Thursday, June 11, 2009

The rain is starting to take its toll, not just on my spirits and on my coat, which I’ve worn so often in so much foul weather that it’s starting to accumulate some serious grime, but now on my camera—my wonderful Nikon D40, which has been a trusted companion these past three years. I use a long 18-200mm lens, which allows me to shoot everything from a wide angle to a telephoto, but all of the sudden it’s not working at any focal length past about 55mm, which is roughly what can be seen with the naked eye. Even on manual, the pictures I take using the zoom are blurred beyond use. Whether the weather is to blame, or some random mechanical fault, is anyone’s guess.

Bruges is a stunningly beautiful city, even in the rain—a UNESCO World Heritage site—so I’m genuinely relieved to discover that I can still take pictures, as long as I back the lens off and shoot everything from a distance. It’ll have to do.

From the 13th through the 15th centuries, Bruges was a city of wealth and prominence, but with the silting up of the nearby river, trade eventually moved elsewhere and it became a literal backwater that today appears frozen in time. The remnants of its medieval art and architecture are everywhere, in the stepped gables of the buildings that line the Grote Markt, and in the portraits of Hans Memling and others from the school of Flemish primitives. Some of the atmosphere is reproduced—the lacy neo-Gothic spires of the Provinciaal Hof date only to the late 19th century, for instance—but it hardly matters. Bruges is as cute and cute can be, and its place in history means that it has museums ample enough to occupy a rainy day well.

I start at the Groeninge Museum, where there’s a special exhibit entitled “Charles the Bold: The Splendour of Burgundy, 1433-1477.” Charles the Bold was the son of Philip the Good and the grandson of John the Fearless. His daughter Mary had a son known as Philip the Handsome. As I listen to the narrator on the audio guide explain the family’s history and their connection to the royal houses of Europe, somehow I can’t help but think of Joe the Plumber.

The objects on display are splendid indeed, including millefleurs tapestries, suits of armor, a man’s tunic made from scarlet silk, and a pair of tiny knights mounted on horseback, intended as jousting toys. There is also a portrait of Charles the Bold wearing a heavy chain and pendant from the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of chivalry founded in Bruges in 1420 by Philip the Good, then Duke of Burgundy. I recognize it immediately, not because of any superior knowledge I might have of the Low Countries and their history, but because I saw a version made of candy on display in the store window of The Chocolate Line yesterday afternoon.

In the courtyard next door, I enter the Gruuthuse Museum, which features a small but fascinating collection of medieval furnishings that once belonged to a Flemish nobleman who was so wealthy that he had a private balcony installed overlooking the altar of the adjacent Church of Our Lady, then I move on to the church itself. Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, as it’s known in Dutch, contains the tomb of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary, but also a sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Created around 1504, it’s said to be the only work by the artist to have left Italy during his lifetime.

My last major stop for now is just across the street at the Memling Museum, which is set within a hodgepodge complex of buildings that once made up the medieval hospital of St. John’s. Among Hans Memling’s works here are the Shrine of St. Ursula, a small painted box intended to house the relics of the saint, and the far larger St. John’s Altarpiece, which includes surrealistic scenes of the Apocalypse as told by St. John the Evangelist.

Over a plate of Belgian frites with mayonnaise at Brasserie Mozarthuys, I sit and leaf through some of the postcards and museum guidebooks I bought. My head is spinning, but it’s been a wonderful day. I stop by Dumon for some chocolate, and figure that between the carbohydrates and the sugar I should have enough energy to withstand the climb to the top of the belfry.

It’s a beautiful view, out across a sea of pointed gables and red roofs. I try not to look down, though, because it reminds me of a rather gory scene from the Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges” that I would rather forget.

It’s getting late, but the sky has cleared off so thoroughly and unexpectedly that I grab the opportunity to go for a canal boat ride before dinner. I sit back and relax, enjoying the feel of the sun on my face, and the fact my umbrella is now stowed away in my bag rather than propped over my head.

I have a fine meal at Bistro de Pompe—Flemish asparagus, veal with mashed potatoes, and for dessert, a bowl of fresh strawberries with mint and orange. Then I walk back to the little corner on Rozenhoedkaai that gives such a glorious view of the belfry, right at an elbow in the River Dijver. I set up my camera and tripod and wait for the sky to fade and the floodlights to come on. When the perfect pair of swans floats to the center of the frame just as I click the shutter, I think perhaps that my luck is changing at last.

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