Destination: BELGIUM

A Medieval Experience: The Burg
A Medieval Experience: The Burg

The Burg is medieval Bruges at its most tangible. Once it was a jealously guarded enclave, walled and with locked gates. The northern side of this outstanding architectural complex contained the 10th-century Romanesque Church of St. Donation, demolished in 1799. A scale model of the church under the trees on the square, the Burgplein, is a reminder of a lost final flourish to the Burg. Also on the northern side, on Breydelstraat, is the handsome baroque facade of the Provost's House of St. Donation.

On the east side of the Burg is the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges (Paleis van de Brugse Vrije). This was once the ruling seat of the Bruges Vrije, a territorial precinct of Flanders. The building now houses the Bruges tourist information center in one wing. The other wing harbors a magnificent Renaissance chimney piece created in honor of Charles V, Count of Flanders and Holy Roman Emperor. The lower section is in black marble with an alabaster frieze depicting the biblical story of Suzanna and the Elders. The main section is in exquisitely carved wood and depicts the Emperor and fellow members of the Habsburg family, the male contingent endowed with startling Habsburgian codpieces.

To the right of the palace across narrow Blind Donkey Street (Blinde Ezelstraat ) is the Town Hall of Bruges (Stadhuis). This exquisite building dates from the 14th century but has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries. The turreted, Gothic facade is a lyrical evocation of the mason's craft. Inside is the council chamber, the Gothic Hall (Gotische Zaal), with historical wall paintings and a handsome chimney piece. Its glorious vaulted ceiling is all gilded wooden arches with slender ribs and hanging keystones. Fortunate couples are married here.

To the right of the Town Hall in the southwest corner of the Burg is the most medieval building of all, the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed). In the building is a sacred vial said to contain drops of Christ's blood, brought to Bruges in 1150 from the Holy Land by Diederik von den Elzas, count of Flanders. The Holy Blood is still deeply venerated. Each Ascension Day in May or June, the relic is the focus of the most important event in West Flanders, the Procession of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedprocessie), a theatrical costume pageant depicting religious events.

There is something strangely compelling about the Basilica of the Holy Blood. It has a medieval authenticity that is irresistible, even to the ungodly. The building contains an upper and lower chapel. You enter the lower chapel through a modest doorway and it is as if you are stepping straight into the Middle Ages.

The basilica dates from the 12th century and was built to house the relics of St. Basil. It has been partly restored, but is still one of the finest surviving examples of Romanesque architecture in Flanders. Squat pillars support the vaulted roof of the nave. Wall carvings are simple, almost primitive. The air is dense and exterior sounds are muffled and resonant; there are worn statues, slightly garish yet of great religious significance, in gloomy side chambers.

Gothic Mood
You re-emerge into the daylight, pass through an enchanting Gothic doorway in the ornate facade of the main chapel and then mount a wide staircase beneath shallow vaults. Here, the sweet odor of incense hangs in the air. The upper chapel is a breathtaking contrast to the somber Romanesque below the stairs. It is lavishly decorated in a late Gothic style that overlays original Romanesque themes. A rococo white marble altar, barrel roof, luminous stained glass, carved wood, and gold and silver artifacts all create a mood that is reminiscent of the heavy decoration of Orthodox churches.

There is a delightful spherical oak pulpit with disk canopy but without any visible access. The secret is a small door to the side of the Holy Blood altar, which opens on hidden stairs to the pulpit. The Holy Blood is contained within a crystal sheath with gold crown stoppers and is supported by gilded copper and silver angels.

Adjoining the upper church is a small museum with a few religious artifacts on display, including the gold and silver reliquary in which the Holy Blood is carried during processions.


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