Bruges Part One: Culture & Fun

I’m just back from a weekend of culture and fun in Bruges. Perhaps some of you reading this don’t know where Bruges is. Well, it’s in Belgium. It’s a small little town that’s just over an hour’s train ride from Brussels on the way to Ostend on the coast. Bruges is what the town is called by French speakers, but it’s in the Flemish region of Flanders, so it’s known as Brugge there. It’s been a popular tourist destination for a while, but it was the success of a film by Martin McDonagh that really put the place on the map for me. I remember going to see In Bruges at the cinema when it was released and I was immediately blown away by the tightness of the script, the sparkling dialogue, the quality of the acting and, perhaps most importantly, the use of Bruges as the location. Previously, I had been vaguely familiar with the name of the town thanks to its football team, but the film made me fall in love with its buildings and canals, its nooks and crannies, its beer and, well, its beer. I’ve since watched the film a few times and have even sampled some of its beer that comes in those effeminate glasses

Earlier this year, my friend Thomas (another fan of the film and of beer) and his girlfriend Linda invited me and their friend Marissa to join them for a weekend in Bruges. I had no hesitation in accepting their kind invitation. You can see Thomas in one of the pictures above and Linda and Marissa are pictured with us at the conclusion of part two of this post. Marissa had been there briefly a few years ago and she arrived via Dublin with Ryanair a few hours before us last Friday. Thomas, Linda and I flew with Aer Lingus from Cork and arrived after a pretty pleasant flight into Brussels that took less than 90 minutes. The Belgian transport system got us to Bruges in about the same time and for an affordable sum. As you can see from the photo above, the train was not on time and eventually arrived 15 minutes late and Thomas decided to use this time to check out the station

When we got to Bruges, the weather was warm and sunny with a nice breeze, so the three of us walked the short distance to the Bonobo Apart Hotel. It’s a small family run place that’s close to the town centre with a very clean and modern setup. Bruges can be quite expensive, but the Bonobo worked out quite reasonably for the four of us. The apartment has a small kitchen and we used the fridge and kettle every day. We also used the excellent wi-fi for the brief duration of time we stayed there. Hans and Magda were very helpful, though they couldn’t do anything about the one quibble we had. Nearby church bells went off every few hours from the early hours of the morning. However, Bruges is very small and has lots of churches, so I guess the sound of ringing bells is something you get all over town. You also get quite a bit of culture and fun and I’ll fill you in on some of the highlights from my weekend in Bruges. I took all the photos on my iPhone and you can click on any image to enlarge it

A Fairytale Town

The first thing you notice as you walk in and out of the alcoves is that Bruges is very touristy. In Bruges is set in winter and the place seems to be a lot quieter then. We soon realised that we’d have to walk past a lot of tourists in our bid to balance culture and fun on the cobblestone streets of Bruges. Of course, where there are tourists there are tourist traps and Bruges is full of them. As we wound our way into the centre of town on our first night, we were a little taken aback at the prices prominently displayed outside every single restaurant. I was getting worried that I’d be existing on a diet of waffles and Brussels sprouts for the weekend but, fortunately, there are one or two affordable places to be found. You just have to look for them. And, of course, you have to walk in and out of a lot of nooks and crannies to find them. In the end, we ate quite well and I managed to spend the whole weekend without eating a single waffle, Brussel sprout or even any chocolate. I did have a couple of ice creams, though

Most of the photos above were taken in and around the Markt area of the town. This represents the heart of Bruges and one of its main attractions is the Belfry of Bruges, a location that is prominently featured in McDonagh’s film. We planned to check it out it on Saturday evening, but first we decided to visit the Historium across from it. This venue looked interesting as it promised a walk-through experience that would bring us the sights, smells and sounds of Bruges in the Middle Ages. The year is 1435 and the painter Jan Van Eyck is about to complete his work, Madonna and Child with Canon Joris Van der Paele. All he’s missing is the Madonna and a green parakeet

We were given headsets that provide audio of the story in our chosen language and spent about half an hour walking into a succession of rooms that represent scenes from the story that’s about to unfold. The interiors were designed to look like they had been back in the Middle Ages and strategically placed screens showed us a digital construction of that interior and sometimes the exterior of Bruges at the time as well. Meanwhile, we got the voice of a narrator in our ears telling us the story along with dialogue from the digital representations on the screen. Sound and visual effects appeared now and then, along with the introduction of appropriate (and some inappropriate) smells from time to time

The whole thing looked professional, but perhaps it was too polished and clean for me. I never believed I was in Bruges in the Middle Ages, just an excellent digital reconstruction of the time. The digitally represented characters just added to this sense of inauthenticity, but what I disliked most about the experience was its narrative. It focused on a love story between an assistant of Van Eyck and his designs on Anna (the model representing the Madonna). This story somehow dovetailed with a similar liaison between the green parakeet and a red one. The plot was pedestrian, with one-dimensional characters and a succession of scenes that did little to advance the story. It was yet another case of style over substance and I kept wondering why they hadn’t spent more of the attraction’s obviously substantial budget on the script

The only thing I enjoyed about it was the air conditioning until we got to the end of the whole thing. The museum has a bar on the first floor! It’s called the Duvelorium and it has a fine balcony that looks out onto the Markt. We sampled a well-deserved beer or two and listened to the authentic sights and sounds of modern Bruges: horse hooves on the cobblestones, bicycle bells ringing out warnings to daydreaming pedestrians and beers being poured and glasses being clinked. Unfortunately, we enjoyed these sights and sounds a little too much and arrived too late at the belfry for the evening’s final tour to the top of the tower

A Dalliance with Salvador Dali

I have to admit it was only Dutch Belgian courage that made me join the failed attempt to climb to the top of the belfry tower on Saturday. I was still feeling a little nauseous and quite sober when we returned there after Sunday lunch the following day. Looking down from the top of tall buildings is not my idea of fun and I made my excuses and bid my three colleagues good luck. I had spotted a branch of the retail chain Fnac at the other side of the Markt and decided I would seek out more culture and fun there for the next hour. I had been looking forward to looking through the store’s CD and DVD sections when I approached the entrance to find it was closed on Sundays. My disappointment turned to joy, however, when I decided to go to my backup plan. The Museum-Gallery Xpo in the belfry is home to a permanent Salvador Dali exhibition. I admire many of Dali’s surrealist paintings, but I had been put off because this exhibition features some of his sculptures and lesser known works. I needn’t have worried, though, as I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience

As you enter, you are given earphones and a small tablet device. It’s relatively easy to follow the fifteen sections on the device and the corresponding numbers scattered throughout the large room that is as colourful and eccentric as its subject and his art. It was very quiet and relaxed in there and I spent the best part of an hour strolling around looking at paintings and sculptures and listening to the voice on the tablet. It was well written and occasionally (and unnecessarily) showed images on the device’s screen. The exhibition also included a screening of the 1929 silent film collaboration between Dali and Luis Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou. I hadn’t seen this short film in years and it was certainly a lot of fun to watch it again. The film plays simultaneously on a loop on two screens high up on one of the room’s walls. It’s also possible to watch it on the tablet and this version includes a musical score featuring some Wagner and a couple of tangos. It proved to be a nice complement to the sculptures, painting and drawings

I was surprised that photography was allowed inside the museum and I’ve included images of some of the ones I enjoyed most above. I liked the sculptures of the angels most of all and the one of the head with an ear instead of a nose was quite provocative. I left the exhibition full of culture and no little fun and met Thomas, Linda and Marissa outside the belfry. They didn’t seem to have experienced as much culture or fun on top of the tower as I had on terra firma, but they did get to climb loads of steps on their way up and down its winding staircase. This seems to be as good a point as any to wind down the first half of my double post about Bruges. You can read the second part by clicking on the link below

Part Two: Going Around in a Boat, Looking at Stuff



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