all it would've taken to round off the evening to perfection would have been some good gelato. But I haven't figured out where to get that yet. I'm definitely getting a good feeling about this place, though.



Thursday 12th June

After an undisturbed night's sleep the breakfast test was passed with flying colours - truly fresh orange juice, good coffee,  fresh pastries and good bread variety.

We decided to start out with the main art gallery, The Groeninge Museum. It's known for its pre-Renaissance works by the likes of Van Eyck, Memling and David, as well as some very talented anonymous masters, and these are the highlights, by a long chalk. They are known locally as the Flemish Primitives and are almost wholly wonderful, but the centuries pass swiftly and with diminishing returns in the following rooms, for me anyway. Entry to the Arentshuis is included in the ticket, and the displays upstairs of works by Frank Brangwyn are well worth investigating - I especially liked his bookplates and the architectural prints. And the views of Venice, of course.

For lunch we looked for the famous Lotus veggie restaurant, and found it. But we were lured by preference into a falafel restaurant nearby called 't Brugs Pitahuis, and regretted our decision not one bit - the falafels were freshly-cooked and crunchy, the hummus good, the dipping sauces varied and yummy, and the frites good too. The restaurant was within sight of the pizza place we went to last night, had suspiciously similar desserts, and turned out to be run by the same people. It wasn't busy either - Bruges is still not a place I'd describe as crowded. There tends to be big parties and more  people generally in the famous squares and by the canals. And the boat trips look unappealingly squashed on. But generally, away from the main drag, and especially in the evening, almost empty streets are very common.

On the walk back I found Da Vinci's gelateria and had coconut and speculoos biscuit flavours. It wasn't bad gelato, just not as light as real Italian - a bit too creamy for me. But I'll try some more, maybe something more sorbet. To our evaluation of Bruges as one the prettiest and cleanest places ever visited we have to add the attraction of every shopkeeper, museum attendant and member of restaurant staff being helpful and polite well into the realm of actual chatty friendliness.

For our evening walk we headed to the Gruuthuse and beyond to the Minnewater Park and Begijnhof area. But on the way I was waylaid by the window of a branch of Chocoholic and the display of marzipan slices in different flavours and...well, those that have read a few of these reports, or know me in real life, will know how I would be physically incapable of resisting coconut flavour marzipan. And I didn't even try. And with the woman in the shop I had a discussion of how there are some people in the world who don't like marzipan and/or coconut, and how incomprehensible was that. The planned walk was full of pretty streets and grand canal views, of course, with the Begijnhof (Beguinage) an especially picturesque locality, the canal views benefiting from the evening light shining through the puffy clouds of swan down drifting up from a large number of same gathered and moulting on a canalside patch of grass.

The lunchtime stuffing with falafel left us feeling like some slight evening abstemiousness, so we made do with a shared tray of frites from a cabin in front of the spectacular Markt belfry. I went native and got the mayonnaise topping, but I ended up getting a fed up with the mayo before the chips. Good to sit beneath the belfry and watch the world go by too, even if some of it went by on stupid Segways wearing yellow hazard tabards.


Friday 13th June

This morning we devoted to Memling. (Q. Do you like Memling? A. I don't know you naughty boy, I've never Memled! It's taken us two days to perfect that one.) The Sint-Janshospitaal has six works by Hans Memling, four of them commissioned for here. In fact they have seven as they currently have a long-term loan of a sweet little tondo of the Madonna and Child. There's other stuff, like reliquaries and gravestones as well as paintings by others, mostly anonymous masters. But the Memlings are the draw - a huge altarpiece, some smaller ones, and the truly wonderful and clever Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove. I thought that I might have found my new patron saint on an altarpiece wing. She's St Mary of Egypt and has the appearance of a naked woman with long hair carrying a plate of buns. But she turns out to have been a nymphomaniac and prostitute who plied her trade with participants in pilgrimages and, having been shown the error of her ways, took to the wilderness with only three loaves of bread. Aside from the fine halls full of Memlings your ticket also gains you entrance to the apothecary, which smells nice and has some fine urns and jars. And a view of a cute little courtyard (see right).

Our walk back for lunch took us through a canalside antiques market, with lots of tosh on offer, as is ever the case. But there were craft stalls too, and Jane found herself an unusual hand-knitted scarf. And as we passed through the fish market, behind a man weaving on an old foot-powered loom, I found a scarf in colours I couldn't resist, made by the man himself. But I did resist, although I may relent and go back and buy later. We were making for the Pitahuis where we had an excess of falafel yesterday, but today we shared a platter of six samosas, with a Greek salad. Multicultural, or what? And to retain this theme I had a panna cotta for desert.

Our evening stroll was northerly and guidebook-guided. Firstly to a somewhat trafficky junction around which the Italian merchants had their houses and consulates. The old Venetian consulate, the home of Medici bank officials, the Genoese Lodge (now the Frites Museum) and the Florentine Lodge (now the Florentijnen restaurant) are all within sight of each other. The latter building has a plaque with a quote from Dante about Bruges, pointed out by my helpful assistant (see right). Further East is Jan Van Eyckplein, which has more fine and pointy buildings, the customs house, porters' lodges, etc. From there we followed the canal east and then south, passing lovely canalside houses in various states of repair (including dis-), ending up back by the fishmarket, from which it was a matter of a few seconds to return to the Italian restaurant of our first night. Tonight I had spaghetti al pesto and Jane had the veg cannelloni. All good. A somewhat indirect walk back took in an indoor cashpoint and some pretty and peaceful streets behind our hotel.

Earlier in the evening we'd visited Dumont, the chocolate shop, and I'd bought a small bag of what can best be described as half-balls of milk and plain chocolate with a praline filling and hazelnut. They were not earth-shattering or odd, but were very easy to eat nonetheless. The coconut marzipan bought yesterday was, I can reveal now, a big disappointment - neither marzipanny nor coconuty, I'm afraid, just sweet and chewy.

Left to right: the Genoese Lodge (now the Frites Museum), the Huis ter Beurze (where the Van den Beurze family ran their money changing business, and  hence the word 'bourse' for a stock exchange) and the old Venetian consulate (now a bookshop).

Saturday 14th June

Off to Ghent today. We just missed the train to Gent-Dampoort, which is nearer the centrum, and so caught one of the more frequent trains to Gent-Sint-Pieters. This is the bigger but further-out station. We decided to do a partially-canal-side longish walk to Sint-Baafskathedral, to see the Ghent altarpicepiece, first. The walk was bit indirect (OK - we got a bit lost) but took in some fine and varied architecture - Ghent is less totally pretty than Bruges, but still has many fine buildings, some of them later than medieval.

I was prepared for the Ghent altarpiece experience to be less than spiritual, what with the probable crowds and the bullet-proof glass screen. But it was fine. The crowd wasn't too thick, stood around respectfully listening to audio guides, and were not allowed to take photos. The glass screen could've been more intrusive, and the altarpiece is undoubtedly a big and moving and special thing. The outer panels, which are visible when the thing is closed up, and the panels of Adam and Eve where away being restored and were replaced by monochrome photos, which I think is a more honest solution than putting up detailed colour photos, and sometimes even hoping no-one will notice. There is a schedule for which panels are being restored when, but it said that Adam and Eve weren't due to be removed until the next batch - all the top row. Whilst they are being restored you can see the panels being worked on at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, the main art gallery in Ghent. By the time we'd had a perambulate around the rest of the church the church bookshop was closed for lunch, which was a pisser.

Heading down to the aforementioned art gallery we came across an event in a large square, involving lots of sawdust, which turned out to be a miniature horse show. I'd never seen waist-high horses before, but now I want one, or two, as I'm sure they'd be hardly any trouble around the house, and the stables could be very small. We made use of the art gallery restaurant before embarking on art. I had a sweet potato lasagne and Jane had a goat's cheese and pine nut tart thing. Both were pretty and flavoursome. The art was a more mixed bag. The Flemish Primative rooms were interesting, but contained no real gems. The only painting in here that you mightl find in here in art books is Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross which is indeed a wonderful and simple thing. The rest of the rooms are full of works that make you realise that not all art is a masterpiece, but it's worth a look around, for perspective and the odd surprise pleasure. And the place was so empty I even had a sequence of four huge rooms in a row to myself, without even a guard, and found an impressive  Tintoretto portrait of a male Cornaro. The bookshop here was closed too, due to some major refitting, and the creating of odd scribbly modern drawings on the walls of the entrance hall.

We'll draw a discreet veil over my discovering, after we'd walked almost to the station, that I'd left my jacket on the back of my chair in the gallery restaurant. But suffice to say we made it back to our hotel in Bruges unusually late and with unusually throbby feet.

In the evening we made straight for the old Pitahuis and had a shared plate of samosas with pita bread and hummus, and the traditional panna cotta after. I did try a different local white/wheat beer but it was not nicer than the usual common-or-garden Hoegaarden. If you've been to Bruges you'll know that the famous belfry plays tunes, using a carillon, but you might not know what one of these is. Well, it turns out it's bells played with a keyboard. Which explains why tonight the usual repertoire of It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Ode to Joy and the like were replaced by some new tunes, most of them incomprehensible, because they have carillon concerts, which we presume this was. One of the pieces sounded like a favourite old Grace Jones song of mine, but maybe I was hallucinating after too much panna cotta.



Sunday 15th June

Today I took myself solo to Brussels to visit the Fine Arts Museum. Jane had been there quite recently, so decided to stay in Bruges and have an explore of the Gruuthusemuseum and the museum devoted to the history of domestic lighting. The train to Brussels was no trouble, excepting my plan to get off at Midi (also known as Zuid) was adjusted when I looked at the guide on the way and found a station called Centraal which my train was going on to after Midi, and which was mere minutes from the gallery. The gallery is divided into four galleries: the Old Masters, the (new) Fin-de-Siécle, the Magritte, and Modern Art. I was only interested in the first two, but a combined ticket was still worth it. There's a different (touch screen) audioguide if you buy the combi ticket too, but you have to take it back to the desk to get it reset for the other galleries, and thereby develop an art-discussing relationship with the nice woman staffing the desk. I mention the audioguide because it's a good one - for example going into the attributes and martyrdoms of all the saints in a lot of the altarpieces. The story that St Catherine wasn't just tortured on a wheel, but on a specially-created machine with spiky wheels which then was exploded into bits by angels, so causing the deaths of hundreds of heathens, was a new spin on that story on me, but there's no real 'true' version I suppose. The Flemish Primitives here are well represented, if not with many stand-out gems. Plenty of Breughels too, and a Bosch or two, including one fine copy. Also The Death of Marat by David, which I thought was in the Louvre, but I was assured that there were many copies, but that this was the original, David having came to Brussels to live after he was banished from France. And it's true!

The newly-opened subterranean Fin-de-Siécle galleries where an absolute treat. I have an unfocused liking for symbolist and romantic-era paintings, but these rooms got me focussed and much keener, almost to the point of revelation. Fernand Khnopff is my discovery of this trip (he has an odd and  wonderful thing in the Bruges gallery too) and I am much smitten. The Fin-de-Siécle galleries go down eight levels from ground level, which I found worrying, and some of the stuff down there is very weird - the
painting of the woman sitting surrounded by pigs, with one perched on her shoulder, will live on in my memory for a good while, if only the name of the artist had so I could look it up and find it and so confound Jane, who thinks I must have been hallucinating. (Gustav Adolf Mossa is his name, as I found out on a later trip.)

T here were no books on Khnopff in English to be bought in the museum bookshop, but a lovely plush book on the new F-de-S galleries and a fine chunky catalogue of the old masters. I was very footsore, art-sated and book-laden by 2.30 so I took a cardboard cone of frites around some crowded streets and shopping arcades before making for the train and returning to Bruges. Back to the Italian in the evening, and a return to Da Vinci's on the way back, where I chose grapefruit and fruits of the forest, so steering clear of creaminess and towards fruitiness and enjoying muchly.

Monday 16th June

For our last couple of days we've decided to do justice to some of Bruge's churches. We started with the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), getting there as quick as we could after breakfast to try to beat some of the hoards we'd seen on other days, swarming in to take photos of the Bruges Madonna. This is the famous Michelangelo sculpture, one of very few by him outside Italy, and why the bloke from Downton Abbey and 2012 gets shot in the film of The Monuments Men. You can't get very close, but it certainly has something. Unfortunately the majority of the rest of the church is a building site at the moment, so the superior collection of altarpieces are either mounted on boards in odd places or not to be seen at all. Another reason for a return visit.

Next we went to the Beguinage (the u is silent), a medieval convent-type complex for lay sisters. It's a lovely and quiet place and there's a sweet museum showing the life of a beguine, and containing a lovely little cloister. There's a chapel, which is handsome too, and it's good to just silently wander. It has a huge shop too, selling a variety of piety-related product including, we were surprised to see, bags of communion wafers. What's that all about? Surely you need a priest and a church. The current occupants here are Benedictine sisters, who dress in beguine-type robes.

Heading back to the centre of town, looking for somewhere off-centre for lunch, we got a bit lost, but as unpretty streets are unknown in Bruges this was no big problem. We found ourselves, eventually, to be near our regular samosa and hummus place, so gave in to fate. I decided to try a Kriek, having read about it in my guidebook. It's a Belgian beer made with locally-grown sour cherries and has a marzipanny tinge, caused by the stone, I had read. It is indeed very nice. Afterwards we made for Saint Giles' church (Sint-Gillskerk) where Memling is buried and around where he and many of his colleagues lived. It's a fine chunky church - wider than it's tall - with the decoration placing the 19th-century gothic revival elements within an actual gothic church. And when they did this they got rid of baroque accretions. Amongst this decoration are a sequence of impressive carved tableaux depicting scenes from Christ's passion (see below). There is plaque on the wall of the church commemorating Memling, and a metal calligraphy thing inside, around a column, by Brody Neuenschwander, the calligrapher who worked on Peter Greenaway's Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book and who lives in Bruges. (And who was responsible, we later realised, for the tasteful prints in our hotel rooms.) We liked this church, although the altarpiece by Pourbus which is the main artistic draw is a bit hard to see, in a glass case lacking a non-reflective coating.

The tortoiseshell cat is one of a pair that live in a frock shop near our hotel who are the only cats we've seen in Bruges. We first saw the black one which is usually to be found in the other window, and he was so fast asleep we thought that he might be stuffed. But on a later occasion we detected breathing. Neither of them move much, or indeed like to face the outside world much.



Tuesday 17th June

To the Heilig Bloed Basiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) first this morning. The upstairs part is a feast of colourful 19th-century Gothic revival decoration - all very Pugin. There are lots of murals, stripy columns, a silver tabernacle which houses the phial of blood and water washed from Christ's body, supposedly, and a pulpit shaped like an enormous hollow tomato. The downstairs half is called St Basil's Chapel and is darker and much smaller and more round-arched, stony and ancient-seeming.

Next door is the Stadhuis (Town Hall)  which has a Gothic Hall which is another riot of 19th-century Gothic decoration, carvings and murals. Your ticket for the Gothic Hall also gets you entrance to the Renaissance Hall, for which you turn right upon leaving the Gothic one and head towards the corner of the square. The hall has an impressive large carved wooden fireplace from the 16th century, rich with putti and royal personages with large codpieces.

We then made for St Salvators-Kathedraal, which was a lot more interesting than its entry in the guidebook suggests. A large section is boarded off for restoration and so some paintings have been moved to temporary boards, but there's enough to see to impress far more than cathedrals usually -  they often being so much restored and rebuilt over the centuries as to have lost all character. Odd bits of wall decoration, some unusual sunken sarcophaguses with painted interiors, some interesting altarpieces ranged around a covered-in cloister, a fine stained-glass Annunciation....but there was some modern art too, unfortunately, like a corner strewn with swanky-shop bags and a dummy rough-sleeper under a shiny gold sheet...oh well.

For lunch we found a place which did mozzarella, tomato and pesto panini,  which made a change. And I had a honey-topped waffle, which was...Belgian. After an after lunch rest I went to Sint-Jacobskerk (Saint James's Church) which is right next to our hotel. It contains an altarpiece of The Legend of Saint Lucy by an anonymous master I'd admired something by in the Brussels gallery, called The Master of the Legend of St Lucy. A couple more nice altarpieces, including two by Pieter Pourbus and one by The Master of the Holy Blood that impressed, the Florence-resonance of a chapel paid for by the Portinari family and a Della Robbia tondo, added to my appreciation and pleasure.

Having psyched ourselves up for some farewell pasta at our usual Italian we found it closed, so went for the final veggie samosas, hummus and pitta-bread melange instead. With a last Kriek too, and some nutty apple pie with ice cream. And then a walk back lightly sprinkled with Belgian football fans in multicoloured fright wigs happy to have won tonight, but they were not what you'd call rowdy.










Wednesday 18th June

Our first four days here were spent under blue skies with fluffy clouds, the next couple were mostly dingy, but were spent in churches, and today it rained on us for our final farewell walk around, taking in an actual market in the Markt, with fruit, veg, cheese, bread, cakes and dead animals and all. Walking back to the hotel the tortoiseshell one of the aforementioned frock-shop cats was on the ledge outside his window! She got a chin-stroke, and enjoyed it.

Hotel bill payment, promise to return, cab to station, train to Brussels, wait for Eurostar, coffee with a little rolled-up pancake with speculoos-spread filling (which was very nice), announcement of  'a problem with the train set', announcement of the fixing of the problem, getting on train, eating mozza and tom rolls bought at station, home in no time, cats confused then purring, carpets covered in fluff...realising I had returned without seeing one cake which could be described as a Belgian Bun.

Post-trip reading
(and viewing)

For future reading there's Niccolo Rising, the first of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series,
which is set in Bruges. The second one, called The Spring of the Ram, is set in Florence.

Terence Morgan The Master of Bruges
This is a novelisation of the life of the 15th-century Flemish painter Hans Memling from the death of his master Rogier van der Weyden. The narrative takes in contact with princes and kings, commissions and odd requests, observations on art and many personal complications. The writing is sober and 'straight', without stylistic flourish or sensual excess. But the result is not dryness, more an involvingly true-seeming portrait, with flashes of recognition and realisation as the artist mentions the tribulations and events that relate to aspects of his works. The lengths he has to go to to keep patrons happy is one theme, and the whole truth/illusion thing is another. The artist is living in Bruges for most of the novel, but it's just his home town, not a feelingly-evoked place of beauty. Part two shifts the action to England and a more poetically-licensed plotline. More of a treat for fans of the artist than the city, then, but an enthusiasm-enhancing treat if you've been and gotten smitten by Memling's works.
The plotline of part two is continued in the sequel The Shadow Prince.
  Georges Rodenbach Bruges-la-Morte
The introduction by the author contains what could almost be a manifesto for this here website:...the Town guiding the action, its urban landscapes not merely as backcloths, as the slightly arbitrary subjects of descriptive passages, but tied to the very events of the book. The story concerns a man who has suddenly lost his young wife and who moves to Bruges to better live a life of constant mourning, and of living with merely his memories in a city where it's always evening and autumn. But then on one of his evening walks he sees a woman who looks exactly like his dead wife and follows her. The writing isn't quite as florid and dated as you might expect from its period, and from being described as symbolist and published by a house known for its championing of decadent literature, but the plot doesn't disappoint in this regard. Needless to say it gives good Bruges, but not if you consider the place a good venue for a stag party, maybe - the clue is in the title. This book, published in 1892, is thought to be the first novel illustrated with photographs. The newest (Daedelus Press) edition has new photographs, though.

In Bruges 2008
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play two hitmen forced to take refuge in Bruges after a job goes wrong. The dominant joke is that Farrell thinks that one of the prettiest cities in Europe is a shit-hole, while Gleeson thinks it's lovely and tries to convince him. It's a film full of smart dialogue and incongruity, like a Quentin Tarrentino film but with real people with real feelings. The comedy and pathos and gore about balance out, Bruges in winter looks gorgeous, and there's lots of location filming, taking in all the good bits, with only some small liberties taken with topographical continuity. The Belfry and the Gruuthuse courtyard are the sites of major scenes, with a couple of walks past the Beguinage and lots of night-time canal action. The scene where they discuss the Holy Blood relic is not filmed in the Basilica of the Holy Blood but in the Jeruzalemkerk. A Bruges treat and a fine film too.




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