I’m not the religious type. I’m certainly not tied to an organized religion. But when traveling, I often attend a church service at a prominent church, cathedral or basilica, particularly if it it’s known for the quality of its music as well as beautiful architecture and art. So in Venice, I took the opportunity to attend a Sunday high mass at Saint Mark’s Basilica. Oh my. The outside is amazing. The golden glow from the centuries-old mosaics inside takes your breath away. Even the stone mosaic floors are stunning.
Religious or not, it’s hard to sit in such surroundings, bathed in the sound of beautiful voices raised in celebration and prayer, and not believe that something so sublime, created by humanity, wasn’t somehow also touched by the divine.
A few practical notes: Attending mass at San Marco is one of the best ways to see the basilica. In fact, these days, it’s the only way, as the basilica is currently closed to ordinary visitors and those buying tickets for tours are only allowed into the museum. Mass and prayers are offered several times a day, both on weekdays and Sundays. Only the 10 AM Sunday Mass is sung, however. You can (and should) arrive somewhat before the service begins and are likely to be allowed to walk around a bit before taking a seat. Similarly, once the service ends, you can get up and move about, even taking photos for perhaps 10 minutes, before staff members start shooing you out. Understandably, no photographing is allowed during the services, though you’ll see some folks surrepticiously doing so. During my visit, one tourist was brazen, even setting his camera in the center aisle for a better shot. He was quickly and firmly admonished, however, by the St. Mark’s staff and put his camera away for the remainder of the mass. Entrance for services is on the left side of the church, not through the main door on the plaza.
I was fully prepared to fall in love. Bruges seemed like a city I was bound to adore: Stuffed full of the characterful gothic architecture and bizarre small carvings that always intrigue me; Criss-crossed with picturesque canals and quaint, winding cobblestone streets. Sublime chocolate. What more could a girl want?
The truth is, I had also long wanted to visit Bruges because it is the location of several of my favorite historical novels, The House of Niccolo series by Scottish author Dorothy Dunnett. I was childishly thrilled by the notion of walking the same streets, visiting the same places as Nicholas and the other characters, real and fictional, in Dunnett’s astonishingly well researched books.
Alas, the romance was blighted. I blame the scorching hot weather. With normal summer temperatures topping out in the low to mid 70s (F), air conditioners are rare in Belgium. Some shops had portable units that tempered the 90-degree scorchers I encountered in August, but almost no homes have AC. My house swap just outside one of the ancient city gates was no exception. Windows closed at night meant hellacious temperatures. Windows open meant spending the wee hours swatting mosquitoes and scratching.
I was miserable. And I don’t think I was the only one. Thanks to COVID, there weren’t the usual hordes of tourists pouring in on day trips from cruise ships docked at nearby Zeebruges. But the mostly European tourists who did visit looked a bit bedraggled. Some tour guides, shopkeepers and waiters seemed somewhat testy — on edge, if not from the heat, then from the disastrous loss of business this summer. One waiter told me it was illegal to serve tap water at restaurants in Bruges, though other restaurants were happy to do so. If I wanted water with my meal there, I needed to pony up three euros for the bottled version. The woman on duty at the ticket and entry desk at the 16th-century Bruge Vrije refused me entrance, saying my museum pass was not valid except at the “private” museums. No matter that the brochure on her desk clearly depicted and listed both that building and the neighboring Stadhuis, or city hall. I had to trudge back to the tourist office and enlist their help in getting her to let me in.
Perhaps most disappointing: After spending two hours learning how to temper chocolate, make ganache and fill a dozen or so perfect little pralines (what we call simply “chocolates” in the U.S.), my little stash of goodies melted before I could get them back to my lodging. Fortunately, though no longer pretty, they tasted great!
Still, Bruges is in many ways a fairy tale city; its centuries-old architecture and original street plan, frozen in time. Weather and literature played a big role in that story too.
Although Bruges had always had access to the North Sea through a tidal inlet called the Zinn, it wasn’t until a storm in 1134 widened and lengthened the channel that the small medieval settlement started to blossom. Poised at the nexus between the Hanseatic trade routes on the Baltic and North Seas and the Mediterranean trade bringing silks, spices, dyes and more to London and other northern European ports, Bruges was well located to become a key commercial center.
Innkeepers started offering the foreign traders, along with accommodation, their services as brokers and agents. They quickly adopted the financial and banking innovations brought to Bruges by Genoese and Venetian merchants, and by 1330, what was arguably the world’s first stock market was operating in the square outside the Van de Beurse family inn in the center of Bruges. With all that wealth accumulating in the city, patronage of the arts also flourished. The city’s rich burghers, as well as the Duke of Burgundy himself, commissioned numerous works from Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. Bruges became the cradle of Flemish Primitives.
But by the 1480s, Bruges was headed into a downward spiral. The Zinn was silting up, impeding ship traffic. And the city’s leaders were rebelling against Maximilian, son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick and the widower of Margaret of Burgundy, who had ruled following the death of her father. Trade moved first to Antwerp and later to Amsterdam. Bruges dwindled from a population of about 200,000 in its heyday to only about 50,000. By the mid 1800s, it was reputedly the poorest city in Belgium.
Ironically, it was partially Bruges’ poverty that saved it. In the mid 1800s, as many other European cities were undergoing wholesale destruction of old neighborhoods and rebuilding, Bruges was too broke to do so. As a result, the city’s Gothic churches and cloisters, Sint Jan’s hospital and most of the medieval and Renaissance commercial and residential buildings of the city center fell into disrepair, but survived. So did the original medieval layout of the city. Today, the entire historic center of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the city experienced a rebirth, and it was literature that midwifed it. Bruges-la-Morte, by little-known Belgian author George Rodenbach, was published in 1892. It’s a tragic story of a grief-stricken widower who becomes obsessed with a dancer who resembles his late wife. As a symbolist novel, it was considered by critics to be quite good. But what really set it apart were the 35 black-and-white photographs used as illustrations — a first for a work fiction. The evocative photos of the city made Bruges itself almost a character in the novel and, among well-off Brits and other Europeans, sparked broad interest in visiting the city. Tourism became and remains Bruges’ most important economic engine.
More than a century later, history repeated itself, with the release of the popular British-American movie, In Bruges. A dark comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two Irish hitmen hiding out in the city, the film’s atmospheric setting inspired another round of tourism. Now, along with the medieval buildings, tour guides point out which hotel the stars stayed in.
Before he was a saint, Guilhem of Orange was a soldier. Born in the mid 9th century, he was cousin and confidante to Charlemagne. Renowned as a warrior, he fiercely defended the southern borders of the Frankish empire, battling Gascons, Basques and Moors, ultimately forcing these last to retreat to Barcelona. Then he retired.
Seeking peace and quiet after years of battle, Guilhem founded a Benedictine monastery in the remote Gellone valley in 806. For the next several centuries the abbey thrived, drawing pilgrims with two reliquaries: one containing the remains of the abbey’s famous founder; the other, several small pieces of wood, said to be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and given to Guilhem by Charlemagne. Indeed, the abbey became an important way station along one of the European routes to the shrine of St. James in Compostella, Spain. By the middle of the 11th century, the monks at Gellone Abbaye, now renamed the Abbaye de St. Guilhem, in honor of its recently canonized founder, were wealthy enough to build a new church and cloister.
In succeeding centuries, however, the abbey declined, suffering first from neglect and then from desecration and pillaging. Abbots drawn from aristocratic families and named by the King, rather than elected by the monks themselves, allowed the vitality of the monastery’s enterprises to dwindle. During the 16th century religious wars, militant Protestants pillaged the abbey and defaced or destroyed much of the sculpture. By the French revolution, only six monks remained; the monastery was dissolved and the buildings sold to a local stonemason, who carted off the stone for use in other buildings, peddling choice bits to wealthy clients. Eventually, parts of the abbey–columns, windows, statuary and more– wound up scattered across Europe. Some even came to rest across the Atlantic; several columns dating from around 1200, were purchased by a wealthy American collector. They’re now in New York’s Cloisters Museum.
Today, what’s left of the abbey and the starkly beautiful Romanesque church sit in the middle of a well-preserved medieval village, with a population of about 250. Some grapes and some olives are grown nearby, but the village survives mainly on tourism. In the height of the season, in July and August, thousands of visitors will make their own pilgrimage to St.-Guilhem-le-Désert. On a beautiful, warm Sunday in mid-May, the number of tourists already equalled the number of residents.
It’s no wonder. The old soldier was clearly on to something. It’s an idyllic retreat. The lush greenery and craggy peaks are a stunning setting for the mellow old stone walls and tile roofs. Flowers bloom profusely in the sun. And everywhere there is the sound of running water—from the small river that runs by the town, providing a series of picturesque waterfalls, as well as from the numerous spigots and fountains –flowing with potable water — scattered around the town. Even underfoot, clear water runs, criss-crossing the village in a series of open gullies and stone-topped drains.
Barcelona is way too big and too crammed full of interesting stuff to spend just a day and a half there. Still, the long train trip from Valencia to Montpellier, France (my next home base) meant either getting up way too early in the morning for my taste or arriving too late in the evening for my landlady’s convenience. So, I broke the trip with a short stop along the Mediterranean coast in Barcelona. I had dinner with friends visiting from the U.S., toured Antoni Gaudi’s as-yet unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, walked for miles and took a sightseeing tour bus for an overview.
Forthwith: Some random observations, which I’m looking forward to confirming or refuting in a future visit.
1). Motorcycles are to Barcelona what bicycles are to Amsterdam. Well, there may not be quite as many, but it sure feels like it!. They run the gamut from big powerful hogs to cute little Vespas, with a smattering of those speedy and colorful Japanese bikes that look like they should be ridden by mutant Ninja turtles or some kind of spiky-haired anime character with a bandana around his or her head. Oh, and skateboarders abound, too!
2) The food is great. Terrific tapas. Fabulous fish and fresh fruit. And wonderful wines, of course. And sometimes, it’s very colorful, too!
3) It’s a truly lovely city, with the high green spaces of Mont Juic, the wide streets of Eixample, the yachts and sailboats at the port and gorgeous architecture everywhere. One small thing I noticed: in much of the city, the corners where streets intersect are clipped off, creating wider, diamond-shaped spaces, and buildings located there usually have a diagonal face looking out on to the intersection. It makes for much lighter living spaces and wider vistas, I’m sure, and it gives the city a more open lighter feel than the density of the population would suggest.
4.) As for Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia? I’m not usually a fan of more outré architecture, preferring the quiet grace of Gothic arches and classical columns. . (Yes, I know, they were all probably originally painted, but I love the natural stone.) In the case of Gaudi, however, all I can say is OMG. Just OMG.