When we arrived at the Central Hotel Restaurant in the Markt square in Bruges, I finally felt like our Belgium vacation was beginning. Therese, her mom Eileen and I had spent half a day traveling to get there: the overnight flight, the train ride from Brussels airport (after purchasing our Rail Pass), the taxi ride to our hotel, Hotel Ter Reien, and then the walk through the “other” square, the Burg, to the Markt.
As I down at a table on the restaurant terrace, the excitement bubbled up from inside me. In no time, I had an adult sized glass of beer, a huge black enamel pot of mussels and a plate of frites in front of me, and I was on my way to full vacation fun.
No problem with dairy there – although I did check on the mussels, since some versions will have butter in them. The mayonnaise for the frites was from a package, which was a little weird, but I was willing to overlook such false notes.
With such good beer – I drank Leffe brune that came from a tap – it almost doesn’t matter what you eat. What a good start to our first day in Belgium, our first day in Bruges!
The excitement gave me a rush, but I knew that after barely sleeping on the overnight flight, I would crash at some point. So I planned the afternoon to be a light one. I figured a trip to the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk would be a nice beginner. It is Bruges’ main church and the home to one of the few Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy. We would follow that up with a trip to the Memling Museum in Sint Jans Hospital, right across the street from the church.
Unfortunately, reality intervened. An afternoon wedding in the O.L.V. church meant limited access to the church, and the museum where the Michelangelo lives being closed. We filed into the back of the church along with other curious tourists, to discover that some friend of the bride was singing an anemic version of Minnie Ripperton’s “Lovin’ You.” Talk about cultural dissonance! It would take more than a few Belgian ales to wash the pain of that experience from our minds!
Time to move on. The Memling Museum became the first place we got to use our wonderful Bruges City Pass (40 Euros for 3 days’ free admission to all the city’s attractions). To get to the amazing Memling paintings in their lovely chapel, you have to work your way through the alternately fascinating and puzzling medieval Sint Jans Hospital. Some items are so dimly lit that it is nearly impossible to read their explanatory cards. Others, like paintings made for the patrons of the hospital, offer little explanation.
When I was last in Bruges, in 2007, I remember there being good audio guides, which helped especially with the Memling works. The audio guides have been replaced by laminated leaflets that give basic information but not much else. Thankfully, the art speaks for itself for the most part. One of the most prolific of the so-called “Flemish primitive” artists, Memling created triptych’s and portraits that I would describe as quietly spectacular. While High Italian Renaissance painting (Raphael, for example) is all about turning the human into the godly, idealizing subjects into creatures of flawless beauty, Flemish Renaissance painting instead finds the godly within the human, presenting people as they are. The subjects’ inner beauty, as in these Memling masterpieces, shines through as they are, unadorned by artifice.
Down the street from the main hospital building with its Memling chapel, Sint Jans also has an old apothecary’s building with a restaurant, shop and conference (or congress) center. The apothecary was of minimal interest – a nearby courtyard with its wrought iron well was the best part of that for me.
But the congress center currently is hosting a wonderful exhibit, the Picasso Expo, with small format works (drawings, lithographs, posters) by Picasso and contemporaries like Chagall, Miro and Matisse. As we walked through the halls peering at Picasso’s ribald late-life creations, I began to feel the effects of the day of traveling hit me. I soldiered on, getting through the entire exhibit. The modern art, some full of humor, some very thought-provoking, provided a nice counterpart to all the antique art and architecture we had been seeing all afternoon.
Following a well-earned afternoon nap, the three of us spruced up for dinner. We stayed in the vicinity of our hotel, settling on Uilenspiegel Restaurant, directly across the street. The menu was basic Belgian – mussels, beef carpaccio, etc. – and I opted for steak with frites. Nothing special, and once again, packaged mayonnaise! Was the mythical Bruges I had remembered, with restaurants offering incredible homemade mayonnaise, a thing of the past? Heaven forbid! Packaged mayonnaise notwithstanding, our first day in Bruges had flashes of brilliance we were sure to experience more in the days to come.