Today is the first “real” day of this European sojourn.
Were spending our first three days at the Dukes Palace Hotel, Bruges’ only 5-star hotel, located in a 15th century building that was once …wait for it… a Burgundian Duke’s palace! DukesPalace Sadly, with all our pre-arranged escorted tours, I doubt we’ll have time to make use of all the amenities, which include a sauna, steam room, UV and infrared cabins, salt wall, gym, hammam (Turkish bath), and massages. We will enjoy their famous breakfasts though; those breakfasts feature Belgian chocolate!
And now …. food pictures!
The entire hotel maintains the elegance of a ducal palace, including sweeping staircases, chandeliers, beautiful paintings, opulent upholstery, and tapestries.
The last time we did the Grand European itinerary, it was for our 35th anniversary year, and we did it in July. This time we’ll be experiencing autumn along the rivers, and doing it (once we reach Amsterdam) with new friends made on the World Cruise: Al and Karin from North Carolina.
We (I) kind of talked them into doing this cruise, as a break in a very hectic and stressful schedule for them, so there’s a teensy bit of pressure on us (me) to ensure they enjoy it. We won’t be doing everything together, but we will be experiencing the Prague extension mostly as a foursome.
Most of the excursions Ted and I signed up for, including those on the fully escorted pre- and post-cruise extensions, are Viking’s “included” (i.e. no additional cost) experiences, since this is a familiar itinerary in familiar cities, and we may want to simply wander off on our own. The exception is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, on the famous Romantic Road, which is a Viking offering but at an extra cost (the included excursion that day was one we’d done in 2013 and, while quite wonderful, it couldn’t compete with what I’d read about Rothenburg).
The two excursions marked with ** are private tours arranged through Tours By Locals, for specific experiences we wanted during our land extensions that were not offered by Viking. Flanders will be somewhat duplicated, but we wanted a Canadian perspective, which is often not possible when 98% of the passengers are from the U.S.
Kutna Hora at the end of our trip will be a full day outing with Karin and Al.
So off we go today on our first two tours. This morning is about architectural beauty and local history; this afternoon (a separate post) will be about war. It’s slated to rain all day, with a constant temperature of 10°C/50°F, which is the weather forecast for our entire stay in Bruges (really, pretty much for the entirety of the month in this region), so Ted may opt to take some photos on his phone to keep his camera from getting wet. I have no doubt they’ll be great either way.
We began with our own hotel’s history, which reflects much of the political and social climate in Bruges. The city was an important centre of commerce, for its port, its cloth weaving, and its finance. It was ruled mostly by the French monarchy – hence the Burgundian Duke, a title given to the second son of the French king. At various times the Hapsburgs, Venetians, and Napoleon all took their turn too.
In the 12th to 15th centuries, Bruges was at its peak, a Hanseatic city housing all the major trade guilds as well as many of the the Medici banking interests, and serving as a port of trade for goods from all over the Mediterannean and east, as well as its own famous broadcloth, linens, and leather. The city’s fortunes declined with the advent of machine-made cloth, and the silting of its deep water harbour, but its glorious architecture has lasted.
Many of the buildings in the city still display their guild symbols – and since the entire old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, those buildings are beautifully maintained.
Bruges also hosted the embassy buildings of all the big trading nations: Venice, Florence, Basques, Germany, France, Spain, etc. Those buildings have been repurposed, but their heritage maintained.
We also spent time in two of the city’s most beautiful squares.
The first was the Market Square, home to the Belfry of Bruges (the former municipal treasury and archives) and the civic buildings and post office which looked gothic but were actually built in the 1920’s to replace buildings destroyed by Napoleon during his “redesign” plans for Bruges.
The second square housed the city hall, historic civilian court, historic criminal court, and the entrance to the Basilica of the Holy Blood.
There was a mass taking place in the basilica, so we could not go in to see the relic itself – a piece of fabric stained with 1st century blood, supposedly collected by Joseph of Arimethea (who was responsible for Jesus’ burial) – that was brought to Bruges after the First Crusade. We were, however, able to go into the 11th and 12th century Romanesque lower chapel dedicated to St. Basil.
Trade and finance – and taxation of goods – made people wealthy. Our guide had to keep reminding me that the large and ornate gothic and renaissance buildings were not churches, but simply the homes of the wealthy. “City palaces.”
One of the largest city palaces in Bruges belonged to the Gruuthuse family who had a monopoly on the sale of ‘gruut’, an herb mixture which was the main raw material for beer, and later rights to tax hops and also the finished beer product. At a time when water was not potable, and everyone, including children, drank beer, the man who taxed beer was not only incredibly rich, but soundly hated. In fact, he had a passage built from his house directly into the largest church in the city, to avoid being out in public where he might be attacked. From his private chapel, he could be visited by the priest and not have to mingle with the citizenry. However, even he had to join in the annual Procession of the Holy Blood during the celebration of Christ’s Assumption, and during one of those processions he was indeed assassinated, as he’d feared.
Since it was raining, we opted to substitute a quick tour of the magnificent Church of Our Lady for a wet canal ride. We felt we’d seen much of what lined the canal anyway.
The church is famous for having Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges sculpture. The sculpture has been stolen from the church twice: once by Napoleon, and again by the Nazis. It was most recently returned in 1945 by The Monuments Men. While the sculpture is very beautiful, the church has much, much more to offer. By the end of our tour Ted and I decided we need to come back, not only to the church, but to Bruges.
What a gorgeous city, of which we’ve only just gotten a tantalizing taste.