OK - this was my favorite place in Belgium (as you may be able to tell by the number of photos!!) Also it was only half an hour from our apartment - nice to have a short drive.
Bruges is known as the Venice of the north - it seems that most of the areas we visited during this vacation were full of canals - which was cool with me. I didn't however, see tons of people using the canals like they were in Amsterdam. (And like they did in Venice, at least, when I was there 10 years ago). Maybe Amsterdam is famous enough on it's own to not need the PR firm to come up with "Venice of the North" as a slogan. I actually ended up getting out with the kids while Andre' parked since Griffin had to pee. We found a convenient bush and then spent some time watching them dredge out a pond - it must have had 30 years of mud on the bottom.
I think the reason I loved Bruges so much was that it was truly like stepping back in time. So many of the other places we have visited were really a blend of past and present. This place almost felt (in terms of the buildings, not the population or vehicles!) frozen. (Don't ask me what year, I'm not so good at dating - let's just say, the olden days) It was also small enough to be digestible. Well, as you know, we Dhondts hail from Belgium and this was a large part of the reason I wanted to come to this area of the world. Finally, in Bruges, there were signs of my anscestors. I hope to one day be able to post the story of why they left - but my dad says he has no idea about why his grandpa left. The story I remember hearing as a child is that he was a gendarme who messed up somehow and got deported (but that sounds an awful lot like the Italy story so I'm either mixing up my melting pot or - just as likely - there are a hell of a alot of screw ups in my family tree)
The canals were lovely, of course, as well as the Dijver river, but we skipped the tour boat this time. Thought I'd include this shot of Zander in front of some beer. Belgium is, as I'm sure most of you know, famous for it's amazing variety of beer. We, former Mormons (and cheapos) that we are, don't drink, but there was lots and lots of beer for sale and T-shirts with beer, beer displays etc.... all over different parts of the country. What there wasn't as much of, however, was what Bruges is famous for - hand made lace. Apparantly Bruge is famous for textile trade and especially it's handmade lace. It is still done on spindles and the finest lace is called the fairy stich - it uses 300 to 700 spindles to be created. Wow!
Soon we headed over to De Markt. The Market Place - the main place of Bruges. I thought this place was quite unique since it did NOT have (for the first time I can remember) a cathedral covering one side of it - they were all government and administrative buildings. We took the opportunity to climb to the top of the Belfry - built around 1240. We had to climb up (more like scramble up as you can see) 366 steps to reach the top of the tower. There were landings where you could rest every now and again - here are the kids peeking out of one of the mid level doors to watch the horse drawn carriages below. Another level held the famous (mentioned in Zander's blog) glokenspeil made by Antonius De Hondt. (We only became Dhondt when the lazy immigration officer shortened the name). Of course, the views were wonderful and we happened to get there at noon - when the great bells were pealing in all their full cacophony. One of those experiences I'm glad I had, but I don't need to repeat (kind of like when I got stinking drunk at 16). Griffin kept saying (more like screaming) "can we go home now??" We made our way down - pretending the rope railing was Rapunzel's hair. "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair, so I might climb the golden stair!"
We then walked through the town towards Minnewater Lake (the lake of love) following the rumor that there was a castle like structure with a moat around it (no luck - Andre' was so sad - it was the one thing he really wanted to see in Bruges). We saw horse drawn carriages and sat on this great bench supported by dragons to eat our packed lunch. Just walking around this town was a sheer joy. There were beautiful bridges, wonderful canals and little statues and monuments were all over the place. Callie loved the unicorns above this driveway arch and hey, check out this doorknocker! I know it is little compared to cathedrals and canals, but it was all these little things that made every street a pleasure to explore. I saw the Dhondt name on several shops (like the Antique shop pictured here)
We even saw someone expertly replacing Belgian blocks along the street. Despite his incredible proficiency, the guy only finished this one section over the river the whole afternoon. Does it last longer than concrete, I wonder? They do use these blocks on most of the sidewalks all over Belgium and also on many of the streets - especially here in Bruges. (But, unfortunately, the burning question remains, What do they call them here? We also found a place selling Belgian chocolates for less than a king's ransom. Only 12 Euros a kilo - what's wrong with them?? Well, we were willing to risk 6 Euros for a try (That's like, 35 chocolates). They owner said they had been in this location for 3 generations and all the chocolates were handmade. If he was lying, that's OK by me. Oh, man, was it ever worth it! These were the best chocolates I've ever had. They were so gosh durned good I am going to post the shop information right here, right now, in case any of you ever end up in Bruges (or if I ever do, since I want to be able to return!) It was the Chocolaterie Daya Gistelsesteerweg 516, 8200 Sint Andries Bruges Belgium GSM: 0476 33 37 31 and the guy's email (if you want to try ordering some - hey, maybe he'll ship overseas) is firstname.lastname@example.org)
After a while we dropped into the Church of our Lady. This cathedral is famous for housing one of the few Michealangelo sculptures to be found outside of Italy. This shot of "Our Lady and the Infant" certainly does not do it justice. This cathedral also had a beautiful alter and an amazing wooden carved lectern. The kids really liked this shell shaped holy water holder (I'm sure 'holy water holder' is not the right term - but I'm not sure what would be). We got into a long discussion about what holy water is, why they have it etc.... (I was grateful for my, albeit withered, Roman Catholic roots)
My most loyal readers (who also have photographic memories) may recall me bemoaning the fate of the poor trees in Besancon. Well, the further we have traveled over Europe, the more I realize that this harsh treatment is par for the course when you are a tree unfortunate enough to grow (or be planted) near people in Europe. These particular trees, however, that grew in a line surrounding the cathedral, truly took the cake. The poor things! This picture says it all for me - torture of the trees, backed by the torture of the cross.
We then stopped near city hall (that's Daddy and Zander posing in front of it) to see a smaller cathedral that had aroused my curiousity due to online descriptions. The Basilica of the Precious Blood. It seems that, according to very ancient Bruges tradition, this relic, was brought back to the church in 1150 from the Crusades. At the time the church was a small, insignifigant place, especially compared to some of the other grand cathedrals (as you can tell from seeing us walking in front of it - we are hardly even dwarfed at all!) However, having this relic really upped the status of this place and it became richer and richer, people from all over the world came (and still come) to visit the supposed vial of the Savior's blood. We went inside, paying a bit extra to visit the museum where they keep the golden shrine that they carry the blood during an annual parade through the town of Bruges. We then went inside. Well folks, they couldn't make the church bigger, so they made the inside as elaborate as possible. The sight of this interior was simply heart stopping. Zander, upon entering, stopped and started making little, high pitched gulping noises - this is what he does, usually, when he is so excited he wants to scream. I went over to try to calm him down. He is smart enough to know he simply can't scream in a cathedral, but, it was all just too much for him and after about another minute of astonished staring, he, quite literally, fell over. I told him the people who designed the church would be really happy to see such a reaction. I'm not quite sure what it was that made it so special. Maybe it's because it wasn't too huge - and all the different walls worked together well. It didn't seem too overwhelming, or tacky - it just seemed like being inside a giant, inspiring piece of art. The whole 'relic' thing is very interesting to me. I mean, even if you truly believe that this thing, all locked up behind gilded walls, truly DOES contain a few drops of Christ's blood, (yeah right) so what? Is it similar to people who brag about having Elvis's cigarette butt? Does it make you closer to a person just to be around their stuff? Or do they think that the relic's aura (since you can't actually see the relic itself) has some special power? On some level I get it - I treasure my keepsakes from my Grandma, but, like, I wouldn't want a vial of her blood. Curiouser and curiouser...
Our final stop for the day was the Diamond Museum. It was rumored that you could pick up handfuls of real diamonds and play with them. Hey, I'll bite. Well, not so much (drat!). It was interesting learning a bit more about diamonds - I remember one factoid that I'll share with the class. Until 1200, all the diamonds in the world were found in India. (Hopefully this will be useful for you at a future cocktail party) And, of course, we can't forget that this location was the 2nd place that caused knees to bend. There was a giant box filled up about two thirds with diamonds. This represented the amount of diamonds produced each year, world wide. The sight of it made Zander and Callie run over, attempt to climb into the box and then simply collapse in awe (as you can see). Ah, the power of riches.....