Blog Image

Stories of Bruges

More stories to tell

There are so many stories to tell about Bruges (and Belgium) so this is where you'll find them.

If you want to get a personal tour filled with other stories... Reservations can be made.

If you have a request (walk or story), ask through mail ( and I'll look it up for you !

End of WWI

Historical moments Posted on Sun, November 11, 2018 15:17:35

November 11th1918 was the official end of World War I. In a forest near the French city Compiègne, about 80 kilometres north of Paris the cease-fire was achieved.
As of 11am that morning there were no battles fought. The real end of WWI was in 1919 with the Peace-treaty of Versailles.

Negotiations started already a couple of days earlier, but an agreement was reached on November 11that 5am. The cease-fire would start at 11am, so there were still six hours to go.

The news spread very fast over the world and the morning editions on the East coast of the US headlined ‘End of the war”. In Paris the street lanterns were illuminated after years of not using. All over the world people came on the streets to celebrate.

The 26thAmerican division at the Maas-Argonnen front had prepared to attack on that morning at 9.30am. At 9.10am the news reached the division to stop all warfare starting at 11am. The planned attack was cancelled. At 10.30am the order came to have the attack go through any way.

This was no rarity on the morning of Armistice. Until the very last moments of WWI there was fights. The South Africans, located North of Mons would stay under German machinegun fire until exactly 11am. At 11am they saw the German soldier who operated the machinegun stand up, take off his helmet and make a bow in their direction. He then turned around and walked away.

Some officers would cancel attacks due to fog or some other excuse, while many pushed through. Stenay, the last French city would be conquered by American troops, with 300 fatalities in this attack.

The last British soldier, George Ellison, would die that morning at 9.30am. Around 10.50am the French courier Augustin Trebouchon died. He was bringing the message of the cease-fire and that soup would be brought at 11.30am. If you see his grave, you’ll see that he died on November 10th, as for all other French troops who died on that day. This to avoid annoying questions from families.

At 10.58am the Canadian soldier George Price died near Mons. This was also at the location where the first British soldiers died in 1914.

The last Belgian military was probably Marcel Terfve. At 10.42am he was hit in the chest, dying 3 minutes later.

The American soldier Henry Gunther of the 31stInfantry Regiment was with his unit in an attack at Romagne in the Argonnen that morning. According to general William Nicholson they must keep the attack going until exactly 11am. At 10.55am private Gunther leads his platoon. At 10.59am Henry Gunther falls… one minute later, November 11th, 11am all guns stop…

St Salvators Cathedral

Places & buildings Posted on Tue, February 27, 2018 18:05:03

This is the
cathedral of the city. As you know, there’s only one in Bruges. This may be
known, but the difference between a church and a cathedral is only one little
detail. This detail can’t be seen from the outside, but you need to go inside
to find it.
Inside there’s the “cathedra” or the seat of the Bishop. When a Bishop is
seated (and sometimes does services) in a church, this is considered as a
So size had nothing to do with it!

No, this
cathedral is about 80 meter high, while the close-by Church of Our Lady is
about 120 meter!

Saint Eligius

to legend the founder of this church was Saint Eligius… He is born in Frnace
around 588 and died on December 1st 660. He’s the patron of
goldsmiths, metalworkers, mechanical engineers and coin collectors. Most of his
life he lived in France, but started out as a goldsmith. When he made a throne
of gold, decorated with jewels kind Clotaire II paid a royal salary to Eligius
who… donated the money to the man who learned him the profession of goldsmith.
Eligius became mint master and later most influential advisor of the French
kings Clotaire II and Dagobert

In 632
Eligius had a monastery built and lived a devoted life. When Dagobert died
Eligius was ordained, in 640 he became Bishop. When we go inside, I’ll show you
a sculpture of Eligius with his miter (of being Bishop), but also you’ll find
another attribute of a bishop: a crosier (kromstaf).
One nice legend about the life of Eligius is the one of “the removable
horse-leg”. Yes, I know!

At young
age Eligius already knew how to work as a metalworker. He worked for a
blacksmith boss who was really full of himself. This man had a sign that said
“Master of masters” at his workshop. One day, a resistive horse was brought in
the workshop, but even the master of masters couldn’t handle this feisty
animal. Eligius however walked up to the horse, took off the leg of the animal,
brought the leg to the anvil and put on a new horseshoe. Then returned to the
animal with his leg, attached it back where it should be and the animal quietly
walked out the workshop.

blacksmith boss didn’t want to be lesser than his apprentice so when a next
difficult animal came in, he tried this little trick himself… The poor animal
started bleeding severely and the master didn’t know what to do and turned to
Eligius. He said that the boss really should remove the sign… When this was
done, the bleeding stopped, Eligius returned the leg at its place and the horse
could leave the workshop unharmed. The blacksmith was learned a lesson and
didn’t consider himself a master of masters any more.

But, why
Eligius? Well, I told you the legend says he was the founder of this church…
But the first church that stood here was erected around 850. That’s about, oh…
190 years after he died. So he couldn’t have been the founder. But you do find
some of his images in the cathedral, still today.

St Salvators church in 1802

else is strange, two churches this close to one another… Some brochures will
tell that the canal was the border between the two dioceses, but then the
Church of our Lady is on the wrong side!

There were
several fires in this building. The first was in 1116 and a new building is
erected after this. You can still see some of the first stones on the lower
levels at the front gate.

in 1183 a second fire hits the church, so they restore the church and build a
first tower that is about 45 meter high.

In 1358 a
third fire strikes and the tower is heavily damaged. Parts of this tower were
covered in the renovations then.

the ages the church expands, a choir is built, later an ambulatory is needed.
In 1580 the Iconoclastic Fury comes to our regions and several works of art are
When they restore the church afterwards, the brilliant plan of painting the
interior of the church in white! So the paintings and polychrome are lost.

The end of
the 17th century the rood screen (doksaal) is built, but where it
should be, between the choir and transept.

With the
French period the church is sold publicly, parishioners buy the building and
use a nice trick… They ask to postpone the payment over and over again. Until
there is the treaty of Amiens, ending the war between French and English. So
the church was never paid for!

In 1834 the
church gets the title of cathedral. When the French sold the St
Donatiuscathedral on the Burg square, this couldn’t be saved so the diocese
(bisdom) of Bruges ceased to exist then. But in 1834 it was refounded and we
needed a new cathedral.
There’s always been a competition between St Salvators and the Church of Our
Lady. St Salvators won because it’s the oldest… It won with only 25 years!

But, the
new cathedral didn’t have the grandeur it should have.
The fire in 1839

Can we
speak of a divine intervention? It’s a strange one maybe, because in 1839 a
fourth fire breaks out and destroys the larger part of the building. Roofs came
down, a part of the tower came down, several works of art lost… But, we could
build a “new” cathedral.

End of the
19th century there are neo-gothic wall decorations painted, and in
1935-36 the rood screen is moved to its current location.

In 1989
renovations begin on the outside, finished in 2009. In that same year the
renovations inside are started. They were supposed to be ready in 2012… but
just so you know, inside it took them 5 years longer than planned.

If you
want, we can go inside. I can show you the mural paintings of angels (1480),
Peter (1500) and the neo-gothic decorations from the 19th century.

Also the
rood screen from 1679 in marble is really impressive. You see a God that has
motion in it.

The rood screen

The pulpit
(preekstoel) is a nice piece as well, where you see St Eligius as bishop with
his tools. This work is from 1777.
The pulpit

Today, the
renovations –that took over 5 years- inside are almost finished. A cathedral
well worth a visit.

Jan van Eyck, our most important painter

Historical figures Posted on Thu, February 15, 2018 13:30:22

When you
visit the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, you can’t miss the painting by Jan van
Eyck; Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele.

Jan van
Eyck was one of the Early Netherlandish painters (Flemish Primitives). This
group of artists worked in the 15th and beginning of the 16th
century in flourishing cities as Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai and Brussels.
Some of the most known names were Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes,
Hans Memling, Dirk Bouts and Gerard David.
In those centuries the Southern part of the Netherlands was the centre of
economic and political power. With all those trading partners converging in
that area these artists soon made name and fame in all of Europe.

Jan van
Eyck introduced a style that was never seen before. With an unprecedented eye
for the tiniest detail, a perception-based view of the visual reality. It is
remarkable that the innovations of van Eyck run surprisingly similar with the
developments in Florentine paintings. There are a lot of speculations on the
ties between van Eyck and his Italian colleagues, but tangible proof is still

Portrait of a man (supposed self-portrait)

Jan van
Eyck is also the personification of the transition from an anonymous, modest
painter to an educated, self-aware and famous individual. He put his signature
and a date on many of works, on the frame or hidden in the painting. His motto
“Als ich can” (roughly translated to “If I can”) is found on several frames.
All this points to the fact he was proud and aware of his standing and
craftsmanship, an attitude that will become typical for the artists of the

Where Jan
van Eyck was born is uncertain. The family name could refer to the Belgian city
Maaseik. And it’s generally accepted that this could indeed be the birthplace
of little Jan. Some documents dating from the 16th century confirm
this assumption.

However the
Township of Arendonk has also strong arguments in which it claims to be the
birthplace of little Jan. Art-historical the exact birthplace or origin of a
painter was less important. Less important than the place where he learned his
profession. And when I look at the statements this Township makes, they could
be right.
In the Altarpiece of Ghent (Lam Gods) there is a prophet kneeling (centre
panel) with an open book. The text reads: “Iste
erat electus alios eligi nec licet testis deest et eis esto testis est igitur
Jan van der Moelnere ex Arendonca civitate
”. This handwritten text by Jan
van Eyck names the nickname Van der Moelen. This name that be found in the town
documents of Arendonk, next to the signature of Jan van Eyck…

Also when
Jan van Eyck was born is controversial. There are no authenticated sources that
can verify anything. So everything is done through interpretations of the
documented events during the life of Jan van Eyck. There is a document that
states that Hubert – the brother of Jan – was born around 1366 and that Jan was
considerably younger. Today the year 1390 is the most accepted date of birth
for little Jan.

The first
documents telling us where Jan van Eyck was, date back to 1422. Then he was
already named a “Master”, had one assistant and worked for Jan van Beieren,
Duke of Holland and living in Den Haag (The Hague). When Jan van Beieren died
in 1425, Jan van Eyck moved to Bruges. Documents tell us that on May 19th
1425 Jan van Eyck was the court painter of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (grandfather
of Mary of Burgundy, whom I mention several times during my walk).

In August
of 1426 Jan van Eyck is paid for two trips in order of Philip the Good. The
first is a pilgrimage he makes in the place of the Duke. The second trip
however is classified as a “secret mission”, bringing the artist to “distant
countries”. Nothing more is mentioned in the documents found. It is suspected
that Jan van Eyck travels to the Holy Land, passing Italy and further on to the
Ottoman Empire.

Jan stayed
in Tournai from 1427 until 1432. On May 6th 1432 the Altarpiece of
Ghent is ready. The son of Philips the Good and Isabella of Portugal, Joos van
Gent is baptised there on that day. Unfortunately shortly after, in 1434, Joos
van Gent dies. It is also in 1432 Jan van Eyck settled permanently in Bruges.
His house and workshop was in the Gouden Handstraat 6.

In 1434 he
paints the Arnolfini Portrait and it’s assumed he receives the order for Virgin
and Child with Canon van der Paele, that he finishes in 1436.
In 1436 he goes on another “secret mission” for the Duke of Burgundy. He must
have been a type of James Bond!
In the years that follow he makes more works. One thing I found strange… Next
to a couple of secret missions I also found a payment for “some panels and
other secret objects” in 1440. He really was a spy, I think.

Jan van
Eyck died on July 9th 1441 and was buried on St Donathian’s
Cathedral cemetery. In 1442 the body was moved to the choir inside the

bringing name and fame to Bruges, it is safe to say Jan van Eyck was one of our
most important painters ever.

Today, his
works can be found all over the world. In Belgium there are two works in
Bruges, two in Antwerp and the Altarpiece in Ghent. But in Berlin, Dresden,
Frankfurt, Vienna, Rotterdam, Paris, Madrid, London, Turin, Sibiu, New York,
Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington you can admire his works. Except for
Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and London I haven’t seen other works. Have you noticed
them and did you know it was a Flemish artist you were looking at?

I’ll be telling you more about a couple of his works, as the symbolism is sometimes really fun!

Bruges La Morte

Historical figures Posted on Tue, February 13, 2018 20:39:37

Georges Rodenbach and Bruges La Morte

Georges Rodenbach was born in Doornik in 1855, son of a family with German origins.
Patriarch Ferdinand (1714-1786) was a chirgan with the Austrian army, who
settled in Ypres after the marriage with Catharina Vanden Bossche.

The name Rodenbach may sound familiar to the beer lovers amongst you, and you are right. One of the grandsons of Ferdinand was the founder of the known beer Rodenbach.

Georges lived in Ghent, went there to school and university. He graduated in law in 1878, but before passing the bar in Ghent he first went to Paris to improve his legal competences. In Paris he mostly spent his free time in literary salons to make friends with numerous poets and writers. It was no secret that Georges was a writer of poems and novels himself. In that year in Paris he wrote 21 “Lettres Parisiennes” (Letters from Paris) for the catholic Brussels weekly “La Paix”.

Feeling homesick he returned to Ghent and started working as a lawyer. Disappointed in his work, his love for the literary arts prevails. He keeps close contacts with the Brussels literary circle “L’Union Littéraire”, where he becomes friends with Caroline Popp, writer and publisher of “Journal de Bruges”. This friendship is so strong he spends the entire summer of 1884 with her in Bruges, getting the important impressions of the city of Bruges.

Georges is so disappointed in his work as lawyer in Ghent, that he moved to Brussels to work there as a lawyer. But again is love and passion for the literary arts wins and in 1888 he leaves Belgium and moves to Paris to become a fulltime writer and poet. He moved in different artistic circles where he made friends with some prominent people; Mallarmé, Daudet, Rodin…

He also started working for the liberal newspaper “Le Figaro” where he wrote several serials on cities as Ghent, Middelburg and… Bruges.

It is in the format of a serial that Rodenbachs most known work is published for the first time. Bruges La Morte tells the story of widower Hugues Viane, looking for the shadow of his deceased wife and is attracted to Bruges. One of the rooms of his house on the Rozenhoedkaai is devoted to his wife; with several portraits and in a glass shrine a lock of hair of her. To pass the time he made long walk through the city. During one of these walks he meets a woman whom is the spitting image of his wife. He becomes friends with her. Turns out she’s an actress and her name is Jane Scott.
During their dates Hugues seeks the traits of his deceased wife. Somehow he has her moving in to one of his houses just outside the centre of the city.
However, soon Jane gets bored in this bizarre relationship and goes out in
search for more enjoyable company. In Bruges gossip about this widower and actress starts. With months passing by, Hugues discovers more and more differences between Jane and his wife. When Jane discovers the room with portraits and lock of hair, she confronts him with this and everything goes wrong. He strangles her with the lock of hair.

What made this work special? The main character in this book isn’t Hugues Viane, but the city. The bells of the Belfry, the Beguinage, the atmosphere of the city… It all plays an important part in the setting.

But the people of Bruges didn’t appreciate the book! It was published on February 4th – 14th 1892. This was the moment Bruges took on the plans to
(re)connect with the sea and expanding its harbour (Zeebrugge). Just then this writer from Paris wrote a book with “dead” in the title! Also the colorless setting isn’t something the people of Bruges liked.
Also there was the language in which it was written; French. The Flemish-fanatics accused the writer of immoral, obscene and anti-religious
thoughts, having the descriptions of the relationship between Hugues and Jane in mind. Maybe difficult to understand today, don’t forget that people had a totally different view on love and relationships in those times.

While Rodenbach didn’t want to put a 100% accurate realistic image of the city on paper. He only wanted to vent his personal feelings, feelings of melancholy in which Bruges formed a perfect frame for this.
It is however without a doubt that Rodenbach –maybe unwillingly and without realizing- boosted tourism in Bruges. It is a paradox but Rodenbach didn’t want to depict Bruges as a dead city. He fought this controversy by adding a foreword in reprints of Bruges La Morte, trying to explain his intentions.

Georges Rodenbach died in Paris on December 25th 1898. And even after his death there was protest coming from Bruges. The Flemish catholics and
conservatives remained opposed, depicting him as “French”, who made Flemish people as fools and mocking Bruges. The symbolism used in the book was misinterpreted, taken too literally and considered too bold. Creating an image of a dead could be blocking the expansion of the port of Zeebrugge and this would be ill-fated form the economic growth of Bruges.

Still today, if you go looking for anything on him in Bruges, the only reminder is a plaque on the house ‘De Rode Steen’ at the Jan van Eyck Square.

It is clear that Rodenbach was and still is a misunderstood figure in the history of Bruges. Except for the controversy of those times it is impossible to recognize the major influence the book had on Bruges and its tourism.

With the book being translated in several languages (English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Finnish and Dutch) it attracted many people from all over Europe, and today the world. After all the misinterpretations maybe it’s time we recognize what Georges Rodenbach did for the city.

What do you think the city of Bruges could do to remember and commemorate him?

« Previous