Burg Square (the smaller of the two in the town centre) is dominated by the 14th century Town Hall. Its exterior is a fantasy of carving; so delicate you’d swear it was piped in icing rather than hacked from stone. When I first saw illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages I assumed the castles in the background were fantasies. This building proves that they were very real.
Inside you’ll see a massive lower hall hung with the flags of Bruges medieval guilds; an important reminder that this city was built on commerce. The real treat, however, is upstairs.
The Middle Ages were dark and disdained until the Victorians did us the favour of rediscovering them. It was the 19th century architectural buffs who really realised that the era, at least for the wealthy, was colourful, sumptuous and comfortable. They went a bit mad "discovering" forgotten Medieval jewels across Europe. Often, they took a next step and "restored" them … usually a recreation a bit closer to Victorian fairy tale fantasy than historic reality. If you’re a purist, this disturbs you greatly. I dare anyone, however, to be too negative about the gothic fantasy the 19th century restorers brought to life here.
The sweeping arches are picked out in gold gilt that glistens beneath the modern spotlights. Every small area is coloured with some bright, magnificent pattern. Large spaces are filled with life-sized murals depicting historic moments and daily activities in medieval Bruges. The details in these paintings are striking. I must have spent at least two hours here, moving from scene to scene and "reading" the pictorial stories with rapt attention.
The Town Hall has regular opening hours but does shut down intermittently for weddings. No surprise! Anyone would want to get married in this sumptuous interior.
Just a few steps from the Town Hall is another gothic gem, the Basilica of the Holy Blood. It’s unusual in that it’s two stories. The top chapel, like the Town Hall, owes much of its present appearance to 19th century restoration. I find their work here pleasant, but less impressive. The relic after which the place is named is located here; a vial of what is supposed to be the blood of Christ, revealed to worshipers on special occasions and kept at other times in a sumptuous reliquary. Whether or not you believe in these things, you have to be impressed by the art that’s been created to venerate them.
It’s the lower chapel that really impresses me. It’s smaller, darker, more cramped. Dating from the 12th century, it’s built in the older Romanesque style that goes right back to the patterns of ancient Rome. It’s more like a magical cave than a building, a feeling that’s exacerbated by the contrast of the gold cloths and fittings of the altar, shining from the gloom. This highly atmospheric, almost secret, place creates a much more spiritual and mystical feeling for me the brighter, more ornate space upstairs.