Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Across Flanders fields to a most Catholic city

The most Catholic city in the most Catholic country in Europe. That's one description of Brugge.

And even the shortest of ambles around this extraordinary place is enough to see the importance of Catholicism.

Oh, it may not be as obvious as in the number of churches, but it's there in other ways.

There are, for instance, more little Marian shrines on buildings than I have seen anywhere else, be that in rural Ireland or in Venice.

And they're not simply signs of the past, adorning only the city's older buildings, but there are plenty of new ones too.

It's there too in the church-run alms houses that sprang up to deal with the poverty that rose when the city's fortunes declined as its sea route silted up, and in its remaining beguinage – where unmarried or widowed women could adopt a life of religious devotion without actually taking full vows.

But then again, the history of the region is such that religion is perhaps one of the few things that unites this country.

Belgium is only a century and a half old. So much of it's identity is in its religion. Language has long been – and remains – a dividing factor, with those in the Dutch-speaking north feeling as though there is still not cultural and linguistic equality.

Indeed, only in very recent years has Dutch been given equal legal status with French. And, as an elderly man told me – while I was innocently trying to buy a Steiff cat – the Belgian royal family have only just started managing to speak the odd word of Flemish (Dutch).

But far from its religiosity having turned it into a pleasure free zone, Brugge has much to offer the more sensually-inclined visitor. There's beer, for starters. And chocolate. And how much else can anyone ask for? Okay, okay - but let's not go down that route just now.

Trade made Brugge great – the high point was from 1200 to 1400. And if those dates don't don't make you gulp a tad, then some of the buildings will. Enjoying a revival – partly courtesy of EU funding, tourism and the UNESCO recognition that has put it on tick-box lists for every coach party to hit Europe – this tiny city is a real step back in time.

That's not to fall for the 'living museum' baloney, though. It's a living city, and while tourism may be massively important, it's not the be all and end all.

Yet when you walk into the Burg – a small square, first mentioned in documents in the 9th century – and see the medieval Stadhuis (left), in all its flamboyant gothic glory, your jaw is only going in one direction.

You are walking in the footsteps of millions before. And those millions include the likes of great Flemish artists such as Bruegal and van Eyck and Memling, who will have seen this scene you now see.

It is history and time concertinaed in a way that is as freakish as it is exhilarating. Because while we in the UK might all have seen the occasional old building – and the occasional ancient ruin – there is something quite different about seeing whole streets and squares that have barely changed in centuries.

This is not to suggest that the city of Brugge has stuck itself in formaldehyde. It is not a theme park. It is not a museum. Indeed, perhaps rather unexpectedly, modern buildings are present, but the architecture reveals a great sensitivity to the surrounding history. Not subservience or crass pastiche, but sensitivity.

On Tuesday, we turned right out of our central hotel and, within a few metres, had found ourselves transported to working-class Brugge. In this case, since it was the morning of 1 May, there were trades unionists gathering outside bars for an early drink, before setting out on their march.

A brass band was with them. It was a scene that could have come straight out of northern England. And later, as we stood at the edge of the inner city, beneath on the peripheral windmills, we watched a further group of trades unionists, with their own band, marching to join the ones we'd left refreshing themselves.

And walking in the middle of this scene that could have come pretty much straight out of Brassed Off was a priest in his vestments – a reminder that in parts of the continent, there are Catholic trades unions associations.

There is plenty of other history here. Traveling through the Flanders countryside after rain had left swamp conditions everywhere, one couldn't help but wonder who had ever had the bright idea of fighting a war in such terrain.

The scenery around is something so instantly recognisable: grass, water, cows and pollarded trees – you know it because you've seen it in Flemish paintings from centuries ago.

But the thought of less pastoral events brought to mind the hellish visions of Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.

In the meantime, one of our guides around the city was George William Thomson Omond, a Scottish advocate and history writer, whose Bruges and West Flanders from 1906 had been downloaded onto his iPad by The Other Half and was quoted at some length during our stay.

Omond had no obvious qualifications as an historian – one of the most interesting aspects of his work was that it was less a history and more a travelogue: indeed, you could see it as the precursor to the blogging of our own times.

But it added an extra flavour to the trip – and perhaps there is little more that any author could ask?

We heard bells peel from all around us and at many times every day.

Walking past an old alms house, an elderly, wrinkled face looked out blankly – another reminder of the impolite art of Bosch and others, revealing a reality that was hardly pastoral.

The buildings ranged in age and, on occasion, the sheer mass of step gables made you feel as though you'd been shrunk down to take on the status of an extra in Legoland.

Brugge is many things – not least, the real background for many great painters of the Northern Renaissance – it is steeped in far more history. And even a slight bit of digging quickly repays the effort required to get beneath the skin of tourist guide platitudes.

And perhaps most obvious of all is the realisation that the medieval magnificence that you can find defy notions of uncivilised times. The jaw-dropping Stadhuis alone is worth the visit.

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