Fairyland in Flanders

Bruges

Fairyland in Flanders

I did not expect to meet the queen and the squares of this fairyland. But when even that came true...well, let me come to it later. First thing first.

Arriving after an hour’s ride from Brussels into the heartland of the Flemish speaking Flanders region of Belgium, my first stop in Bruges, and where my heart missed a beat, not for the last time, was at Minnewater — Lake of Love. A gentle wind caressed the sheen of the water, creating goosebumps of tiny ripples glistening in the morning sun. The branches of the trees around stooped shamelessly to kiss the water. A young couple was sitting cosily on the bank. For once, I longed to be young again.

Medieval experience

I left the lake behind and walked by the canal. Across it was a high wall zealously shielding a convent. But it wasn’t a convent all along. In the middle ages, women who vowed to celibacy and dedicated their lives to god without retiring from the world — known as Béguines — lived there as a commune. The last Béguine there died in 1926. Thereafter it belonged to the Benedictine sisters. I was startled at the promiscuous closeness of the romantic lake and the edifice of abstinence. Little did I know that this medieval town has more to startle.

The Market Square has not changed a whit since the 14th century. The criss-cross of narrow cobbled roads has restaurants, gift shops and chocolate shops on both sides. Chocolate is a national obsession in Belgium. Little wonder that Belgian truffles and pralines hold on to their high-seats at the dark brown alter of chocolates, even beside mighty European challenges from their German and Swiss fraternity. I walked into a chocolate shop and soon realised the pathetic dichotomy of my limited budget and insatiable greed. 

Wat‘er’ ways

After lunch, I decided to take a boat ride on the canal. A visit to Bruges, they say, is never complete unless seen from the canal. The long narrow boat ducked through bridges, one being 300 years old, and low enough to hit Mr Bachchan on the head even while sitting. It was a surreal ride as the medieval town, with its canal-side bay windows, ornate houses, church spires, all ambled passed in slow motion as the boat merrily purred and swayed on. From the low perspective of the canal the bay windows, even the simple ones, looked regal, the tall spires seemed to pierce the sky. 

After the ride, I jumped up to the street from the pier, and a spectacle of a parade greeted me. People had gathered on both sides of the street, while the volunteers and smiling police struggled to keep the street clear for the tableaus and marchers. The parade is an enactment of an ancient ritual, partly historical and the rest in the regalia of fantasy. I tried to capture in my camera a float of ancient mariners rowing a ship, reminiscent of the sea-faring and often stormy history of Flanders. Soldiers with captives marched next with a royal square thrown in the ensemble. The captives, their costume and make-ups notwithstanding, had a hard time acting distressed in that joyous setting. 

The spectators gave a scream of delight when the first fairy appeared at the curve of the street, and then again at the sight of the queen. It was time to bid adieu to Bruges. But by that time I was already a part of their medieval past and their meticulously preserved present — no less medieval. 

* Bruges is about an hour’s ride from Brussels on road or by train.
* For a better deal on food, look for restaurants in the bylanes, which are away from the market square.
* Boat and buggy rides are good ways to explore the city.
* Do not miss Michelangelo’s sculpture of Madonna & Child at Our Lady’s Church.

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