I think Bruges has been near the top of my travel list ever since I've had a travel list, but for one reason or another I'd never managed to visit. Finally, I've been to Bruges.
My mental picture of Bruges was disrupted in 2008 by Martin McDonough's witty, shocking, politically incorrect film, 'In Bruges' The images of mellow brick and stone buildings, towers, spires and winding cobbled streets and squares was overlaid by the dark, threatening edginess of the film. Now I've been in Bruges myself I know that making Bruges seem grim and dangerous is probably McDonagh's greatest ironic achievement. In reality it is the city of mellow late medieval buildings and charming streets that I'd imagined. As I read somewhere (can't remember where - my brain is suffering overload) 'if Bruges didn't exist, Walt Disney would have invented it'.
The belfry that becomes so threatening in the film presides protectingly over a square filled with tourists, cafes, horse-drawn carriages and school tour groups. The dark colonnaded building that was so menacing in the film turned out to be the nineteenth century fishmarket where fish are still sold each weekday morning.
It was fun to see how Bruges had been transformed by McDonagh's black humour. Also, my appreciation of the film has increased by seeing what Bruges 'really' is like. I must watch it again.
The small city is lovely. Even hordes of tourists can't undermine its charm. The hotel at which I stayed added to my enjoyment. It was a sixteenth century heritage building where I had a tiny but comfortable and perfectly equipped room that had once been part of the servant's quarters:
This was the view from my room:
and this was the canal just around the corner from the hotel:
Near the centre of town there are, inevitably, many souvenir and tourist-oriented shops. And the main souvenirs? Chocolate and lace. I've been seduced away from chocolate by Dutch preferences for marzipan and caramel flavours, but I was interested in the lace. I'd been warned that most of the lace in the shops is now mass-produced - and that most of it is sourced from China. This makes rather sad sense. Few tourists would be willing to pay anything like the real cost of producing handmade lace. But I had read of a lace museum and of a shop attached to the museum so I meandered through what I imagine are the back streets of Bruges to find the museum. Any walk through Bruges is lovely, except for the impact on your feet from the cobbles.
The museum building and its setting were charmingly low-key. You buy a ticket for 3 euros and it gives you entry to the rather gloomy fifteenth century Jerusalem Church, in whose outbuildings the museum is located, to the museum itself and to a demonstration of lace-making. A miscellaneous job-lot. This is the outside of the unpretentious museum:
Most of the lace in the beautifully plain rooms of the museum is exquisite - fine, unique designs, astonishing craft. Unfortunately, the labeling is most inadequate (even worse if your Flemish is as undeveloped as mine) and provides little guidance as to the history or techniques of the pieces. You just have to admire them as objects. I so enjoyed watching the demonstration of lace-making, which was really just three women making lace and chatting to one another as if it was their weekly get-together.
They were clearly very very skilled, but it was good to see them get distracted from time to time by the conversation and have to unpick a few rows (or whatever the bits fastened by pins are called in lace-making). I was directed to a shop, called 't Apostelientje, up the cobbled lane beside the church.
I'm still not sure if it was officially the museum shop, but it was crammed with pieces of hand-made lace - collars, handkerchiefs, tablecloths and napkins, doilies - both antique and modern, as well as all the bobbins, threads, patterns and other materials you need for lace-making.
I can't imagine I would ever want to make bobbin-lace, but I was overcome with admiration for the traditions and skill involved in this form of textile production. And even if I could have afforded it, I wouldn't have bought any of the lovely pieces in the shop as they are part of a life I don't live. But I couldn't resist buying some small scraps and samples of lace just so I could have examples of the craft.
Bruges (or Brugge or Bruggen) is still on my travel list. I want to visit again.