I remember the day May 5, 2018, vividly. I remember it so well because time stood still that day for me. And I got lost. Lost in the time of the Gauls, and the Romans, and the Vikings. Why? Because that day I happened to be in the Venice of the North, Bruges.
Now my first encounter with the city was through Collin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson’s In Bruges. I have no shame in admitting that I went for Ray’s word and got convinced the place is a shithole. Rather, I thoroughly enjoyed the dark humor, brilliantly written and captured by Martin McDonagh. Though the sublime backdrops sometimes made me question Ray’s remark, I quickly brushed them aside as soon as the next scene came.
The problem is, I have never been more wrong in my life.
It was around 8 in the hot summer morning when the bus dropped us off in the heart of the city, the Burg Square. I instantly recognized the place from the movie. But little did I know that this has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. But even with utter disregard for facts, within a jiff, I revered the gothic architecture of the City Hall. Ray, how could you not appreciate it?
I walk past the canals of Bruges. I see local shops opening up slowly. I see visitors from around the globe beaming, stretching forward and backward to find the one perfect pose. I see enthusiasts lining up for the boat rides. But my mind slowly takes over and I wonder. I wonder, did the Vikings enter the city through these canals? Did the vigilant ducks tip off the residents or were they silent, like they are now, as boats glide past them? I wonder how life would be in the ninth century, away from today’s pandemonium.
Bruges is a city which has the perfect balance of both history and modern era with a slight touch of divinity. It’s the city where you will find a horse carriage parked beside a BMW. It’s the city where you see a building from 1863 beside Zara. It’s the city where you find the modern concert building Concertgebouw on one side, and the Gröningenmuseum – which houses six centuries of Flemish and Belgian paintings, on the other.
As I leisurely walked around the city, I was awestruck by the old St. John’s Hospital, the Saint Salvator’s Cathedral, the church of our lady. I lingered at the Beguinage, just to enjoy the serenity, and the beauty, and the peace around it a bit longer.
Then, I reached the Basilica of the Holy Blood. As I entered the Catholic basilica and mounted the winding stairs, I remembered the story of how the Holy Blood was brought by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. How treacherous and wearying, yet deeply satisfying the journey must have been, I think. I enter the chapel of the Holy Blood.
And I knelt down.
No, I am not a religious man. And certainly not a dramatic one, at that. But the air inside the chapel will make you feel the presence of divinity. Suddenly, I became aware of my inconsequential existence in front of the universe. I cognized the divine power of the universe, which runs from the shadows, only to come forward in times of despair. The power which gives you the strength to walk that extra mile, or to live through that harrowing day, or to get up once again after you get knocked down.
Ray, I beg to differ. Perhaps you were far too distracted by the ever beautiful Clémence Poésy’s Chloe? Perhaps the idea of being trapped without your own accord made you have a rather austere sentiment about the city?
With a Belgian waffle in my hand, I sit down at the Market Square. As I look around, I find the city regaining its vigor. Amidst all the mirth and hubbubs, I get lost. I get lost in the time of Julius Caesar walking down the same cobbled roads. I get lost in the time when traders from England and Scandinavia anchored their ships at the ports to try out their luck. I get lost, and I see all. I see the rise of Bruges during its golden age. How it became the capital of the county of Flanders. I see her decline at the 1500s only to be a phoenix in the 19th century. I see how gracefully and magnanimously she passed down the baton to Brussels when she couldn’t carry the crown anymore.
Remember all that history, I say to Bruges. Store it away, for now. Use it to keep you motivated, as you will rise again, my friend.
Back at the bus, I hugged my friend for making me take this trip.