by Gregory Lomax
A FEW miles to the north .1-31 and west of Flanders Fields, so well known to the British, there lies Bruges—in Flemish "Brugge."
Although largely ignored of late by the British tourist, Bruges has survived two world wars. economic changes and depressions, unharmed, its festivities continue unabated, and its architecture and romantic canals make it rank as one of the beauty spots of Western Europe.
Almost alone of cities which make play of tourism Bruges is both dignified and attractive— wisely eschewing the garish trivialities which generally pursue tourism and blight the beauty spot.
This is all the more remarkable as Bruges fosters tourism and encourages visitors both by its tourist board and the kindness of its people.
Despite the many visitors to this Belgian town, chiefly from Holland, France and Germany, Bruges has dignity and an awareness of its history. How many other towns have outlawed new buildings in anything other than the fifteenth
or sixteenth century styles? Where else would small children queue to go to school an extra two hours a day in order to learn the ancient—and to a man, bewildering—art of lacemaking?
In no town or city I have visited have the people kept alive their traditions in so natural a way or in a manner so lacking in self-consciousness.
They are not ashamed of their traditions, although as the site of the original international stock market some would question them: rather they are grateful that their city has remained unspoilt both by war and progress and they are proud of their heritage.
It is this pride which leads them to make an annual procession to commemorate the triumphant return from the Crusades of Derrick of Alsace, Count of Flanders.
Derrick brought with him a phial of the Precious Blood which, it is said, has the power to work miracles and which turns to liquid •in times of danger. This phial, in an ornate, but beautiful, gold reliquary, is carried in the procession.
Indeed the procese;on of the
Precious Blood which has just taken place, is the high-point of Bruges's year. Three months of preparation and one million Belgian francs have gone into staging the three-part procession.
There is first the retelling of the story of Christ which slowly unfurls, climaxing in the carrying of the Cross by an actor portraying Christ. As with the other participants he is a volunteer. This year he was a 33year-old school teacher.
Next is the triumphal part of the entourage telling of the victorious return of Derrick, a courageous warrior and fine general, from the Crusades.
Throughout the Middle Ages when Bruges was the commercial capital of the world this part of the procession gave the traders, guilds and merchants a chance to compete in splendour and brilliance. Each group portrayed a different theme or event and the rivalry to be best dressed, to attract most eyes was enormous. This rivalry still exists although the Confraternity which organises the procession, does its best to reconcile contending factions.
The climax of the procession is the carrying of the Precious Blood. The superbly beautiful reliquary is surrounded by a full choir and the men of the Confraternity and Church. It is hard unless one has seen it to envisage a procession of 2,000 people all gorgeously arrayed and all throwing themselves body and soul, into the procession.
But the procession is by no means the only reason for visiting the canals, narrow cobbled streets, the superb architecture, all of one period so that one imagines oneself rather than the buildings to be anachronistic and the whole ambience of the town leads one to wish to return.
And Bruges is a tremendous place to base oneself to visit West Flanders, its coasts and its country. Amidst the flat but pretty countryside Bruges is, indeed, the cynospre—and as is fitting, all eyes do turn to it.
If you should go, then go also to those Flanders Fields which once we thought were immortalised by our dead and our poets, but now like Bruges are frequently missed or forgotten by our countrymen.