Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Brugge

Have you ever been someplace and had this strange feeling that you've been there before? But you know you haven't? At least not in this life?

I've felt that way about a couple of places: western Colorado; Bridgetown, Barbados; Antrim, Northern Ireland; London and Vienna. Now I can add a city in Belgium to that list. Today I took a road trip to the Flemish city of Brugge (Bruges if you're a French-speaker). Brugge has been around for nearly one thousand years and had its heyday during the Middle Ages. There's so much history here, I can't even begin to fathom it all, let alone describe it. Let's just say that yesterday's Brugge was on par with Venice (in fact, it's often called the "Venice of the North"). As THE center of industry and culture, Brugge would have been a lot like today's New York, London, or Hong Kong.

A series of rather strange events involving (among other things) a duchess who died from falling off a horse . . . and her government representative husband, Maximilian, who was imprisoned for 100 days in Brugge because the people were angry with him because they felt their taxes were too high . . . led to the city's downfall. Maximilian, who eventually became Emperor Maximilian I of the Habsburgs, basically shut Brugge down as punishment by sending all the industry and finance to the nearby city of Gent. Lesson: never, ever piss off the man who may become your ruler.

Somehow, the city center has pretty much stayed the same all these years. Being a UNESCO site should ensure its preservation. The incredible Grote Markt (big market square - in today's photo) is simply immaculate. Most of these buildings are from the 17th or 18th centuries. But walk a couple of blocks in any direction, and you'll see buildings dating to the 13th and 14th centuries, such as the belfry, which contains a carillon of 47 bells (yes, I heard them! Way cool!) and the Church of Our Lady, which has the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. There's also Sint-Salvatorskathedraal - The Holy Savior Cathedral. I didn't have time to go inside, but would definitely put it on my list for next time. 

Speaking of churches, Brugge was the home of a Beguine Convent, which provided a place for older unmarried or widowed women to live and work during the Middle Ages. They weren't nuns exactly (they didn't have to take all of the vows), but they pretty much lived as nuns. Ladies, that might not sound appealing but consider the alternatives for an older woman living alone back then! - there weren't many. Not far from the convent is a building where, according to a plaque out front, Tudor philosopher and Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More stayed numerous times in the early 16th century. 

Canals flow through the city - I was reminded more of Amsterdam than Venice - there were some brave people taking boat tours (it was way too cold for that, in my opinion!) Meanwhile, the quieter canal areas were visited by beautiful white swans (the symbol of the city), tourists from around the world, and lovers of all ages strolling hand in hand. 

We had a nice lunch. I went local and got the steamed mussels with fried potatoes. I'm not big on mussels but these were nice and dry, and reminded me a little of South Carolina oysters - without the tang. Later, we bought beignets from a street vendor. These aren't exactly like the ones in New Orleans, but the premise is the same: deep fried dough covered with powdered sugar. I will repent from my evil eating ways when I return home later this week. 

We also browsed through a lace store. Belgium has long been known for its lace and I was delighted to see some actual samples of real, handmade Belgian lace. It's also quite expensive, but considering how long it takes to make something of that quality by hand, it should be!

Anyway, I'm so glad I went. Many thanks to Sophie for taking me there on her day off! Yet, like I said, I felt like I'd been there before. Hmm. Maybe I was one of the Beguine nuns? Ya never know.

I really want to see the movie "In Bruges" now.