GOING AWAY by John Burke
BRUGES, beloved of the English, is an illuminated page out of a medieval manuscript. This cradle of Flemish art bears witness in its churches, mansions, ramparts. almshouses, hospices and museums to over a thousand years of history.
The town. rose out of the marshy misty meadows of Flanders thanks to the Zwin, a now silted estuary to the North, Sea. By 1200 Bruges was the main part of the Hanseatic League and a century later it had become the trading centre of the known world.
Commercial agents from 17 kingdoms and envoys of 20 courts resided within its walls, which harboured twice as many inhabitants as today (50,000). The rich burghers traded with places as far away as Muscovy, while merchants from Lombardy founded the first stockexchange in a Bruges mansion owned by the Van der Buerze family.
Bruges reached its zenith in the XVth century when the Prinsenhof became the court of the Dukes of Burgundy who had inherited Flanders. The reigns of Philip the Good and of Charles the Bold, who wed Margaret of York, were a golden• era which saw the ephemeral unity of what is now Belgium.
Lovers of glory and patrons of the arts, the dukes attracted the finest talent in the Low Countries, Bruges flourished as the centre of the northern Renaissance after Jan and Hubert van Eyck had discovered how to paint with oils.
The Groeninge Museum exhibits their Flemish Primitives and the works of other members of this school such as the religious Hans Memling and his disciples. Gerard David and Adniaan Isembrandt.
The museum — facing the beautiful canal bank called Dyver—is just one of 80 buildings worth visiting in Bruges. These include the oldest Gothic town. hall (1376) of the Seventeen Provinces, the domed English Convent, the Old Cus
toms House (1477), the Bladelin Court . and many guild houses.
then there are the Ghent Gate, the Cross Gate, the Blacksmith's Gate and the Donkey's Gate—each with a drawbridge over the canals which ring the town. Branch waterways meander all through the town, and under the arched bridges that explain the Flemish name: Brugge.
Strolling along the quays, where white-painted facades and stepped gables are reflected in the placid waters, or exploring alleys where ivy clings to high walls of red brick, it is easy to get lost in time.
It is just as easy to lose one's way the higgledy-piggledy streets, but at least there is a central landmark in the 260foot belfry rising above the fish and cloth Halles on the cobbled market-place.
Its carillon of 47 bells is the most famous in the world and it echoes off red rooftops and grey spires during the concerts held almost every summer night—when the canals and buildings are bathed in light.
Bruges is typically Belgian in its love of pageants, the most impressive being the Procession of the Holy Blood on the Monday after each May 2. The relic was brought from Jerusalem in 1150 by Flemish crusaders, and the annual procession of mounted knights in armour followed by the townsfolk in medieval costume is a vivid enactment.
The stone Basilica of the Holy Blood belongs to many centuries, but the oldest church in Bruges is the brick Cathedral of St. Saviour—started in 1116. The church of Our Lady is noteworthy for its Madonna by Michelangelo and the Jerusalem Church. modelled on the Holy Sepulchre, has precious stained glass.
It was in this Bruges, so steeped in pious beauty, that was born Guido Gezelle in 1830. The birthplace of this great poet-priest on the outskirts of town (near the windmill) is now a museum to his work.
What inspiration there must have been walking in the courtyard enclosed by the ecclesiastical pile of St. John's Hospital, founded by Augustinians in the twelfth century? What mystic stillness within the whitewashed walls of the Beguinage, where nuns have taken over the cells and chores instituted for pious young ladies a hundred years later, Theirs was an austere life of prayer and of washing wool for the weavers who made Bruges tapestries famous well into Reformation times (whose upheavals ruined Flanders).
Thus the Beguinage was near the willow-fringed Mitmewater whose shimmering expanse gives fleeting ghostly reflections of ancient towers and spires. White swans glide across this legendary Lake of Love, which recalls a scene out of Camelot and helps explain the eternal fascination of Bruges for Anglo-Saxon visitors.
England and Flanders were long linked through the wool trade and there were both economic and political reasons for St. Thomas More's two missions to Bruges—where he met Erasmus for the last time in 1521. More alludes to his diplomatic work there in Utopia.
Chief town of a province rather than a world capital, Bruges can now be proud of its contribution to western integration. Where three cultures meet is its College of Europe, an international postgraduate institution modelled on Oxford lines in 1949.