Jack Serle

Through Bruges, onward to Ghent, next stop Amsterdam

In BeNeLux on August 20, 2011 at 2:09 PM

Bruges and Venice resemble each other very much. Both have canals, a glut of beautiful historic buildings, and both are almost exclusivley devoted to serve the needs of tourists. Bruges’ beauty is undeniable and round every corner is a fresh picture perfect slice of medieval Europe. In fact it can be a bit vexing it is so lovely. The  guidebook tells us what the ninteenth century novelist Arnold Bennett has to say on the city:

The difference between Bruges and other cities is that in the latter you look about for the picturesque, while in Bruges, asailed on every side by the picturesque, you look curiously for the unpicturesque and don’t find it easily.

Watery, sunlit, green tinged - Bruges is rather lovely

You are hard pushed to find anything unpleasent about this little Flemish city. The art gallery, the Groeninge Museum, is not too large and filled with the products of local artists. Bruges includes among its alumni Van Eyck and Bosch; the collection is rather good. The people are sunny and friendly and persist in being healthy with most comely features.

We walk the streets and canal sides admiring the medieval buildings. They line up beside modern reproductions, indistinguishable to my uneducated eye. The architecture, T. and I agree, is charming and sympathetic. Untramelled by post-war concrete carbuncles.

***

It is a quiet and calm place, despite the tourist presence. Peals ring across the cobblled streets through the day as the sun slowly turns across the sky.

“Ding dong ding went the bells,” said T. “Ooh went Alan Bennett. CRISH! CRASH! CROSH! Capitalism marches on!”

We walked on twenty paces to the Markt, the splendid main square. The Markt is home to a multitude of bars and restaurants, sometimes a market as the name would suggest, and  is dominated by the fifteenth century tower, the Belfort.

The Belfort dominates Bruges

“Fffnt, fffnt, fffnt went the woodworm in the tower,” said T. “Click click click went the tourists cameras. CRISH! CRASH! CROSH! Their marriages collapse around them!”

***

In Bruges we spent a day. Arriving in the afternoon, things were dropped at the hostel, called rather endearingly Snuffel. A slightly eccentric if very friendly place. The bar is well stocked with beers but one had to meander through fellow guests breaking their fast to reach the showers. With belongings stowed we spent the rest of the day mooching about, sampling local beers. The following morning we improved our minds in churches and art galleries.

As was in Bruges, so it proved to be in Ghent.

***

Ghent has its beauty and its rough edges

Ghent is the third largest city in Belgium with 250,000 people. 65,000 of them are students which contributes to its livlier, larger and more industrious atmosphere compared with the smaller Bruges. It has industries besides tourism which helps too. Ghent is a welcome dose of vitallity after the living museum of Bruges.

These neighbours are historic rivals, a state that continue to this day as a poster in our spartan, sterile hostel reminds us. It is a quote from the Colin Farrel character in the film In Bruges:

If I was fucking retarded and born on a farm I’d find Bruges impressive. I’m not and I wasn’t so I don’t.

I did not do much for my stature in this country through over-enthusiastic forward planning. I booked two beds for 17 August. Unfortunately I managed to book Friday 17 August 2012. This plus the breezeblock walls and wipe clean mattresses meant we quickly got out and about. More mooching about ensued. Much beer was tasted and approved of, with the exception of a Krieck Mystic. Perhaps not the wisest choice, the waiter brought to me a champagne flute full of pink liquid that tasted like the grim marriage of sherbet, cherry cola and lager. We looked at the buildings – Ghent has its share of medieval architecture – and  sighted the grand statue of Jacob Van Artevelde. This ill-fated chap arrived in the city in 1952 with one thing in mind. He stood on a plinth, stretched out his hand and said:

Right, to hell with this interesting mixture of modern architecture with medieval, art nouveau and much else besides that line these pleasant canals. I’m going to bulldoze the lot, lay down concrete and turn the whole place into a monster car park. I’ll set up a park and ride scheme into Bruges and make a bleeding fortune so I will!

A warning to us all

He was immediately set upon by a host of agrieved Gentenaars (natives you know). They knocked him to the ground and in unspoken unanimity dragged him off and preserved him in carbonite, dressed just as he was and reproducing the offending pose. He was set back upon his plinth as a warning to others not to be so bloody foolish.

This cautionary tale added to the statement “Don’t feel too welcome!” on the tourist map imbued T. and I with a sense of grim forboding. If we take too many photos and put our feat on the furniture, the local militia will have us hanging by the Unmentionables. The Unmentionables, we learnt, are a pair of particularly scruffy tramps who live by the train station. With this in mind we sculked to the enormous and opulent St Baafskathedraal. Quite the epic church it is and not one to put people in any doubt that the boss of the building was not to be trifled with. The scale of the Bishop’s throne and the very grand setting of entombed Bishops in the chapels off the apse, among other bits, were pointed out by T.

“It is more a palace to the Bishop than it is to God,” he said.

The Ghent Design Museum is much more up my street and it is well worth spending a couple of hours wandering about. Among the collection are some remarkable pieces. Highlights include art nouveau treasures by Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta, and a Lipton’s advert from around 1900 declaring “Honest tea is the best policy”.

From Ghent then and the terrifying Ghentnaars we make our way to the train station for a three hour trip to the thrumming, throbbing, water logged, sex and diamond obsessed metropolis of Amsterdam.

All images are authors own, all rigts reserved.

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  1. lovely use of untramelled

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