A fookin’ fairy-tale

A racist dwarf, a one-eyed skinhead, an alcove-obsessed Russian gun seller… Despite not being able to meet such incongruous personalities as Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson), the two holed-up hit men in the movie “In Bruges”, viewers still benefit from a masterful guided tour by the director himself, inviting them to roam around the paved streets of this city listed in the World Heritage List of UNESCO since 2000. For this second article of Travelling Mogwai, and the first one in my alluring home country, feel free to wander around the Flemish city as the movie unfolds.

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“In Bruges”, the first feature film directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, is a black comedy, colored by hints of gothic charm and deadpan humor. Despite an impressive cast, the movie was released in theaters without fanfare in 2008, following a disastrous French promotion, and coupled with an unworthy name, poster, and dubbing. However, over the past seven years, the movie has gained a foothold, increasing in popularity and becoming the pleasant surprise of the year, even developing into a classic of its genre, despite being hard to categorize. In spite of the difficult topics and finely crafted dialogues that do not always benefit the city, this work remains well deservedly associated with the medieval city, and will remain so for a long time. Even with my relative geographical proximity to the city, having grown up along the French border, one hour away from Bruges, it took me twenty years and one sunny April day to discover the city center, and its courtyard filled with daffodils in the Béguinage. It had already been two years since the actors had left the set, and it took me two more years to discover McDonagh’s masterful movie.

“In Bruges” begins by successive scenes of the city’s urban nights, backed by the heady and melancholic soundtrack of Carter Burwell. Over the course of an hour and a half, the artificial lights’ warm colors under the ink-black sky derive into a sometimes dazzling paleness and grayness, of Bruges’ short winter days. This is but one example of the numerous contrasts in the movie, of which each character, each sentiment, seems to meet its opposite. Bewildering the viewers with its storyline and black humor, he manages to slowly set up a clever and solid succession of complex consequences following a dramatically simple event: the accidental death of a child. Then follow beautiful scenes on consuming remorse, and on the aimlessness of the two very different hit men – one whose own experience and wisdom did not erase the memory of the crimes he committed, and who believes in the capacity to change, and the other whose guilt and suicidal urges will maintain a steady suspense over a significant part of the first half of the movie. From guilty considerations to multiple digressions, and from belated actions to striking violence, scenes add up almost theatrically, forming a final collection where the ever-present blackness is never erased by comical situations, generated by the heterogeneous nocturnal encounters of the two key protagonists. Here, McDonagh offers the city an integral role, surpassing the status of a pale background, using the city efficiently, as the characters wander around diverse new paths, leading them at the top of the belfry, across canals, or in concrete public buildings. He brilliantly proves his desire to make a movie in the city where he previously stayed, using it not only as a backdrop, but also as an active scenery. Arising from significant effort, scenes were made credible, through the largely logical routes taken by the characters, prevented from going from one end of the city to another. This feeling of a guided tour is therefore very pleasant, in contrast to many other long features that often succumb to the easiness of stringing together “postcard” shots. The recurring absence of static shots gives the impression of following the actors as they move around the city, and this is what inspired me to write this article during a short trip back to the home country.

Bruges (Belgique)
The Burg square at night – Grégoire Sieuw ©
 

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Bruges (Belgique)Once the initial introduction and title have passed, the film opens with images of Ray and Ken’s arrival (and later on, of their boss Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes), on the banks of Lake Minnewater, and Poertoren’s fire tower. Both sites are a stone’s throw from the railway station, along a pathway trailing the shadowy ramparts. Despite being close to the road that circles the city’s center, the Minnewaterpark and its lake surrounded by willow trees, remain one of the most relaxing, calm and romantic spots in the city. A couple of doors away, the Béguinage (Begijnhof) offers another leisurely stroll, that could even be even more peaceful, as deep silence prevails. Constructed in the first half of the 13th century, and now home to the Benedictines, it has hosted several successive religious communities, and has done so for the past eight centuries. They live in about thirty white houses, surrounding the freely accessible inner courtyard and church, whereas only the museum has a fee for visitors. There, as indicated by the entrance sign, silence and respect are required, whilst the guest submerges himself into the religious life. The few scenes filmed outside of the impressive perimeter walls were shot inside the delightful Wijngaardplein, where swans frolic in quiet corners, away from the ramblers, the carriages, and the boats.

Bruges (Belgique)
The central courtyard of the Beguinage – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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Bruges (Belgique)While walking down the lanes towards the tourist center, we quickly stumble upon the impressive church Notre-Dame de Bruges, with its bell tower soaring 122 meters above the cobblestones. The beautiful roman interior hosts, among others, the ‘Virgin and Child’ sculpture by Michelangelo, recently brought up in the movie Monuments Men. The surrounding areas, near the bridge of Saint-Boniface, are also very pleasant, including the park of Arentshof, and the beautiful inner courtyard of the Gruuthusemuseum, which were the background for several scenes of the movie, such as the extremely grim final scene. The inappropriate practice of referring to the museum of Gruuthuse as the Groeningemuseum, located on the same platform, is also to be noted in the movie. The newly renovated museum reveals, during the hour-long visit, artwork of primitive masters and prominent figures in Flemish Mannerism, but also a more modern section, devoted to surrealism and expressionism. However, it is in the first section that the three paintings stared lengthily at by Ray and Ken during their visit are located: The Judgment of Cambyses by Gérard David, the unsettling Death and the Miser by Jan Provoost, and the Last Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch. As an historic and cultural center, Bruges offers plenty of other museums, covering a wide-range of themes: in addition to the museums dedicated to art, the city hosts a diamond museum, a folklore museum, a lace museum, a museum of chocolate…and even a French fry museum.

Bruges (Belgique)One enters the Groeninge museum straight into the small Dijver Park on the shore, which hosts a flea market every weekend, from March to November. A two minute walk away, we find ourselves at the dock of Rozenhoed, and its famous view over the canal, surrounded by superb examples of Flemish architecture, with the belfry as a backdrop. To its left, an old building is eye-catching: the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce hosts the small amount of rooms where the two key protagonists, Ray and Ken, are supposed to sleep. In reality, if the ground floor scenes were indeed shot in the breakfast room, the ones supposedly taking place in the rooms were actually filmed in the studio, to make the rooms look more rustic than the more luxurious original ones. We enter the hotel from the Rozenhoedkaai, through the bridge of the Wollestraat, to then go under a porch, on the right side of the street. At the end of the alley, the view over the canal’s corner is very pretty.

Bruges (Belgique)
The Rozenhoed quay – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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Bruges is a tourist city, so the number of hotels on offer is what you would imagine, and the prices are what you fear. Whilst organizing my last trip, in the midst of all the different possibilities, a guesthouse caught my attention with its rave online reviews, and led me to blindly book a suite for a romantic getaway. La Maison le Dragon is located two minutes away from the dock of Rozenhoed, in a 16th century building in the Eekhoutstraat, and charges the rates of Bourgondisch Cruyce, its adjacent neighbor. The professional hospitality of the owner, Emmanuel, promises a very pleasant stay, which is confirmed by the suite that offers an exclusive royal treatment, and an out-of-this-world breakfast. Despite being in a city that deserves such praise, the charming house invites you to linger for a while in its comfortable bedroom, its rococo style living room, and its very nicely decorated interior.

Bruges (Belgique)
The Rococo-style sitting-room of Maison le Dragon – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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The Koningin Astridpark, a recurring and important location in the movie, is somewhat removed from the city center, and offers a peaceful place close to the tourist attractions. Recognizable by its colorful kiosk, it is an ideal spot near the pond to avoid the large crowds that overwhelm Bruges as soon as the days start getting warmer. The children’s playground, where a crucial scene of the movie is set, is located at the south end of the park. The spot is of course mostly of interest for the film enthusiasts.

Bruges (Belgique)
The Koningin Astridpark in Spring – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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Instead of continuing towards the Bourgondisch Cruyce, beside the Rozenhoed dock, we will take the road back to the Grand-Place, turning down a passageway towards the pretty, but often congested, Huidervettersplein, and passing close to the alcoves of the former fish market. A narrow neck in between the high walls allows you to relive the final chase scene, and leads you to an impressive porch in Burg square and its city hall. In one of the square’s corner, a grim, intriguing and well-crafted facade marks the entrance to the Basilica of Saint-Sang (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek). Despite being completed in the fifteenth century, it is during the twelfth century that the first building was constructed, hosting the numerous pilgrims and guests wishing to discover the main attraction: the relic of the Holy Blood. The artwork presumably contains a few drops of the blood of Christ, and was returned from Jerusalem in 1146. It now only leaves the Basilica for the annual procession in Bruges. Its history is briefly shared during the movie, but the actual scene, due to authorization issues, was filmed in Jerusalemkerk, in Bruge’s downtown east side, within walking distance.

Bruges (Belgique)
The « Burg » square at night – Grégoire Sieuw ©
 

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One cobbled street away, the Grand-Place, or Markt, is a crucial and central location inside the city, as it is in the movie. At the core of Bruges’ city center, the square is surrounded by magnificent buildings and dominated by the 83 meters tall belfry. To access the top of the tower that overhangs the markets or Halles, you’ll need to stand in line before scaling the narrow 366 steps of its spiral staircase. On busy days, this can be a challenging experience. The rooftop, right under the bells and chimes, has a beautiful view, although the crowds and the security fences often obstruct the panorama. Despite this climb being a disappointment for some tourists, it is also a compulsory step in Brendan Gleeson’s path.

Bruges (Belgique)Two shooting locations remain to be visited, a few minutes away from the Markt. First, we will tour the pretty square of Jan Van Eyck, that is dominated by the statue built by the painter of several pieces of the Groeningemuseum. The plaza faces the Spiegelrei canal, which was the location of one of the most beautiful scenes of the movie. Finally, the Bistro Zwart Huis, briefly seen at the beginning of the movie, behind its plain facade hides a very pleasant bar/restaurant that seems to exude an aura of warmth and comfort. The mythic restaurant scene, the “Canadian scene”, takes place at the Cafédraal, a sophisticated restaurant that has a larger range of regional products than Zwart Huis. With more affordable prices, the restaurant Cambrinus is the perfect alternative if you’re still looking for typical Bruges cuisine. Being close to the Grand Place and the Burg, it is a rite of passage for Beer lovers. The length of the grimoire-styled menu presented to diners gives you a fair idea of the amazing amount of choices on offer. The bar and the restaurant share the brewery and its tables are very close to one another, creating a very welcoming atmosphere. Add to this a busy-but-friendly service, and delicious food coupled with beers, and you’ll have a fantastic spot to spend a delightful evening in front of a Flemish beef stew.

Bruges (Belgique)
Cambrinus brewery – Grégoire Sieuw ©
 

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Despite its almost upsetting affluence which leads some travelers to prefer its neighbor city of Gand, often said more authentic, Bruges distinguishes itself by its unique contrasts. Far from the vain ambitions of its rival cities, Bruges offers different possibilities to follow the roads less traveled, while keeping its tourist city status. Even though the character played by Colin Farrell considers Bruges a living hell in McDonagh’s long feature, one cannot but notice how the city goes the extra mile to fit every visitor’s need. From parties to romanticism, from history to gastronomy, we easily contradict Ray’s statement that “maybe that’s what hell is: to spend the entire rest of eternity in fuckin’ Bruges”. It is genuinely hard to imagine a dull routine in the city, and we’re often caught daydreaming of being able to wander its streets everyday.

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  • How to get there: It is rather easy to get to the Flemish city. From Belgium, there are regular and direct rail links from Gand, Antwerp and Brussels (city-center or airport). From France, you can get there from Lille, via Courtrai, and from Paris via Brussels through the Thalys. Information and bookings can be done through the SNCB website. A car is obviously the best method of travel around Flanders. It is a one-hour drive from Lille, and a one and a half hour drive from Brussels. Flights are very limited, as the only options would be to fly in to the international airport, and then take a direct train from there, or take a shuttle to the city-center of the capital, Charleroi.
  • When is the best time to visit?: Almost every year, there is one sunny month during Belgium’s spring. It is usually the long-awaited signal for tourists to invade Bruges during its first sunny weekends. Around May, weekdays start getting very busy as well. During summertime, certain streets become insufferable. It is generally advised to wait for late season, or to come back during wintertime, and the advice is often justified. Special attention should be given to the end-of-year celebrations, as it is not as busy, and wintertime activities (ice sculpture, ice skating, Christmas market…) make the experience unforgettable.
  • Featured locations: You may be surprised at the museums’ closing days, so be forewarned. For instance, the Groeningemuseum closes on Mondays. Hotels and restaurants are generally open everyday, such as the Cambrinus and Zwart Huis. As to the latter, it can be useful to remain informed on the concert nights hosted by the brewery, as those will give you the perfect atmosphere for your dinner. Concerning accommodation, I can only urge you again to check out Maison le Dragon, but specialized sites will allow you to find a roof within your means and desires.
  • Surrounding areas: Bruges is located in the flatlands, and is surrounded by kilometers of successive and endless fields and villages. You can reach the western Belgian coast, facing the North Sea in only a couple of minutes by car or train. Only Oostende is accessible by train, but a streetcar will get you to the other coastline villages, along the French and Dutch border. A bike ride away from the city center, the calm village of Damme remains my favorite. The spot is reachable by bike or driving along the tree-lined canal, a very pleasant area to roam around.

 

Bruges (Belgique)
Bruges (Belgique)
The Béguinage / A boutique of the city center – Grégoire Sieuw ©