Essay Saturday: In Bruges

Essay Saturday: In Bruges
Lake of Love, Bruges

Photo by Flickriver

I’ve just returned from a mini-break with my significant other – my friend who is also single and ‘childfree’ and therefore able to do nice things like hop on the Eurostar, and eat waffles with slagroom (whipped cream) all weekend.

In truth, Rhian needed, and deserved, the break more than me.

‘I’ve already had two teenagers tell me they want to kill themselves today. Must know I’m going on holiday.’

She texted me, the day before we left. She works in mental health.

I met her at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. It was going to be great: We’d seen the film with Colin Farrell. We’d known friends who’d visited. Our mums and dads had been by ferry in 1984. Now it was our turn to explore the medieval city in West Flanders once considered the commercial capital of the world before losing out to Antwerp in the trading stakes. We were off to Bruges – hooray!

On arrival, we made our way to the historic centre. The Lake of Love was our first point of interest: Even the pigeons look UNESCO – the flying oil-rags of London replaced by turtle-doves. Its called Lake of Love, I guess, because of the swans. One growled when we attempted a selfie, so we hurried on to the Novotel, suitcases clattering along the cobbles as we went.

Next morning was all blue skies and cumulus. The queue was already starting to form when we got to the Belfry (Travel tip: when in Bruges, get to the Belfry for the crack o’ ten or be prepared to wait – it’s one out, one in, like a nightclub, but up a belfry).

There are three-hundred and sixty-six steps up. The mistake Rhi always makes is to stop half way to catch her breath in challenging situations: she did it up a hill in the breacon beacons, two summers’ ago. She’d done it the night before over her pot of moules, when her beer went warm and she decided she just couldn’t handle any more. Now she was doing it up the Belfry.

She stood there, red-faced, regretting her base-layer.

‘I got ninety-nine problems and my hip is one.’

She said.

At the top, we oogled the sweep of roof below us. The wind was up, slapping us happily round the chops. We attempted another

selfie, before making our way down the three hundred and sixty six steps to give some others a chance,

‘Oof…and my knees is two.’

Piped Rhian, half-way.

We’d bought a special forty-eight hour card for fifty euro that lets you into a whole load of the cities attractions for free. The problem is with these cards though, is that instead of being selective, you end up visiting a lot of crap you really didn’t need to (the lamp museum, saints preserve us), anxious as you are to get your money’s worth. We’d also made the error of buying it on a Sunday, when all the museums are closed Mondays.

We wandered round the streets and squares and canals, thrilled at how pretty everything was, and what good nick it was in.

‘It’s because the wealth vanished in the fifteenth century when the waterway linking Bruges to the sea silted up. All the merchants went over to Antwerp, and the city was deserted, and preserved.’

Said Rhi. She is a brilliant tour guide, giving only an executive summary of each attraction, gleaned (in this case) from her pocket guide to Bruges and Ghent. She also takes a mean panoramic, and downloads extra data onto her phone so we always have a map.

‘That there’s the money-shot,’ she said as we arrived at a bridge with the famous view over the canal. A willow overhung the water, church as backdrop. We in turn posed for a photo; and my overriding thought was what would happen if there was a storm, and that tree blew down? They’d have to find an exact same one and plant it there.

Next was The Groeninge Museum which greeted us with a huge oil of a man being flayed. Bruges isn’t short on grotesques. The Hospital Museum features a painting of a screaming baby with a large syringe up its bum, for instance. But perhaps most sinister is the life sized Madonna and child made entirely from white chocolate, which resides at the Chocomuseum. After seeing that that we’d retreated to the main square for a dry croque monsieur and an over-priced plate of frites.

Earlier on, we’d loaded ourselves onto a boat for a ride down the canals. We set off, the tour guide, a handsome blonde, pointing out architectural items of interest on the way…

‘..And this is the lowest bridge in Bruges..’

This was issued as a statement of fact rather than a warning. Luckily everyone seated in the flanks had the nous to duck: It’s a credit to the Belgians, their capacity to underreact at every given opportunity.

At the Groeninge, I stood entranced by a painting of a mythological scene. A woman was lounging on the floor, her tenderly-rendered nipple all white and silver with traces of pink and blue and green floating underneath.

‘Sorry, I was entranced by a silvery nipple.’
I said to Rhi, who thought I was behind her and had already exited the museum, before back tracking to retrieve me, as we made our way back into sunshine.

Later on that evening Rhi lay on her bed in her pjs.

‘What’s happened to your toe-nail?’ I said, pointing to a blackened bit at the end of one, thinking she’d bashed it.

‘Oh, that’s just old polish that’s grown out. It’s indicative of my level of self-care at the moment. You think that’s bad – I actually did the nails on one feet once, and then couldn’t be bothered to do the other foot, so I just left it for with one foot painted, for weeks.’

It was a crime, what Rhi’s job was doing to her. She still hadn’t sorted out the little toe on her other foot. She thinks its broken, and has to stick it down when she goes swimming, or it flaps to the side in the current.

Couple to the right. She’s boxing above her weight, no?
Couple over in the corner. She’s furious about something…

Rhian liked to do this, spy on couple on restaurants and cafes before typing out a message on her phone and sliding me the screen.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of how nice it would be, if I was here in this most romantic of cities with a love interest instead of my dear friend. Surely deep down Rhi and I knew we’d swiftly ditch the other into the nearest canal should Mr Farrell come barrelling round the corner all guns blazing to sweep us off our feet. And it would be no hard feelings…

But no. I was having a great time, and the pressure to be in love in one another’s company has caused more than one romantic mini-break to implode under the weight of its own expectations. I thought back to the last one I attempted, when I sat in a car crying next to my then boyfriend, after realising our long weekend in The Peaks was going horribly wrong, because, well, he didn’t much like climbing hills.

‘I think we should go on the silent walk,’ said Rhi on our last morning, after our buffet breakfast at the Novotel.

It was actually called a silent walk, in the guide book, it wasn’t just that Rhi was sick of the sound of my voice after three days and nights together. ‘Silent’, however, was perhaps a misnomer, as part of it was down a motorway. Still, it was lovely: It was raining, and the cobbles were gleaming, Bruges a mossy tapestry, all oldy-worldy and quaint.

‘Look, another church!’

We made our way into the courtyard, where a woman was polite enough to ask if we were under twenty-six, or students, before explaining it would be seven Euro each to get in.

‘Come on, let’s have a last hoorah.’ I said.

The Jeruslem church, or ‘Jerusalemkerk’ in Bruges is straight out of Indiana Jones. It was commissioned in 1428 by Anselm Adornes, a fifth generation Brugian and merchant and father to sixteen children. Anselm had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before moving to Scotland where he was murdered in a monastery in North Berwick. He was buried in Linlithgow, but his heart was returned to Bruges and buried in the Jersulamkerk, next to wife. They two of them are still there: two stiff bronzes lying next to each other, under the eaves.

I climbed some steps which led into a back chapel where I crouched down to get into a replica of Christ’s tomb.

‘How much to stay here for the night?’ said Rhi, wide-eyed, on our way to the gift shop.

‘I’d do it for free,’ I said. And I wasn’t lying.

And then it was over.

Before heading to the station, we nipped into a café for a bowl of hot, silky chocolate. Rhi couldn’t finish her waffle because, true to form, she stopped half-way through, giving her brain the chance to send a message to her stomach that she was full.

On the way back to the Novotel to collect our bags, we passed the church we’d now walked past many times.

‘It’s funny, how a load of bricks put together in a certain configuration can be so pleasing,’ said Rhi. I agreed. It felt like we had been in Bruges forever, in a good way, and we both felt sad to be going home. For our own reasons we just wanted to walk, and keep on walking forever…

Sno Flo illustrates and writes and lives in West Yorkshire. She has a BA in History of Art and Archaeology, an MA in Archaeological Illustration, and a Graduate Diploma in Law. She likes to produce works of creative non-fiction, using her own life as inspiration.

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