St. Servaas Basilica

My last week in Netherlands the weather turned cold and rainy. That depressing gray drizzle that you can walk about in, go to the grocery store or bank in, but you would rather lounge on the sofa, drinking hot Jasmine tea, and reading the second book in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexandar McCall Smith. Sounds ideal, but instead I found myself catering to bored, cabin-fevered children. Oh, if only Nickelodeon’s “Wonder Pets” could have played all day. Plus N had business trips to Switzerland and Sweden.

Coming back from Switzerland, he and his GPS girlfriend had a falling out. I knew it would be so–those intense love affairs burn out so quickly. He had refused to slavishly follow her desires. They got into a fight in the snowy Ardennes; and she said in that crisp, clear voice of hers “unable to navigate further” and shut off.

Ah well…

I went back into old city of Maastricht to visit the St. Servaas Basilica built upon the remains of Saint Servatius buried in 384.

I wrote a small piece to my friend about the experience. I will include it here:

I’m drawn to old places of worship, even those small, harsh churches in the rural places with the straight boards painted white and stove to heat the cold congregations. The air is thicker in these places. I feel buoyant, like in waters of old prayers–the most earnest of prayers–still bleeding, vivid, not diluted to benign by some reproduction of print technology. N feels this tangible energy at battlefield sites. Sometimes he knows he is on a battlefield before he even stumbles across a placard or marker. We make quite a traveling pair.

Saint Servaas Basilica was empty except for my family and the two kind ladies cleaning Mary as the “Seat of Wisdom” with rags. How casually their hands wiped the sacred object I just read about in the little brochure the man in the booth gave me.

This basilica, a rather plain, unspectacular specimen compared to its neighboring cathedrals, held a special treat for me, the music lover. The organist was practicing that afternoon. I remembered my college choir director explaining the composers of old wrote music for these cavernous cathedrals and basilicas, knowing the sound drifted to the ceiling and echoed in the concaves. Listen to a “Palestrina” piece sung by “Tallis Scholars” on YouTube. As I watched the organist’s fingers twist about the keyboards, above me, these invisible analog waves played, splashing about, making joyful noises in the ceiling.

Once workers had hoisted themselves to these heights to install the ceiling. In 1500, they didn’t have OSHA regulations; these men risked their lives to put a brick in place.

Again a mystery returns to me, some epiphany I can’t seem to articulate. It started in the Bruges Cathedral. This is an edge of it:

My eyes will pass over the massive stain glass; and I will think how majestic, how beautiful the warm reds and oranges shine like sunlight refracted in rain onto the dark stone interior. I will not come closer to study the tiny detail one skilled hand must have labored over to craft the flowing folds of Jesus’ sleeve as he held up the cup of his blood. In a matter of seconds, I will pass the window of Jesus at the last supper to another stain glass masterpiece: the ever redundant scene of Jesus on Mary’s lap. In my mind’s messy file system, these windows will merge to a single amalgamation of all the stain glass I have ever seen.

But I must be reverent in these places, even if I don’t appreciate the position of Jesus’ falling sleeve, or remember the exact gold sculpture of Jesus on the cross hovering over the altar. For in the concaves above me echo the ernest prayers of brick layers, composers, stain glass masters, pilgrims crawling on their knees, and generations of worshipers.

Bruges – Tourist Trap Since the 1800s.

As someone living in a congested metro area, I can handle some bad traffic—five o’clock on Friday, one mile in one hour kind of traffic. But after having been repeatedly stuck on the bahn for entire days with a screaming child and don’t even mention the torturous hours of the French truckers strike, when the sexy Peugeot GPS warns of traffic on the outer perimeter of Brussels, we, like frightened animals, scurried to recalculate the GPS.

Now some people fall in love with their spouses all over again in exotic locations like Bermuda or the Rivera, but my love flamed for my husband when the jealous GPS sent us through downtown French-speaking Brussels. Where the round-abouts resemble those running of the bull scenes, except with cars.  It was almost as sexy as the time I made N drive through Paris.

Finally, we emerged from the tunnels running under Brussels and looked up at the bahn above us. No traffic. Everything seemed to running fine out of the city.  GPS bitch! (As I write, it’s just my husband and the GPS, alone, driving to Switzerland. She made him drive through downtown Liege. I feel this little love affair is coming to an end. N has mentioned the M word to her. Map)    

So after three restroom stops, including the one giving away free balloons (curse you, Autogrill) we came to the outskirts of Bruges. The day took on this magical glow, like some Disney fairy came down and touched our children with her wand and said “behave.” We parked (always an adventure in those whirly European parking decks), settled into our hotel room with the timbered ceiling, and then walked through the city a little before sunset. In the town center, we flagged down a waiting carriage tour driver and clopped through the streets as the sinking sun reflected off the canals.

Why is Bruges so special? Well, according my indepth research in the “Illustrated Guide to Bruges” and what the carriage driver told me, it is because the old center was preserved intact, never bombed out or torn down for modern buildings.  Bruges comes from “harbor” or such in Norse. The Vikings first arrived in the nine century, doing the thing that Viking do best: pillage. (My Scandinavian in-laws claim that the Vikings have been badly maligned—that they were just peaceful farmers! ) As a port town, Bruges thrived in the 15th century on trade and textile. The Duke of Burgundy, members of the Medicci family, as well as famous artists came to Bruges. But then the port silted up, and the party was over. The rich and famous packed their bags for Antwerp, and Bruges went dormant. Stricken by poverty, nothing changed in Bruges for hundreds of years, even the industrial revolution happening in the neighboring cities had no affect.

The Bruges tourist industry began when a group British Napoleonic War veterans returned to Waterloo. Passing through scenic Bruges, they realized their war pensions could buy a great deal more of beautiful, poor Bruges than England.

It was Bruges’ very beauty that kept it from being destroyed in WWII, when German Commander Immo Hopman refused to carry out orders from his superiors to bomb the city.

The first night there, we took the children to a “fancy “ restaurant. We were quite nervous after several dinner disasters in the past, but we had a lovely time and the food was wonderful. N ordered Langostino in butter, garlic, and herbs, and I got this amazing fish soup, the stock had that mellow distinct taste of well-simmered fish meat, bones, and shells. The children gorged themselves on fresh bread dipped in the Langostino’s buttery sauce. (N tells me Langostino is sadly depleted in North America because it is the ingredient in Captain D’s fried lobster bits!)

Of course, nothing gold can stay, and the next morning started off with dragging a crying child, hyped up on complimentary hotel chocolate, away from the television showing an interesting team sport of pedaling whimsically decorated bicycle-like vehicles over a balance beam suspended above canal water. The goal was to cross the beam and ring the bell in the shortest amount of time. Ninety percent of the vehicles fell in the water.  It seemed more fun to fail than to succeed.

The rationale I gave my child was “you will only be in Bruges a few times in your life, if ever again.” Which actually didn’t make sense, because I doubt my child will ever see strange water-bicycle sport again either. Hmm, will have to look up Flemish water sports on youtube.

The weather was amazing, that sunny first crack of spring. The town swelled with people. We clutched our children’s hands tight for fear of them being taken out by a bicycle, vespa, horse, or car. They whined and begged for chocolate, french fries, boat tours, horse tours, to play in traffic, and run around the central statue.

We passed over the oldest bridge in Bruges which led to the Church of Our Lady Bruges. The church houses the tomb of the Duke of Burgundy. Of interest to the artists amongst us is the Michelangelo statue. The cathedral is physically connected to the Gruuthuse, the home of a wealthy brewmaster. There was a special room with “theater seats” where the Brewmaster and his family could sit and look down at religious services without leaving their home.  The Gruuthouse is now a museum.

After the cathedral outing, we gave in to the canal tour. Quite enjoyable.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood supposedly has a relic with Christ’s blood brought back from the Crusades. It would turn to liquid every Friday until 1325. It’s been dried up ever since. The basilica is a beautiful and intimate space.

At St. Salvator’s Cathedral, I found myself pulling away from the straight on, lined up camera shots, to show the layered complexity of the structure. Like a labyrinth, an edge of a mystery from every vantage point. 

The famous Groeninge museum displaying world famous Flemish Art was closed at the time we visited, so I was relieved as I didn’t have to pretend to be sophisticated and knowledgeable about Flemish art. We gave in to the begging children (and our own inner childs) and set out for chocolate.  Bruges is a chocolate wonderland, and I had to be careful choosing gifts as my friends (A, D, and M) are chocolate snobs. They speak in terms of chocolate as others speak of wine – “Such complexity and depth, I can detect a hint of lavender and orange.”  Based on N’s research, we shopped at Gallers and Dumon’s. Dumon’s is a small family owned chocolatier. The owner asks the English speaking customers if they know Rick Steves’, then points out the Rick Steves’ family Christmas Cards on display. In all, we came back to Maastricht with over 4 kilos of chocolate. At least, that is what N told me, you know I can’t do the metric thing!