There are many reasons to visit Bruges. It’s a beautifully preserved medieval city whose center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (cross another off the list). It houses a great collection of Flemish Primitive art, at the Groeninge Museum and the Memling. It’s filled with canals, gables, beer and frites.
But most of all, dear reader, it’s about Niccolò. The first book in Dorothy Dunnett’s masterful series, Niccolò Rising, is set in Bruges, where Niccolò, an open-faced apprentice in a dye shop, is gradually revealed to be a maker of puzzles, a shrewd businessman, a reader of character and a complex character in his own right. The 15th century world of trade and diplomacy is described as only Dunnett can do – obliquely, allusively, but with the discerning eye of the miniaturist painter she was.
But enough – you have to read it yourself. My mission on this trip was to see as many Niccolò sights as possible without annoying my traveling companion. (I think I succeeded.)
Luckily, the Dorothy Dunnett Society has published a booklet on Bruges that points out many of the highlights (though I must say that a map consisting of numbered dots on a square with no streets is not a map, for heaven’s sake).
The White Bear, the het beertje van der logie, does not look down at his peers but up, to the clouds and the rooftops. He wears a high golden collar, and golden straps cross the white painted fur of his chest, and between his two paws he clutches the red and gold shield of the city.
Niccolò is escaping from Simon in a wild chase that involves dogs and cats both alive and dead, a jump from a bridge into a barge along the canal and finally Niccolò appearing (to Simon’s rage) next to this bear, the symbol of Bruges, high up on the building. As other Dunnetters have pointed out, there is really no room here for Niccolò, who’s a big man, but no matter. Just seeing this was very exciting.
In the Market is, of course, the Belfort, the center of trading in the 15th century. Announcements were made from its tower via speaking trumpets. Simon is walking through the Market when he hears the bells and trumpets from the tower warning of the fire at the Charetty dyeworks.You have to imagine at least this many people swirling around, but of course the square would have been of packed earth back then. One of the buildings here is posited as the house where Katelina stayed during the Carnival.
The other major site is the Jerusalemkerk associated with Anselm Adorne, a historical figure who appears throughout the eight-book series. His father and uncle, having lots of money and being very religious, built this church as a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Marian and Niccolò were married here, and the Adornes were, in real life, buried here – at least Anselm’s heart was, his body is in Scotland where he was murdered. Here is their tomb. It’s a very small church with a morbid altar covered in skeletons and skulls.The church also contains a sliver of the true cross (so they say). The picture is a bit blurry because I was so excited – no, actually because it was up high and behind bars.And here is a naked life-sized effigy of the body of Jesus, tucked into a tiny crypt you enter by crouching down and going through a hobbit door to the side of the chapel.
In recent months the Adorne Foundation has installed a terrific short film and s display of artifacts in the former almshouses adjoining the church. The film in particular gives a very good overview of Adorne’s accomplishments as a diplomat and civic figure (I know that’s a dull description, but Dunnett brings it all thrillingly to life). I was very chuffed to see it all.
Speaking of holy relics, we also saw a vial of Christ’s blood – really and truly! It was at the Chapel of the Holy Blood, of course, which is referred to in the books in conjunction with the annual procession on Ascension Day. It’s still celebrated as a religious holiday as well as for the release of Flanders from French rule.
The Gruuthuse mansion was unfortunately closed for renovation, but we did get to see the outside. Here Niccolo meets Katelina when she tells him about her marriage to Simon, and then meets Gelis after his African journey.
Right next to the Gruuthuse is the Church of Our Lady, where Simon, Katelina, et al. attend a requiem mass for the King of Scotland and where the Gruuthuse family had an oratory that allowed them to attend church without leaving home. There’s also a Michelangelo Madonna and child sculpture here, which you can see for a small fee.
A man-powered crane lifted goods from the barges on the canals into the warehouses. It was a treat to see the crane in a couple of paintings, including this one at the Groeninge Museum. Look carefully to see the men walking along the steps of a crane like hamsters in a cage.
A replica of the crane was built a dozen years ago, and though I missed seeing it, here’s an image of the replica when it was placed in Jan Van Eyck square, a few blocks from where we were staying. (Not sure which painting this is, but its presence demonstrates the importance of the crane in the daily life of Bruges.)
Finally, the first book opens in Damme, a small town about four miles from Bruges where goods came in starting in the 12th century, and also where I biked on a half-day bike tour (more to come). It’s here that we meet Claes in the opening pages as he and his friends are sailing down the canal in a bathtub meant for the Duke of Burgundy, and where Claes manages to sink the cannon. More significantly, it’s where Claes first meets Simon and Katelina. My bike ride to Damme was delightful on a bright sunny day, but that’s a story for another post.