Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bruges- Simply Beautiful

Imagine a small European city from the 1800s with narrow, cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, glass-water canals, a magnificent central square and a neo-gothic cathedral that can be seen rising above the buildings from almost anywhere in the city. This is Bruges.

Of course, tourism has become the primary income for the city, which inevitably leads to lines of chocolate and lace shops complete with “handmade” goods. The authenticity could be questioned, but for the sake of the small town, we will give them the benefit of the doubt for now. Museums have also sprung up around the city, featuring work from the 1400s to the present day including works from artists like Jan Van Eyck and René Magritte. The horse carriages are only used for tourists who want to tour the city in the old style, but they make the scene a bit more picturesque regardless.

Unfortunately, I was not able to stay as long as I would have like, as I traveled to Bruges with my art class. But I plan to return soon on business. I hope I can then stay a bit longer and enjoy the atmosphere. What I found most attractive about the city was its size. Although the city has about 120,000 inhabitants, if you stay within the “old city,” as the center is called, there are only about 45,000 people. This makes the city feel much smaller than it actually is, even with the large number of tourists that come each year.

While there are still a large number of buildings that remain untouched from their original construction, many other buildings have been rebuilt because they were destroyed in battles or natural disasters. However, there was one church that particularly struck me as intriguing…or rather, I should say two churches—one on top of the other.

Snuggled into a corner of a plaza lined with grandiose structures that now serve as government buildings or tourist shops is a grey stone building decorated with gold statues of saints and knights. Underneath two arches is a small wooden door that leads into, what at first glance could easily be mistaken for a cave. Soon, you will realize, this is not a cave, but a church of the twelfth century. It is the Chapel of St. Basil. It is simple. To the left is a fairly small kind of atrium. Wooden seats lead to a small colonnade, which leads to an altar, now adorned with a statue of a gold eagle. There is a small passageway that wraps around back into the main room, and above one of the arches is a relief sculpture of St. Basil's baptism. It is simple, like the rest of the church. The figures look primitive and disproportional. But after nearly a millennium, the figures of St. Basil and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove coming down from heaven are still clearly visible. Everything except for the statues that were clearly added later on is a stone grey, sometimes given a golden hue by the candlelight.

But perhaps what is more amazing than the antiquity of this church is the stark contrast with the church housed above it, the Basilica of the Holy Blood. From an outside entrance a staircase leads to another church, located directly on top of the early church. After climbing the stairs, another wooden door leads into a large open room at least ten times the size of the church below. The roof is at least another two stories high and the entire room is a dazzling gold from the paintings that cover most of the walls. The altar is again to the left, but it is adorned in a large gold and red altar and life-sized paintings. Where the passageway was below with the stone sculpture of St. Basil's baptism, there is another large room with an altar on top of a type of stage. On the stage stands a priest, his hands folded in prayer. He stands over a relic, supposedly holding the blood of a crusader. A loudspeaker encourages visitors to come put their hands on the relic and say a prayer. Donations are also welcome for the restoration of the church.

It intrigues me that the actions of those who built the simple, stone church below—those who participated in the crusades—led to the construction of the lavish church above. I wonder if they meant for their actions to lead to such things. But no matter what their intentions were, their actions led to what can be seen today.

Overall, Bruges is a magnificent city full of history and culture. It is a small city in a tiny country that is often passed over by many tourists longing to visit the grand sites of Paris and the like. But Bruges is not Paris or London or Rome, nor should it be. It is the very lack of the big-city feel that makes Bruges so appealing and unforgettable.

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