Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beautiful places and memorial events

It dawns the perfect day for sightseeing. Cool (real cold) and crisp with that beautiful autumn sunlight that so seems to complement absolutely everything you look at. We join the other guests for breakfast where Francine is in control of everything and looking like she has just stepped out of a morning tea - complete with beautiful heeled shoes and a lovely set of pearls. Nothing flusters her and she exudes serenity. Nice. As was breakfast. Good selection of breads and pastries, cold meats and cheese, fresh eggs for boiling just to your liking.

On checking out, they tell us we can leave the car there all day if we want to, but given that we want to start with Beguinage and the Minnewater area that is also known as 'the Lake of Love', we take the car to get over to there. Brugge was cursed after a massacre to keep the 'long necks' (swans) for all time and this area is where they are found. It is a very romantic area of Brugge - greenery, water and houses combine, pretty in a way that has inspired painters of times immortal.

Beguinages had their origins as places founded something aside from a convent where women lived, not taking vows, but following religious percepts and earning a living in Bruges with looms. When the last of the Benguines died a community of Benedictine nuns was established here. The homes of these people exist in the open community as a place of peace and tranquility and despite the large numbers of visitors wandering, there is little noise to disturb the calm. After strolling through this beautiful place, and stopping to visit the church that is dedicated to St Elizabeth of Hungary, we head back into the city centre to expand on out quick visit late yesterday.

Bruges is known as the 'Venice of the North' because of its canal system. And along with the canals come boat cruises that burn up and down the waterways (not like the sedate gondolas) and waterside dining spots. And with canals you get...? Bridges of course and this is where the name Bruges is founded.

Frances eventually finds us a parking spot near the Church of Our Lady. We are amazed at the number of people that are here in Bruges today. Being a Sunday it is also surprising to see almost all the shops open for trade. We have just come from Germany where nothing except some of the petrol stations are open on Sundays. And yes, every second shop is a chocolate shop - truly. I spy a hat shop and being Michael's birthday, we go in to find something special. And we do. His own Deer Stalker hat! (think Sherlock Holmes and you can picture it!) Looks pretty good in it too - don't you think!!!

So, a beaming husband in his new hat by my side, we head for the Church of Our Lady. Now, Bruges has a huge number of churches - seven are know to be monumental and often are on visitor itineraries. The Church of Our Lady is known for two things:
Firstly it is home to the Madonna with Child carved in Carrera marble by a young Michelangelo and secondly as a repository for many other works of art throughout the church and in its museum. But this church is really so much more - it is a church of people (their words) and there are many opportunities for you to participate in the life of this community - least of all, the invitation to write prayers and thanks on sheets of paper and post them into a keeper which is opened each week and read out at the end of Mass.

The church itself is quite austere although the altars are baroque. The tall windows in the body of the church are not lead-lighted and so light floods the building. A community member welcomes you at the door, music fills the space with the echoes soaring to the roof. At the end of the first aisle sitting within a marble altar is the beautiful work by a young Michelangelo 'Madonna and Child'.

The museum within the church is an array of jaw-dropping art. However, it is tastefully arranged so as not to diminish the aura of the structure from being a house of worship. To appreciate the collection, one has to be there to experience this wonder. Albeit, the museum is confined within the apse and presbytery of the church. The confessionals are beautifully carved walnut depicting various saints, as is the choir. There are original works of art which adorn the walls, and in particular is Gerard David's triptych 'The Transfigeration of Christ' (ca. 1520). There is so much I can regale, however space is a premium so I suggest you follow this link.

Back outside we join the ever growing number of people who are cruising the streets. Ah yes, Bruges on a Sunday sure is jumping. Down small back streets, up narrow lanes. You turn a corner and there you see yet another Madonna. The patron saint of Bruges is everywhere - including a new take in a window of a pub. Many of the churches are now closed as they have finished with their Sunday services, so we just admire them from the outside. And now it is time to return to the Markt and HOT CHOCOLATE - mmmmm. Yep, it is cool and getting cooler as we walk in the shadows of the buildings. Everyone is well rugged and girls you should see the fancy and sometimes beautiful scarves that people here are wearing. Again, guided by the locals, we find a cafe to sample some traditional Belgian luxuries - hot chocolate and fresh Belgain waffles (with bananas and chocolate). Yu-um. Michael however is hungrier and opts for a snack of spaghetti carbonara.

The Markt square is impressive. At the ground level it is dominated by the monument to Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck who led the revolt in 1302 to rid the city of the French. But it is the imposing Cloth Hall and Belfry that really dominates the square. At 88 meters high, and including a carillion of 47 bells this is one truly beautiful edifice. And like with all the other towering structures that we have seen, Michael soon makes it his business to climb up the 388 steps to get a view of the city from on high. There is a museum within the Tower that has been used like most of these across Europe, to house the important records of the City.

It may have not been the highest tower I have climbed, but it would be one of the most interesting. To scale the interior one has to negotiate three levels of stairs: lower and middle spiral stairs built in masonry, and the belfry is reached by sections of wooden staircases. The centre section of the tower contains a 'vault' which originally was the city's repository for records and funds. The repository contains two original strong boxes, with one ensconced behind an iron latticed 'curtain'. Before arriving at the belfry, one reaches the musical 'tracker bar' (not too dissimilar to a pianiola roll, but much greater in size) providing the notes for the carillon. Finally, the belfry is reached and the views of Brugge (and the bells) are quite spectacular. As I was admiring the view, the carillon began to 'chime' - a deafening sound muted to an enjoyable interlude by inserting one's fingers in the ears!

Then its around to the next square that houses even more impressive buildings - the Town Hall, the Basillica of the Holy Blood, the Court's Office and the Provost's house. All impressive, all ornate and grand and all filled with sightseers! As I said, the place to be on a cool but clear Sunday afternoon is Bruges!

We finally returned to the car and turned for Ypres (Ieper) where as a special treat for Michael on his birthday we are going to the Last Post Service at the Menin Gate tonight. We check in to the Ambrosia Hotel in the drizzle. Owner Vincent makes us very welcome and suggests a restaurant for dinner. I won't name it because for us it certainly did not live up to the recommendation - the food was average and the service deplorable.

Anyway, before we went to dinner we started at the Menin Gate where The Last Post Ceremony has been conducted every night (except for the German occupation between 1940 and 1944 when it was held in Surrey) rain hail or shine as the Belgians honour those who freed them in WWI. There are a large crowd of people present packed within the arches of the gate and spilling out onto the surrounding street. Just before 8 pm the local police arrive to effect the road closure and the buglers of the volunteer Fire Brigade and a piper arrive. At the dot of 8, a hush falls and the mournful sound starts. There is a contingent of Adult Scouters from the UK here, all stand at stiff attention, one with tears coursing down his face, and the British flag rests on the ground. You could have heard a pin drop if it weren't for the 3 bus loads of young English high school students. Honestly, they are too young to fully comprehend or appreciate what they are witness to. Still, after the Last Post, the laying of the wreaths and the Reveille are played, they quickly find somewhere else to be, leaving this special place to those with memories or respects to pay to linger a while . . . And Michael places the last of our Australian flags at the Diggers memorial at gthe eastern flank of the Gate. It is a most modest memorial with a collection of wooden crosses left by silent pilgrims.

After a little while we go back into the centre to have dinner and then return to the hotel and a warm and welcoming bed - it is now only 2°C!

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