IT’S a bit too easy, in these islands, to get complacent about our history. To feel we’ve collared the market in heritage. Nobody does it better, as the theme song for The Spy Who Loved Me has it – “makes you feel sad for the rest”.
Yes, but in Bruges they aren’t exactly weeping. Just to walk the sparsely vehicled streets is to be clobbered by the past – and that was even before the BBC and their props department moved into town to spend the winter shooting The White Queen, their forthcoming adaptation of the Wars of the Roses novels by Philippa Gregory.
I was there in Bruges before them, hunting for that very world – writing a book, Blood Sisters, about the women behind the “Cousins’ Wars”. It’s a strange period, that changeover time between the medieval world of castles and clashing knights, and the dawn of the far more familiar 16th century. In Britain it’s oddly hard to find. But in Bruges you don’t even need to gaze at the turret on the Markt from which Margaret of York watched the tournaments in her honour, when she was brought here to marry the Duke of Burgundy. You don’t even need to buy an entrance ticket to the house where her brother, Edward IV, took refuge when he was deposed from his throne. The past – not some mouldering ghost but bustling, prosperous and full of energy – is there in the very layout of the streets, in the shops full, now as then, of covetable goodies.
I bought embroidered silk purses and some good modern jewellery; chocolates go without saying; you can keep the more obvious lace and embroidery. Back in 1468 John Paston wrote that for the splendour of the jewels he saw at the Bruges feasts, he “heard never of none like to it save King Arthur’s court ...” But then, he had just been fed on gilded swans, while trained monkeys tossed beads and purses to the company.
Edward IV and his younger brother, the future Richard III, stayed in what is now the Gruuthuse museum, with its carved angels and tranquil rooms flanked by waterways. From the private chapel of the Gruuthuse, a discreet window looks straight down into the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, the Church of Our Lady, and the golden tombs of the Burgundian ducal family.
But you can go one better than visiting the Gruuthuse. You can stay in the palace, or part of it, where Margaret of York lived, now the Kempinski Dukes’ Palace Hotel (www.kempinski.com). In a city stuffed with small boutique hotels, each dating back centuries, it might seem perverse that I picked a hostelry where the prevailing style is elegant modern luxury. But nothing beats eyeing the tower where Margaret slept amid tapestries of “marguerites” or daisies. And anyway, then as now, Bruges combined the pleasures of the past with cutting edge consumer desirability.
Yes, they play the history card for all it is worth here. If the actual streets aren’t enough for you there’s a new attraction called Historium (www.historium.be) which opened last month – seven multi-sensory rooms promising to introduce visitors to “the Magic of the Middle Ages”. De Tuilerieen (www.hoteltuilerieen.com) – recently voted best hotel in Belgium – proudly shows off the list of celebrity clients who have enjoyed its overstuffed armchairs and open fires while De Orangerie (www.hotelorangerie.be), built in a one-time convent, stands out for its dead-central location and terrace on the water. Die Swaene (www.dieswaene.com) uses what was the Guild Hall of the Tailors. The list goes on, and each entry would be notable in any other city. And yet Bruges doesn’t feel dead or dated, or – despite its gingerbread brick, its air of fantasy – in any sense twee. That’s the strength of the art all around you, maybe.
The first reason they called Bruges “Venice of the north” is the canals that circle and cross the city. The other thing the cities have in common is an extraordinary artistic heritage. We know less of the Northern than we do the Italian Renaissance, but that just means it hits you even more powerfully.
The Groeningemuseum, Bruges’s main gallery, contains some of the finest Flemish primitives. But it gets better than that, frankly. On the other side of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk is Sint-Janshospitaal, which did indeed function as a hospital from the 12th to the 19th century and still packs a powerful atmospheric wallop. In the old hospital church you’ll find a small museum, Memling in Sint-Jan, largely devoted to the works of that master. In The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine: the faces of the saints Catherine and Barbara may be those of Margaret of York, and her stepdaughter Mary of Burgundy. But the real point is, the faces all around you on those walls are the faces of people who could be alive today.
In the big open square of the Markt – which before Christmas holds a market and ice rink – the neo-Gothic city hall is giving the BBC crew a good stand-in for Westminster Palace. But it’s the Burg, two minutes away, which boasts of being one of the finest medieval squares in Europe. The glowing decorations inside the Basilica of the Holy Blood may date in part from the 19th century, but the great black chimneypiece in the main chamber of the Bruggemuseum-Brugse Vrije is a Renaissance masterpiece.
Bruges could easily feel claustrophobic, with its turrets and its teeming shops, but to the north east of the tiny centre the Sint-Anna district – what used to be the artisan area – has open streets of small houses, elegant in their simplicity. South by the Minnewater there’s the Lake of Love, with swans sailing on the dark water, while the green spaces of the Beginhof engender a memorable tranquility.
Founded in 1245 as a beguinage, a refuge for religious-minded women who stopped short of the full nun’s vows, it operated as such until very recently, and is still a Benedictine convent today. Past meets present, yet again – here, even the restaurants seem to be joining in the same story.
The eating in Bruges tends to be rich and satisfying, with sometimes unexpected combinations of flavours – the kind of thing you’d expect to find after a careful study of medieval cookery. Eel with herb sauce, or hare cooked with prunes; carbonnades and chicory. Cherry beer served warm on a cold day. Fries with mayonnaise, and waffles, in a more modern way. Breydel-De Coninck is the place for mussels, effectively Belgium’s national dish; Den Dyver is famous for its luscious warming dishes, with a selection of matching microbeers. It’s the kind of food you want in Bruges when in the winter the weather does tend towards the damp and chilly.
Not just in the winter, maybe... Margaret of York arrived in July but it was pouring anyway. The citizens were impressed that she still got drenched leaning out of the litter to wave to them; but give the girl credit, she knew what was expected, the demands of royal life are still the same today. It’s just another thing that hasn’t changed much since the 15th century.
But then, you get used to that in Bruges.
Blood Sisters: The Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood is out now (HarperPress, £20). The ten-part BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling Plantagenet novel The White Queen will be shown next year.