Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I’m up early this morning for a final breakfast at Café Delmas. I gather up my things and pull my suitcase behind me across the cobblestones, past Hemingway’s apartment on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, down the Rue Mouffetard to Place Monge.

I ride to Gare du Nord in the back seat of a cab driven by a man I quickly dub “Monsieur Lazy Pants.” He is tall and wiry with close cut hair and faded jeans and he shrugs as he explains how he likes to come to the Place Monge taxi stand because there’s usually no one there. Let’s just say he’s not France’s most enterprising driver. His English consists almost entirely of “I am sorry, but I need it,” a phrase that he applies liberally to both coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes, despite a prominent no-smoking sign on the inside window of the car. Really, it’s a miracle that I arrive on time to catch the Thalys train to Belgium.

As we pull out of the station, I take a final look back at the city, which is—at last—bathed in sunlight. It’s a shame, truly, because the weather report is calling for persistent rain in Bruges. Storm clouds are following me everywhere I go.

The journey to Brussels, and then on to Bruges, is an easy one, but most of the day is filled with minor details—departure boards and waiting rooms. Nevertheless, it gives me the chance to recharge after a hectic schedule in France, both in and out of Paris.

By 1:30 I’ve arrived at the Hotel Patritius, a small family-run place on a street named Riddersstraat, a name crowded with so many redundant letters I feel like I’m stuttering when I read it out loud for the cab driver.

Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. As I understand it, English is also widely spoken, especially in tourist meccas like Bruges. My guidebook advises me to say goeiedag in Dutch, but I fear mispronouncing that (with good reason), so I decide to approach the woman at the front desk of the hotel with a cheery bon jour, followed by hello, hoping to cover a sufficient number of bases. The strategy doesn’t work. She bristles visibly, sighs, then explains in English that Belgians in the Flemish north do not speak French. Ever. I hang my head in shame, all the way up the stairs to my room.

It’s a nice room, with lovely tall ceilings, but it’s a bit strange, too. The bathroom has a giant picture window to the right of the tub which looks out onto the room itself. I suppose it’s there to let in natural light, and I am traveling solo after all, but still I feel oddly exposed, and opt to pull down the shade.

By the time I unpack and make my way back downstairs, the woman at the front desk has been replaced by a kinder, gentler man. He gives me a map of the city and a suggestion for lunch. It’s a large map on thin paper and it folds into so small a rectangle that opening and closely it successfully feels like a frustrating lesson in Origami. It’s also impractical to use on a rainy day while holding an umbrella. On my way to Souffleur, a gust of wet wind catches it and I struggle to fold it back into shape, but I find my destination at last and enjoy a warm bacon salad with croutons, pine nuts, goat cheese, and apple.

Afterwards, I venture out into the city proper, to the Burg and the Grote Markt and the shops in between. It’s raining steadily now and when I reach the bridge where Dijver meets Rozenhoedkaai, I snap a picture of the belfry rising from the mist with a canal boat passing underneath, filled to the brim with day trippers huddled beneath their umbrellas. It’s a sorry sight.

It’s at some point after this that I do what I hoped never to do. I resort to using the little rain bonnet stashed away in my camera bag. I’m becoming my grandmother. Can it get much worse?

Maybe it can. For a moment, I actually think it’s snowing down near Minnewater when I see the white down feathers on the ground from all the swans.

It’s time for the salvation of chocolate. I’m beginning to feel like Monsieur Lazy Pants. I’m sorry, but I need it. Preemptive research tells me that The Chocolate Line is an excellent destination, so I make haste and buy a small bag full of some truly unusual flavors, including lavender and lemongrass. The young woman behind the counter clearly thinks I look ridiculous in a rain bonnet, but I can’t say that I blame her. At least she does her best to hide a laugh.

Disconsolate, I trudge on to the Begijnhof, a convent for Benedictine nuns. It’s a quiet place, where all I can hear are the raindrops falling onto a canopy of green leaves. The trees are all slanted in one direction, as if Bruges is forced to endure this kind of weather all the time.

Quite by accident—or rather serendipity—I stumble across a small church with an open door. The nuns are preparing to sing vespers in Gregorian chant. I enter cautiously at first, not sure if I’ll be welcome, but an ancient woman with a kindly face smiles and motions for me to come forward and sit. I do, and allow the music to wash over me.

After a cozy dinner of chicken souvlaki at The Olive Tree, I grab my tripod and head out into the rain to take some night shots, intending to make the most of the wet reflections on the cobblestone streets. As I stand in the center of the Grote Markt, soaking wet, it occurs to me that one year ago today, I was in Venice sitting under the stars, sipping a Bellini in St. Mark’s Square.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Italy since that exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and I’ve really got to stop.

I’m so distracted by both the past and the present that it doesn’t yet register that the expensive zoom lens on my camera isn’t focusing properly, but it will.

In the morning, it will.

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.

Friday, June 12, 2009

It’s just after nine when I finish breakfast at the Hotel Patritius and venture cautiously outside.  Much to my surprise and relief, it’s a beautiful morning in Bruges.  The sky is blue under a canopy of white clouds, and the effect of sunshine on my mood after five consecutive days of rain is so pronounced that I can feel an actual spring in my step.  Soon, the tour buses will arrive and the crowds they bring will devour the city like a hoard of locusts, but for now there is magic in the quiet medieval streets. 

I turn right at the end of Riddersstraat and walk past the Burg to the Markt, before heading left down Wollestraat, popping in and out of small shops along the way. When I reach Dijver, I stroll along the canal, where horses and buggies are already at work, and then zig zag past the Church of Our Lady and St. John’s Hospital to Mariastraat, where a display of colorful pashminas catches my eye fluttering in the breeze. With the help of a eager clerk at Memlinck, I try on several before choosing one that is woven in deep autumnal colors.  She frowns, disappointed, and says it makes me look sad, but all-in-all I think it suits me well.  Next, at Atelier Galerie Kasper, I buy a small ceramic plaque depicting a timeless view of Bruges—the shaded Minnewater, complete with swans, and the entrance to the Begjinhof.  By the time I wind my down through the park and out into the ring of traffic that surrounds the city to the train station, it’s past 11. I still plan on taking a day trip to Ghent, but I’m in no particular hurry to get there. 

The journey to Gent-Sint-Pieters station is an easy half an hour.  At the ticket window, I buy a day pass for the trams and then head to the Korenmarkt stop in the historic center of town.  It’s midday by the time I reach the banks of the river Lieve, which is lined on either side by the Graslei and the Korenlei, two of Ghent’s most picturesque streets, and people are basking there in the sun and chatting happily at sidewalk cafés.  In the distance, I can see the flags and stone turrets of the Gravensteen rising above the gabled buildings that surround it and since I’m not yet hungry for lunch I decide to make that my first stop. 

Gravensteen is a Dutch word that means “The Castle of the Counts.”  The current fortress and its moat date from the 12th century, although some of the remains are earlier still.  It’s a massive complex and one that is not uninteresting—but let’s be honest—it’s no Tower of London.  For me, what’s most memorable is not the structure itself, but the truly odd multimedia guide that’s thrust into my hands as I enter.  It seems to consist entirely of poorly scripted videos that act out various fictional scenes in the history of the castle.  It’s part cheesy soap opera, part low-rent episode of “The Tudors.”  Or, are those one and the same?  I’m still laughing about it later at lunch, over a bowl of tandorri chicken salad with linguini at Exki

Afterwards, I climb to the top of the Belfort en Lakenhalle for a commanding view of the city, and then head into the dim light of St. Bavo’s Cathedral.  Given how massive it looked from the top of the belfry, the interior seems oddly small and plain at first, until I realize that much of it has been cordoned off for restoration work.  Fortunately, the altarpiece that inspired my entire visit to Ghent is still on view in a crowded chapel at the rear of the church. 

I’ve come to see the beautiful and mysterious “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a polyptych completed in 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.  Stolen at one point by French revolutionaries, it was recovered and then pawned and its panels cut lengthwise.  Following World War I, it was returned to Belgium as part of the war reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, but in 1934, one of the twenty-four scenes, known as the “Just Judges” was snatched by art thieves, held for ransom, and never recovered.  In a tale worthy of Dan Brown, some believe it was because it contained a coded message relating to the Holy Grail.  Then, less than a decade later, the rest of the work was looted by the Nazis and hidden deep in a salt mine near Salzburg, Austria, where it remained until it was recovered by U.S. troops and returned to St. Bavo’s Cathedral once more.  I stare at the work, transfixed, as its sordid history runs through my brain, and find myself amazed at its survival and at how luminous its colors remain.  It has been worth the trip to Ghent and more.

It’s after 4:00 PM by the time I catch the tram back to the station.  I check the departures board and in a rush jump onboard the wrong train.  I squint out the window and start to panic when I realize that I’m heading to Antwerp, not back to Bruges.  A kindly conductor smiles calmly and tells me to get off at the next stop, Gent-Dampoort, and retrace my steps.  “Don’t worry,” he says, “you’ll get there in the end.”  I like that sentiment.  And he’s right, too.

By the time I reach Bruges and wander up through the park, the day trippers have retreated to their tour buses and disappeared.  The streets are serene and the swans in front of the Begjinhof are lounging peacefully at the edge of the Minnewater.  The view is so sublime, and the slant of sun coming in through the trees so inviting, that I grab an outdoor table at Maximiliaan Van Oostenrijk and order a fine supper—a bowl of soup, followed by a plate of waterzooi du poulet, a creamy chicken stew which translates roughly into the phrase “watery mess.” 

Gradually, I fall into causal conversation with the couple sitting next to me, and they offer to buy me a cup of tea.  They both live and work in Bruges, and the woman owns a jewelry shop nearby, one I had admired while shopping earlier in the day.  We talk about politics, fashion, and travel, about the Belgians’ lingering resentment towards the Germans for their atrocities during the war, and their hopes for President Obama and the Americans.  We talk for a long while, while their golden retriever naps quietly at our feet, her back leg stitched and bandaged following a recent accident.  When at last we stand to leave, and they gently pick up the dog and pull her home in a small red wagon, I know that I will leave Bruges with the sweetest of memories, not all of which are about the chocolate.