Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Bruges V - well, actually Ghent

Ghent was a short train journey away. It's a bigger place with a university and more industry, but the centre is old and, like Bruges, has canals. As the station is a way from the centre I got a tram, then got off too early so had a morning stroll the last part. I'd come particularly to see a painting that many people regard as one of the greatest in the world.
Completed in 1452 "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" was painted by Jan van Eyck, and his otherwise unknown brother, Hubert. It's often just known as "The Ghent Altarpiece", and has had a complicated history. It's been pawned, captured by Germans - twice - divided up into parts, etc, etc. One of its panels is still missing. It sits in a side chapel of Ghent Cathedral, encased in security glass. There were zillions of people around the day I was there, all listening to their earset thingies which lasted 50 minutes. It was hot, crowded, and not the best environment to take a look at this great work. I stayed quite a while, then made my way out - a bit disappointed that it was a bit spoilt by teh setting. I suppose like many of the great masterpieces of the world, it's a victim of its own fame.

The whole town centre is pedestrianised in Ghent, so you can stroll everywhere. I made my way to the canal area, which was very beautiful (picture left). Not as many trees as Bruges, but a better sense of the busy comings and goings that must have gone on in past centuries. There's a castle of the Counts of Flanders, in a little square where I got a seat at a cafe for something to eat. (I was told this afternoon that this blog is all about churches and food, so I don't want to let you down!).
Afterwards I carried on walking and started to feel my right foot hurting a bit. When I got back to Bruges I realised the padding on teh front strap of my walking sandal had worn off and the plastic bit holding the end of the strap had rubbed some of the skin off.  Ow. I couldn't do much about it as it was at exactly the spot where shoes are tied or sandals fastened.
By now the Olympics were in full swing, so my last day or two were spent watching the huge TV in the hotel lounge,  where they had BBC 1 on permanently, chatting with other visitors. We Brits had great celebrations on the Saturday night when we won those 3 athletics golds in 46 minutes or however long it was. I surfaced to make sallies out for coffee or food... Hard life eh?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Bruges IV - a morning in Hospital!

Over the next days I discovered lots more in this beautiful city of Bruges. There was the stirring practice for an organ recital going on in the Cathedral. There were the piles of mussels being consumed in whichever cafe or restaurant you visited or passed by. And chips, chips, chips - the Belgians love 'em!
I decided to devote a rainy day that came along to the two main museums. St John's Hospital looked after the poor and sick of Bruges for about 700 or 800 years. Now it houses a museum showing you all about that history with clothes, household items and medical implements from down the ages. But then there is the hospital Chapel.
Hans Memling was German by birth but came to live in Bruges in its heyday - the 15th century. He painted several works for the hospital Chapel, and here they still are, plus a few others, beautifully displayed. I spent a long time looking at these colourful, gentle scenes. especially the central one sometimes called "The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine", but really a Madonna and Child surrounded by various saints, including both St Johns, the Baptist and the Apostle, the patrons of the Hospital (picture below). The detail is astounding, as it is on the nearby "Reliquary of St Ursula", often seen as Memling's masterpiece. Every character is a real individual that bears looking at. These paintings may not have the power of Michelangelo, the skill with colour of Titian etc, but in their own ways are real masterpieces, and treated as such in St John's. And being seen in the place for which they were painted only adds to their attraction. Wonderful.
After a quick lunch, and with the sky still decidedly grey, I headed to the close-by Groenegen Museum, a general art gallery. It also had a few Memlings, van Eycks, van der Weydens etc but the modern galleries, painted a neutral but I thought depressing grey, were not the same as the fascinating St John's Hospital of the morning. Luckily it is not a very big place, so I did the rounds and then meandered back via another cafe, to plan my trip out of Bruges the next day - to the larger but also famous city of Ghent. 

Friday, 24 August 2012

Bruges III - canals and motherhood

When you step behind the grand buildings of Bruges you find yourself in a picturesque world of canals and leafy walks and parks. As I was there in peak season August there were loads of people around, but far from spoiling it, it brought the old stones and quiet waters to life. I strolled around some of the better known parts of the extensive canal system. They circle the old city and several run across it too. There are beautiful old stone bridges, wonderful brick buildings, and more green than I expected. And everywhere you spot the Belfry or the spires of one of the many churches.
Cafes and restaurants are also everywhere - not surprising in such a well-visited place. Prices are high, but you can pick up a good meal withut breaking the bank. After a light pasta lunch I carried on my wander to Our Lady's Church, close to the main canal. There was an entry fee as it is classed as part of the city Museums, but it's not every day that you visit a church that is the proud owner of a Michelangelo. His "Madonna and Child" sits above the altar in the righthand chapel, a gift to the church from a citizen who had bought it in Italy. I stood before it for some time.
We have seen so many images of this famous scene - Our Lady holding her precious Baby. It takes a Michelangelo to make you realise how shallow and everyday most of those images are. I found that this statue became more meaningful and indeed poweful the longer I looked at it. The baby is big, the Mother is calm, and even appeared stern at first, but as I watched she became more concerned than stern. She is truly watching over her Divine offspring, but her gaze is already slighly away from Him, perhaps pondering, as St Luke would put it.. The Child nestles between her knees, gingerly stepping out into the world. She knows that one day she will have to let Him go, but not yet. For now, he plays and giggles. The nails can wait.  

Monday, 20 August 2012

Bruges II - where shall I have breakfast?

Bruges is a beautiful city. At first it hides many of its charms. On my first morning, with the sun shining, I set off towards the town centre along the main shopping street. It was about 9.30 and the Cathedral wasn't open yet so I pressed on to the Markt, the main square. I'd decided to have breakfast out somewhere, and so, like a lamb to the slaughter, I found myself slouching into a chair at one of the very expensive cafes in the Markt for a looong breakfast cappucino, roll with ham and cheese and croissant... and watched the world go by. It was market day and there were stalls selling all kinds of food and everything else too. When I eventually stirred myself - breakfast had sort of morphed into morning coffee - I wandered around, glancing up every so often to the enormous belfrey which towers over the square and over the whole of Bruges.
At last I headed down the little street that leads to the next jewel in Bruges' crown, a smaller square called the Burg, named after the castle which used to be there. It's surrounded by beautiful buildings from different periods, and I found a bench to take it all in from. The horse-drawn carriages you see in the city were clip-clopping around in the sunshine. I soon spotted in the corner of the square the lovely facade of the Basilica of the Holy Blood (right).
Tradition says that after the Burial of Christ Joseph of Arimathea kept some cloth marked by the precious blood. It eventually found its way to Bruges via the Crusades and/or Byzantium.  The cloth is in a small glass phial inside another one sealed with a gold crown at either end. It's kept in a shrine in the treasury, but brought out for veneration. A notice said this was happening that day in a short while. So I visited the very atmospheric lower chapel first, then made my way up the stone stairs to the medieval upper chapel. After a while a lady brought the relic to a side altar up a flight of steps, and, after some prayers you could go up and venerate the relic and spend a few moments in private prayer, which I did. Most of those present were ordinary tourists, but I could tell that the place and the simple ritual had a deep effect on many of them. You can see this in the comments made on the relevant page of TripAdvisor... 
After staying on for a little time of reflexion in this centuries old place of pilgrimage, and possibly in the presence of one of the most holy relics in the world - who knows? - I eventually went back out into the bright sunshine, feeling spiritually refreshed, and ready for Bruges' next delights. I didn't have long to wait, as I turned down a little lane under an arch, and found myself at the centre of  the city's wonderful network of canals.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Hols pt 1

So... back in harness after a good break. I went to Bruges for six nights first.  It meant passing through central London, which, considering it was the first week of the Olympics, I found strangely quieter than it is usually. The Euston Road is always jammed with traffic, but it was all flowing quite easily.  I head for the very flash Eurostar terminus at St Pancras (left). I've never been through the Tunnel before, and was very much looking forward to the journey. It felt strange to go through passport control and security in the middle of London, and the waiting areas are a bit characterless, but the wait was worth it.
When your train is ready, you travel up a moving pavement on to the platform, and my carriage was just there, so I found my seat and settled down. We slowly pulled out of the station and were soon on the new underground tracks built for the High Speed Train. We flew through Stratford Station where the Olympics were going on, back underground. Here the track has been built underneath the ordinary train tracks above. At around Tilbury we were back above ground again briefly before zooming down again under the Thames and into Ebbsfleet Station.
It was after that that we really started to fly through the countryside, and in no time were shooting past the Shuttle terminus at Folkestone and down into the Tunnel.  This took 19 minutes and then it was full speed again, and suddenly we were in Lille. This is where the trains for Paris turn right and those for Brussels turn left, as we did, once more flying across the flat countryside into Belgium, and on to Brussels, 2 hours and 10 minutes St Pancras to Gare du Midi.
I'd been warned that negotiating this station needs careful attention to the signs, but I soon found the way to the next train for Ghent and Bruges. Loads of bikes on the train, but it was clean and efficient and we arrived in just under an hour. To find it drizzling. However, the hotel publicity said it was only 10 minutes from the station so I set out walking. 10 minutes in teh rain carrying an old-fashioned suitcase without wheels can feel like for ever. Note to self - buy new suitcase in order not to be only idiot at Gare du Midi carrying a suitcase instead of wheeling it! (Done now, thanks to Debenhams sale...).
And so I arrived at my hotel (left), where I was assured I had a room overlooking the garden rather than the sometimes noisy square outside. So I found my room, settled in, made a cuppa and, with the Olympics on in the background on Flemish TV, started to plan my stay in what everybody had told me is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. And so it turned out to be.