From Brugge to Haarlem

Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Belgium  , West Flanders,
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

 Ellen said she wanted to visit civilized Western Europe for a change. Clean toilets for a change is what she really meant. I'd have been content to see the Diamondbacks new stadium in Phoenix. But after seeing the movie "In Bruges" I relented. "In Bruges" is a dark comedy about a couple of hitmen who've been sent to Bruges for reasons unknown to them. Their psychotic boss Ralph Fiennes does have a plan though. Ralph believes everyone should see magical Bruges before they die. When he pays them a visit, hilarity, blood and mayhem ensue.

In the 14th century Bruges was an economic giant; one of the world's largest cities. Bruges - Brugge in Flemish - acted as a middleman port for northern and southern Europe. Then the harbour silted up and the economy went into an unforgiving spiral. For the better part of 300 years Bruges sat a mysterious, dead city.

Today, like in the movie, Gothic Bruges thrives as Ellen and I and several thousand, mostly older tourist folk, plied its cobbled Town Square and back alleys. The brave often ventured further, into the canals on tour boats.

Pretty as it was, the beer in Bruges didn't seem quite as good as it did up in Holland. And the food tasted bland, felt mushy. It really did seem like we'd come a long way to see where a movie was filmed. The rain had put a bit of a damper on things too. Shades of Freud; did the city perhaps not match up to the movie? Ellen said she'd been feeling out of sorts too. I thought it best we not talk about Bruges - at least not for a time.

Sometimes you can search too hard for that special place only to have it then find you. The following morning as the sun began to peek through darkened clouds we climbed aboard the first northbound train and bolted for Holland. We wanted to see more of the land of windmills, but the Dutch were playing in another bloody European championship soccer game that night. Haarlem, the town that gave New York City's Harlem its name looked smaller on the map, perhaps quieter.

Dominating Haarlem's old Town Square is St. Bavo's Cathedral. St. Bavo's, originally a Roman Catholic Church, took around 150 years to construct. In 1578 during the Protestant Reformation all Catholic iconography was removed. It was given a new name, Grote Kerk, or Great Church. The reformers even likely removed the Crucifix that would probably have sat atop the church and replaced it with a crown, in order to pay homage to the Monarchy I guess, as well as the Lord. They not only topped off the church with this garish crown of blue, but tried to make the church seem even more vacant by removing its thirty meter, 5068 pipe organ (see photo) which was once played by the 10 year-old Mozart. The town's folk revolted and the organ stayed.

Five hundred-year-old cafes and hotels surround the massive church. Our hotel room looked out over ancient St. Bavo's.

Sometimes after nodding off I was awakened by church bell chimes and wondered if we weren't somehow magically transported back to the 16th century.

Today, with both the Catholics and Protestants gone to places unknown Saint Bavo's acts more as a concert hall than a place of worship. Old pissoirs (see photo) stand beside the church walls, likely to keep bar patrons, soccer fans and other such revelers from using the side of the church.

For the game between Holland and France I watched people watch soccer on big screen open-air TV's. The streets were filled with glassy eyed fans as beer flowed freely. The intensity was high; marijuana sales most certainly lulled.

The fairytale town of Bruges would be the perfect place if we'd found it five maybe ten years ago. Now it's too late. The tourist horde has taken over. Bruges is the magic we went in search of. Haarlem is where we found it.
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