We wake to clear skies and a crisp clear winter’s day. Where yesterday felt cold, today feels joyful despite the cold temperatures. We set outside and the city looks even more gorgeous than it did yesterday. Here we are in the middle of Bruges with a whole day stretched out ahead of us to enjoy.
Our first stop is the cathedral precinct where tall spires stab the sky. The Church of Our Lady Bruges looks closed and there’s a sign about buying tickets at the hospital museum across the lane. I’d read that the hospital museum could be interesting so we buy over priced tickets. We will learn throughout the day that the museum curators of Bruges are old-fashioned and still believe dumping a heap of barely curated oddities in a space is acceptable in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by some of the more modern museums we’ve experienced in The Netherlands, Poland and South Korea. After this visit to the museum we decide not to bother with any other museums and just to enjoy cathedrals, castles and open spaces. Fortunately, there’s plenty of those to enjoy.
The Church of Our Lady of Bruges is partially open and entry ends up being free (tickets will be sold after the renovation is completed though). The church is a mix of peaceful and hectic, as are many major religious spaces we’ve visited. The faithful pray. Pilgrims kneel. Tourists click away with their cameras and smart phones. And the stained glass windows continue to watch on as they always have.
We walk through Oud Sint-Jan. It’s crawling with tourists carrying Lonely Planet guide books. That is a sight we will see all day here as it is the winter high season. The apotek (pharmacy) museum was included in our hospital museum tickets. The apotek is interesting but again there are irrelevant displays mixed in here, making for a confused experience. We spend more time trying to take photos of the courtyard through the windows of the museum.
The Cathedral of St Salvador is our next stop. Again, restoration work is underway but still the cathedral is stunning. We ooh and aah our way around. I light some prayer candles and we buy a candle made by a refugee. This is the common theme here in mainland Europe – the refugees. From what we have seen, the anger against them has eased and a more humanitarian approach is being taken by those Europeans we speak with. Everyday people tell stories of visiting refugees in their local areas to help them complete paperwork, learn language and engage with culture. Everywhere there are small stalls selling items to raise money to help the refugees. And some houses even have stickers on the windows advertising that they will accept refugees into their homes. It’s refreshing to see and hear after all the negative press the refugees get at home in Australia. Every time I travel to Europe or talk about it people say “but aren’t you afraid of the refugees” or “you can’t go there because of the refugees”. But here in Europe, in the thick of the crisis, solutions are being found, especially as the refugees’ stories are learned.
Leaving the church we walk to the Beguinage. The walk takes us near the train station where massive tour groups follow flag-carrying guides briskly into the centre of Bruges. I feel immediately exhausted as we try to wind our way between the groups. They’ve paid lots of money to be guided through the city so they push to the front at every good view point to take a quick photo and continue. We stop longer, taking photos of buildings, playing with the light and enjoying the sunshine. My recommendation is to always travel independently – Europe is easy and safe for travel so there’s no need to tie yourself to a guided tour.
The Beguinage is gorgeous. White buildings line a large wooded square. It’s easy to see why women chose to live here. Formerly a convent, the Beguinage is now a place secular women of prayer live spiritual lives. One house is open for the public and it’s worth a look. I feel calm here after the hectic tour group parade outside the Beguinage’s walls.
We walk some more from the Beguinage to Gentpoort. I have to go inside because it’s a castle. I can’t help myself with castles. We look through the bolt holes. And walk onto the roof where we can take in views of old and new Bruges. In the medieval days the city gates were closed at night so this would have been a busy place at sunset. Pubs lined the outside of the gates in those days because people who didn’t make it back into the city on time would need somewhere to stay. I can just imagine how hectic this place would have been back then.
Our final stop for the walk is The Church of the Holy Maria. It too is being renovated but is less popular than other churches in the city. We are the only people there, other than the guide who sits at the entrance to offer apologies to guests for the renovation works. The words of wisdom at the entrance to the church touch me.
We end the day with dinner at an Italian restaurant near our hotel. It’s typical tourist fare. You don’t come to Bruges for the food (other than the waffles and chocolate) because, like so many tourist towns, there’s no need to impress for repeat business so prices are high and quality is low. That said’ we had a fantastic day and then head out for one last walk in wintery Bruges before bed.