Brugge: the right spot to 'settle in'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"A man without land is nobody," Jan Broes read aloud. Struck by its profundity (from the book "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," by Mordecai Richler), Broes nodded in agreement, petted his donkey, and repeated, "a man without land is nobody."

Jan Broes is somebody. For each weekend, he and his wife and three sons leave their city home and drive to their "land house" (as he calls it) in the Belgian country side, 20 minutes outside of Brugge (often spelled Bruges.) Their life style is a harmonious blend of art and culture in Brguee, combined with the serenity and nature of Bekegem, where their modest farmhouse is located.

Nothing is very far from Brugge, I found out, after spending nearly two weeks in this medieval city, practically a stone's throw from London, Amsterdam, or Paris and the mighty North Sea. "Two weeks in Brugge?" a friend asked, amazed that anyone would stay that long in this Flemish provicial city. In fact, the average tourist only spends 1.78 days here, usually en route to some other European destination, Jean-Pierre Drubbel of the city's tourist office told me.

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I specifically went to Brugge to visit my friends, the Broes', and also to rest in one place after traveling around for two months. Brugge was just the right spot to settle in, cozy down, and move at my own pace without feeling frazzled. There's museum hopping, canal rides, people gazing at sidewalk cafes, and long leisurely walks through parks and narrow cobblestone streets. Often referred to as the Venice of the north, Brugge itself is a museum piece, a showcase of well-preserved, restored medieval architecture; liter-free streets; collection of paintings by the Flemish masters such as Jan van Eyck, Han Memling , Hugo van der Goes, Hieronymus bosch, Gerard David, and others, which are housed in world-famous museums -- Groeninge, Gruuthuse, and Arenthuis.

The city fathers makes a concerterd effort to keep their city unpolluted and uncongested by vehicles. Tourist buses are prohibited from parking within the Old City, which gives the hansom cabs maneuverability. Nor will you see neon signs on any building exterior, or aluminum, for both are outlawed. And all new paint contracts must first be approved for color. Mr. Drubbel pointed out that Brugge was the first European city to enforce restoration codes in the 1900s. And today there are scores of laws. Brugge will never lose face!

Jan Broes lives in a 15th-century gothic-style, three-story hose built in 1479, one of only three remaining in Brugge of this type. Bought in 1966, in fairly poor condition, the house is now being restored according to specific architectural plans that took five years to gain the approval of the local Historic Preservation Society, the city, the province (West Flanders), and the national government. Tha law provides that these agencies shall pay 61 percent of restoration costs, of which the state pays 50 percent, the city, 10, and the province 1 percent.

Just as important as buildings are in Brugge, so are the three windmills, which are also eligible for funding. Only St. John's mill has been restored to working condition at a cost of $250,000. Built in 1770, St. John's stands at the site, on a knoll by one of the old town gates, where one of the first windmills was erected in 1290, according to Brugge windmill aficionado Christian DeWyt.

"The windmill was a Flemish invention and was built as a source of power for machinery during the 13th century when Brugge was an important trade center," Mr. DeWyt explained. "Our port (which has been silted up) was at the junction of the trade routes from Italy, France, the British Isles, the Baltic countries, and Russia, too," he added. Mr. DeWyt is a lawyer and judge, as well as an expert on windmills and an active member in the International Molenzborg, an organization that preserves and cares for the country's mills. Of the 140 in Belgium, 65 are in flanders province, and Brugge has three. Mr. DeWyt thinks that St. john's is the most beautiful of all and says that it is a major tourist attraction. Inside, you can see a panorama of the city. Made from oak, its sails span approximately 25 meters, and when it whirrs in the wind, you can feel it shakes slightly.

As a youth, Mr. DeWyt spent all of his free time in the mills near his home or in the country. "I remember once staying with a miller all day and night waiting for the wind so that he could grind the villagers' grain. But we fell asleep and didn't get up until the miller's mother awakened us. It always takes a mother to help out," Mr. DeWyt recalled.

A miller, in a way, is like a sailor, only a sailor on land. He must be able to read the weather, to know when the wind will blow at what time and which direction. For his failure to do so might mean destruction to the mill, as well as no flour for the customers. The art of milling by the wind has really died out. Henri Gevaert was Brugge's las professional, and he stopped turning in 1914. However, Maurice Vienne, once a part-time miller, now operates the one in Damme for the tourists.

Damme, three miles from Brugge, situated on the Luis Canal, where fishermen huddler under umbrellas on its banks during misty days, is a scene straight from an impressionist painting. Brugge is a good home base for day excusions, especially by bike, to either colorful hamlest such as Damme or to any of the coastal towns, which are farther, such as Knokke-Heist or Oostduinkerke.

When the Zwin Riber silted up, Damme, like Brugge, declined from being a flourishing port city in the 15th century. now it is a quiet village with "picturesque charm." The Town Hall and the Church of Our Lady dominate the square and its Old World taverns and eating places, characteristic of the Gothic period and Flemish brick architecture.

The Belgian coastline stretches about 75 miles between Holland and France. Not far from the French line is the historic fishing village of Osstduinkerke. On the last Saturday of June the town holds the shrimp-fishing-on horseback competition. The only place in the world where such fishing is done, Ossduinkerke has but a few old salts who brave this type of shrimping. Common since the 1600s, the tradition of fisherman and horse still lives once a year.

Clad in yellow slicker and hat, the fisherman sits high in the saddle atop his calm, trusty Belgian draft horse, a special breed also used in farming. Man and beast plod along in the sea during low tide, though swells rise up to the horse's neck. With a long trawlhead plated to a board and attached to a rope, the two slowly move forward, as the slanted board grates the sea bottom, uprooting the shrimp, which are dragged into a net. At one time it used to a be a profitable livelihood. But the three-hour process doesn't pay today. In 1944 the record catch was 24 kilos, or about 537 pounds. The fishing is part of the weekend's festivities, along with folk dancing, parades, and the crowning of Miss Shrimp Queen.

Perhaps what is most striking about these Belgian towns is the flatness of the land that surrounds them.

"The country in Flanders is inspiring and impressive, but when the light is just right at dawn or dusk, it is magnificent," said Leo van Paemel, who grew up in the fishing village of Blankenberge. "The combination of light and clouds gives the flat land life and movement. And the play of shadow accentuates the shape of the meadows. There's such great illumination then," said Mr. van Paemel, an artist who now lives in Brugge where he has a studio and gallery.

Van Paemel is a modern day Flemish master, inspired by the classical technique of the Old School. He knew, by the age of nine, that he would be a painter. Now in his 60s, after years of hard work, struggle, and different sytles, he will publish a collection of his oils, water colors, and drawing in his first book, in four languages, this spring (1981). Resembling Mark Twain, sometimes sounding like him, van Paemel says that he is successful because he is free -- free to paint whenever he wants. Sales of his portraits and landscapes and commissions give him an imcome. He keeps painting materials in his car and goes to the country at whim. Flanders' fields give him that freedom. "A man without land is nobody."

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