I am not the discoverer of the fact that towns present as distinct a personality as do people, but the fact that they do has impressed me as one of the most interesting things in travel. You meet towns precisely as you meet people, and look forward to the meeting in the same way. Some places, such as most of the provincial towns of France, are utterly commonplace and come to bore one in just the same way as does the prolonged presence of uninteresting people. Some towns are homely, but companionable; some pique the curiosity by a certain intangible, vague sense of mystery; some allure by their beauty; others attract by their strangeness, just as does some person who is singled out from your acquaintances because of a strangeness in his ways or words or lines of thought which interest because they bring to you something new or different.
Thus have I come in many journeys to give the places I visit the human attributes; to visualize them in my memory as personalities, just as with the people I have met. In meeting a stranger the thought is always uppermost, ” Will he prove interesting? ” And so one leaves the hotel for the first time in a strange city with keen and lively interest, not for museums and churches, but for finding the soul of the place that he may know what manner of town it is. And this soul, this personality, is not made up wholly of the architecture, nor of the crowds on the street, nor of the beauty or otherwise of the situation, nor of the memory of the things that have happened there, but of all these things which fuse into an intangible yet appreciable something which, for want of a better name, may be called the personality of the place.
This personality is always a subtle thing. Sometimes it is hard to grasp, and sometimes it eludes you altogether, and then, though you know the streets by name, and can follow the byways at night, yet you cannot be said to know the town.
But Bruges is an easy city to get acquainted with. Its personality is not complex, awakening many and different emotions. It expresses itself simply and frankly. It is like a beautiful person who is now old and withdrawn from the activities of life, though still full of kindly interest in the world about him-a ruddyfaced old man, who wears a ready smile, and is full of wisdom and peace, whose presence is a benediction; for at Bruges you are happy and at rest.
A writer cannot hope to make his readers see the precise things that go to create this Bruges. He can define the personality, but he cannot describe all the elements that enter into it in such a way that he who reads will fully understand the why and wherefore. But admitting the effort is foredoomed to failure, still will I endeavor it, for Old Man Bruges is so lovable that everyone should know him.
First of all, there is the ever-present sense of the historical past. It is a haunting, following memory that is continually with you. There are few towns where a knowledge of the past is so necessary to an apprehension of the soul of the present. You cannot realize why the old man sits in the sun, content, unless you know the great things he did, the great part he played, back in the years of his prime.
Bruges was born on an unknown day, and through all the dread, gray centuries, after the fall of Rome had unloosed anarchy upon the earth, lay upon the river bank, a. few huts huddled round a ruined castle shadowed by a square church tower. Thither, in the middle of the eight hundreds, came that wild, fierce product of those rude times, Baldwin, first Count of Flanders, and thither with him came his wife, Judith, stepmother of England’s Alfred the Great, a woman kin to his own wild nature, a fit pair to build a State in those troubled days when iron will and reckless courage and a master mind were prime essentials for the work. Theirs was a definite ambition-to make a nation, and for its capital they converted Bruges into a walled city with four lofty gates.
For years, the fierce Norse pirates continued to sweep the channel seas; for years flame and war and death ravaged the mainland, but through it all Bruges sat in safety within its gates, and grew in wealth and numbers. From all over Europe merchants came, for a river led down to the sea, and Bruges was a central point for trade with England and all the coasts of France.
But while the city thus advanced, there was no corresponding increase in the cohesive spirit of nationality among the dwellers in the surrounding provinces, all of which were nominally subject to the Counts of Flanders. These provinces had been settled by Saxons impelled to migration at about the same time, and by the same forces that led our own Saxon ancestors to follow the leadership of Hengist and Horsa in their invasion of England. Back in their forest Saxon home these men had lived a life of great personal liberty. No feudal system bound them to the central authority of a king, as it did in France. The family, or, at most, its tribal outgrowth, was the source of power and object of allegiance, and as in Saxon England, so in Saxon Flanders, the people resented any serious attempt at government by any other authority than they themselves had created. This attitude of the Karls, as the Saxons in Flanders were called, was long respected by the Counts of Bruges. But after two centuries an unwise woman, then Countess, determined to centralize further the power of the State, an attempt that led to civil war, and, in the end, to a confirmation of the freedom of the Karls. But out of this came centuries of trouble and many deeds of blood, and the growth of rival factions that tore the State even as were rent the cities of Italy during the ages that because of such deeds men call the Dark.
There is no history more intense, more vivid and romantic than the history of Bruges, and the temptation is great to fill this chapter with the wild story of its days, and it is regretfully that there is given instead a bare epitome of results. Class warred with class, the country with the city, one city with another. Rulers were murdered or expelled. Foreign armies thundered at the gates. Time and again the streets were choked with dead, and the canals reddened with human blood. Liberty had its martyrs and tyranny its victims. But all the while the successes of its merchants grew apace; the city’s wealth increased; art flourished; commerce carried the name of Bruges throughout the world; and steadily but slowly liberty made headway and wrote itself, though only a sentence at a time, into the charters of Flemish cities, liberty that to this day remains in charters that still are law.
In time Bruges rivaled Venice as the world’s chief mart of trade, and there arose an architecture unique, beautiful; churches, public buildings, streets of gabled dwellings, all colored in soft, dull reds and cream, architecture that yet remains, and that has caused the town to be everywhere known as Bruges the Beautiful.
But how could this material prosperity coincide with the misery-making conditions of war and discord? And now in an apparently secure age Bruges has again looked upon war and violence, yet it is still Bruges, still the old citadel of impregnable charm. The people who inhabit it are still, in some astonishing way, prosperous and happy considering life as a timeless, flowing thing bringing blessing or torture.
But they must have taken life as it came, and made the most of days of grace. Besides, fighting and revolt and liberty and government were, after all, not the concern of the many, but of the few, and undisturbed, except when death found them, the masses lived on in their own little circle of affairs, and loved and hated and gossiped and endured, and blindly helped in building great cathedrals and stately towers, and, because they knew nothing different, I think, little realized how miserable they were.
In Bruges liberty and commercialism were one and inseparable. The various trades were early organized into Guilds, acquiring certain privileges of local selfgovernment by their charters from the State. The preservation of these chartered rights was essential for the development of their commerce, so that, when threatened by tyranny at home, or by invasion from abroad, these Guilds, commanding the wealth and intelligence of the city, were quick to assert themselves. If cynical, we might say that, after all, it wasn’t patriotism, but selfishness, that made them patriotic. But the result was the same-they served liberty, and served the State. In 1302, when the Battle of the Golden Spurs defeated the united attack of half of Europe upon Flemish freedom, it was the bravery of the Guilds of Bruges that decided the issue-Guilds that charged with silken banners flying, crying, ” For Flanders and the Lion.”
Thus through the years Bruges lived its part well and did great things for liberty, and fought many brave fights, and became prosperous and exceeding beautiful. But late in the fourteen hundreds trouble came. Its route to the sea filled up with sand, its trade lessened, the tribute levied by the conquering Maximilian absorbed its wealth. Then came Alva and his terrible Spaniards, and after that came exhaustion that many mistook for death, for even yet people speak of Bruges the Dead. But Bruges is not dead, but merely old, sitting in the sun in the serene contemplation of a long, full life.
But what is Bruges like today? What do you see, and whom do you see?
First of all, when coming up from Brussels or down from Ostend, you look from the railroad train and see two towers far lifted among some lesser ones, then by that token will you know that Bruges is near. These are the beautiful tower of St. Salvator and the famous belfry, sung by Longfellow and lesser poets by the score.
At the moment I do not recall a single street from the station in any city that is not a disappointment, and Bruges furnishes no exception to the rule. But here the commonplace thoroughfare is redeemed by the glory of its end, for it leads straight into the heart of Bruges, into the heart of the past, into the great square, where rises the strange and lovely belfry with the great so-called lantern round the top, over against which stand many ancient houses, fair examples of the art that made Bruges famous.
The shops that line the way are uninteresting, though most of the windows are filled with the lace for the making of which the town has long been noted, and there is a good deal of the brass and copper ware which is better and cheaper in Belgium and Holland than anywhere else in Europe. The dress of the people is for the most part cosmopolitan, such as you would see anywhere on the continent, or even in America. Occasionally, however, there is a distinctly foreign note. Here and there you pass a woman with a long, black cloak that falls to her feet, and is attached to and forms part of a large, black bonnet projecting over the face, somewhat in the manner of the cloaks worn by the barefooted native women of the Azores. Blackrobed priests with black shovel hats hurry back and forth. Peasant women in short, full black skirts, with close-fitting white caps on their heads, follow carts drawn by two or three large dogs in harness. Little boys in suits of rusty black play at leapfrog, and other boys sedately come from school dressed in black, short, tight trousers and half-hose, a short black coat, a broad Eton collar, and a derby hat. Among the well-to-do, boys dress thus till eighteen or nineteen years of age, a.custom common to much of Europe.
These Belgians are fond of black; nowhere else have I seen such a profusion of crape. Frequently one will meet a woman decked in intensest mourning, her heavy crape veil falling entirely to her feet, not only in front, but in the back as well, so that she is completely swathed in it. A Belgian crowd is a somber one, but the exquisite color of Bruges, the soft creams and reds of the bricks that are exclusively used in the buildings, the green of the trees, and the opal shimmer of the water in the canals form a relieving background.
Away from the bustle of the main streets peacefulness is the dominant note. You sense this the moment you come out on the great square. True, a tramway runs along the side, and from the fronts of cafes, tables and chairs spread out upon the pavement, and in one corner is a very dreadful moving picture show, where a maddening bell clamors hideously during the early evening, but in spite of all this, the presence of the towering belfry fills the place like a benediction, and the ancient buildings standing there convey to my mind in some mysterious way the fantastic notion that they are alive, and they seem so solemn and so beautiful that the square falls silent-you do not hear the tram, and the wicked bell, nor the children at their play.
If you would see Bruges, do not drive. Bruges is an entity, it grows upon you slowly, you must take it deliberately. First of all, take a boat and make the round of its waterways, watch the spires reflected in the willow-swept surface; note the play of color as the steeply gabled fronts of Sixteenth-Century houses are mirrored back; see how the graceful bows of the low bridges arch above you. With ever recurring view of picturesquely grouped tower and gable and bridge you will glide by tree-shaded banks and come finally to the Beguinage, a wonderful parklike place, filled with great trees and of infinite stillness and charm. Here come and go sweet-faced sisters, and here artists are always working.
These Beguinages are, I believe, peculiar to Belgium and Holland, at least they are far more numerous in these countries than elsewhere. George Wharton Edwards, in his book, Some Old Flemish Towns, thus refers to them with special reference to the noted one at Bruges:
” These communities consist of spinsters or often widows, who take none or few of the oaths binding them to the church, and, save for their own conscience, may return at any time to their homes. They are said to pay a stated sum of money into the funds of the order upon entering, and after a period of probation along with the novices, they are assigned to the small houses within the walls, where each Beguine occupies private apartments with her own grated door in the wall, whereon her church name is emblazoned, for she takes a new name upon entering the order. Their days are spent in making lace, educating poor children and caring for the sick and needy. The order is under the care of a Mother Superior appointed by the Bishop. The oldest Beguinage is in Bruges, founded in the Thirteenth Century. Here, on a lovely sheet of water, mirroring the gables and the soft, velvety greenness of the trees, is one of the most delightful spots in the country.”
From a little lake dominated by a tower that has stood at guard six hundred years or more, the waterway flows beside the ancient ramparts of the city, where smooth walks lead under great trees, and flowers color the sod, and so you will go on and on into new beauties, ever glad you are at Bruges.
There are few more fascinating spots in any city than the quiet, tree-shaded square of the Place Bourg, with the bells chiming from the nearby belfry tower, and the afternoon light falling upon the quaint and gorgeously gilded front of the Law Courts with its arched opening, ” a northern Bridge of Sighs,” someone has called it, whence leads a narrow passage to the street beyond. Adjoining this is the irregular facade of the town hall, set about with ancient statues, and at right angles is the curious little chapel of the Sacred Blood, the lower story of which is near a thousand years old. The place is very still for the heart of a city, and seldom are buildings so old, so historic and so beautiful found in so choice a setting, where one can sit at ease and watch them.
Every street that radiates from this charmed spot is lined with stepped gable houses, centuries old, all of soft-hued brick, but the walk of greatest fascination will lead you under the ” Bridge of Sighs,” and over a canal where swans glide, and into another square where stands the pillared fish-market, and where, across the water, the irregular pile of the Law Courts makes a picture that artists love to paint.
Then you go along the ever-charming Quai Vert by water crossed by the frequent arch of bridges, and where, at every corner, an artist and his easel stand, on to the right and down the poorer, but none the less picturesque, quarters where the lace-makers sit at work in the street, their shuttles flying back and forth with incredible rapidity.
This making of lace is the one great industry of Bruges, and gives thousands of women employment, not in factories, but in their homes. The wages paid are absurdly small, but the houses they support are far neater than are maintained in the poorer quarters of an American city. Flowers and curtains are at the windows, and women and children look happier and more satisfied than do so many of our own manual workers. They gather in groups and laugh and gossip at their work. There is always more laughter and more apparent happiness in all Europe, save Portugal, than in America, and, frankly, I sometimes wonder, when contrasting the contented-looking Bavarian countrymen with some of the sharp-featured farmers of our plains, or the smiling Italian loafer with our sullen longshoreman, or these lace-makers of Bruges with some of our caresmitten factory girls – I wonder wherein the emigrant finds the gain.
There are few cities whose churches and galleries are so rich in beautiful and unusual works of art, and while I believe that in most towns the streets and squares form the truest and most interesting gallery and museum, yet the traveler will lose much if he fails to find some of these wonderful painted pictures that hang on the walls of Bruges.
This is particularly true of the unique work of Memling, an artist that to a layman’s eye possesses such subtlety of color and of form, and such extraordinary deftness of execution as to characterize him as definitely as does the work of Rembrandt or Murillo proclaim those artists. In the Hospital of St. John these pictures of his are gathered. Most remarkable of all is The Shrine of St. Ursula. Of such amazing fineness, of such delicate and miniaturelike texture are the paintings that cover its sides, that even a magnifying-glass, always used in its examination, fails to reveal the brush strokes. The painting itself must have been done by the help of a glass, as a tear upon the cheek of one of the figures is almost invisible until magnified, when it assumes a perfect globular form. I am not deciding whether this is art, but I do know that it is interesting, and that it is beautiful in a way that is all its own.
Of all the romances, and there are many, that fill the pages of the history of Bruges, the story of Baldwin of Constantinople is the most dramatic. At the close of the eleven hundreds, Baldwin, last of the race of the city’s founders, ruled in Flanders. After ruling well, judged by the standards of those wild old days, he took the cross, with many of his knights, and set forth upon the crusade that, with the dawn of the Thirteenth Century, sent the armed hosts of Europe to capture Jerusalem from the Infidel. The story of that crusade is a romance of itself. The mighty walls of Zara, a Christian city on the Adriatic’s shore, were leveled by this Christian host at bequest of the Doge of Venice, and then sweeping to the south the vast fleet of the crusaders besieged Constantinople, and Constantinople fell, and Baldwin became the Emperor of the East. For a year he wore the purple, and from the throne of Constantine ruled with the pomp and splendor of an Oriental fairy tale. Then came revolt and battle, and silently, mysteriously the Emperor disappeared from the sight and knowledge of the world. One moment he was seen fighting like a lion before the walls of Adrianople, the next instant he was gone. He was not among the slain; he had vanished. And back in Bruges his daughter, Jeanne, reigned in his stead. The years went on, and the people hated Jeanne, and wandering minstrels sang songs of the ruler of Bruges who for a year had been an Emperor of strange peoples and of distant lands. Twenty years had come and gone, and then a rumor spread out among the peasants and came to be whispered in the market-place, and discussed even in the circles of the Court. In a cave, deep in the forest, was dwelling an ancient man, a hermit, but there were those who had looked upon the face of Baldwin on that far day when, in the great cathedral of Bruges, he took the vow of the crusader, and who had glimpsed this unknown hermit, and they said And secretly, in twos and threes, others rode out to see, and the story grew and would not down, and one day they brought the hermit forth, and all Flanders rose to him even as one man, and the cities threw wide their gates, and he entered Bruges, clad again in his imperial purple, with the crown of empire on his head, and the peo ple wept for joy. But his daughter denied him, and fled to France. Then Baldwin told his tale. He had been wounded in the battle and taken prisoner. A barbarian maiden nursed him back to life and loved the man she saved. Fertile in resource, she planned escape together, and they fled. But the Emperor refused to keep his vow to marry her. It would be wicked to marry a pagan woman; so he killed her, and struggled on to reach his home. Again captured, he was sold into slavery, and for years endured just punishment for his sin -an Emperor harnessed to a plow with an ox for a fellow. But finally he again escaped, and, as is usually the case, conscience strengthened as the body failed, so he sought a cave and a hermit’s life. However, vox populi vox Dei, and if the people really insisted, why-and Baldwin reigned again in Bruges as Count of Flanders. Now the King of France was crafty, and having espoused the cause of Baldwin’s daughter, he sent safe escort to ” my great and good friend, Baldwin, Emperor of Constantinople and Count of Flanders,” and an invitation to visit the French court. This invitation the Count accepted, and with a gleaming retinue of knights, and clad all in purple and gold, came to the King of France, who met him with great ceremony and a lying tongue. But Baldwin was a wise old man, and even that night he let himself down from his window and fled in the darkness, and paused not by night or day till the Flemish frontier was crossed. Then the King of France sent his people through the Flemish towns, and this man they bought, and this one they deceived, and presently treason was rife, and the old man’s courage failed and he fled before the coming of his daughter’s soldiers, but she caught him and she ” hanged him in chains on a gibbet at Lille between two hounds.”
But was it her father Jeanne hanged, or did he die before the walls of Adrianople, and was the hermit of the cave an arrant impostor? Those who could answer this question have been dead seven hundred years.
Now, if you like this story, there is written many another true romance of Bruges; there is the tale of the Battle of the Golden Spurs, and the Story of Charles the Terrible, and of the Last Mass of Charles the Good, and of How Proud Bertulph was Crucified in the Market-Place, and of How the Vial of Precious Blood was Lost and Found Again, and The Love Story of Bourchard d’Avesnes, and when you have read these and many more, Bruges will seem no mere town of brick and stone, but as are long days of tales told by the Old Man who sits now in the sun and talks of the things that he saw in his youth, and tries to forget the all too recent tread of alien and invading hosts passing under his majestic belfry.