National Geographic : 1955 May
Bruges, the City the Sea Forgot 631 Belgium's Chief Port and World-trade Center in Medieval Days Relives Its Past in Brilliant, Reverent Pageantry BY Luis MARDEN Foreign Editorial Staff, National Geographic Magazine With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author THE SEA gives and the sea takes away. Five centuries ago ships brought goods from all the known world to the busy docks of Bruges on the flat Flanders plain. The bourse of the canal-girt Venice of the North set the exchange for all Europe. Then sand choked the city off from the sea, and ships and the world abandoned Bruges to dreams of past glory (map, page 634). But what Bruges lost in trade the world gained in art. For the receding tide of com merce left the somnolent city to grow old gracefully among its canals; today Bruges remains a nearly perfect example of the medi eval city in architecture and atmosphere. Night Reveals City at Its Best I am glad that I first saw Bruges by night. As I walked through the sleeping town, my footsteps echoed in the quiet, narrow streets. The greenish-yellow light of gas lamps gleamed on the stone pavements, but as I approached the canals the street lamps were dark and the serrated gables of the old houses rose black against the amber sky glow of the illuminated canals. When I turned the last darkened street corner and came out on the quays, I saw a fantastic sight. In the glassy black water of the canal, spires and towers and gables hung upside down in perfect amber-and-blue reflection. House windows along the canal reflected the soft light in glistening rectangles, and weeping willows trailing their long fronds in the canal drew wavering lines of light on the water. In the background rose the dimly lighted tower of the Belfry (page 652). Each summer and autumn the principal buildings and the canals of Bruges are illumi nated from nightfall until midnight. The engineers have done a masterly job of paint ing with light in two colors only: the amber of sodium vapor and the bluish-white of mercury, which sometimes photographs green. Along the canals glided sight-seeing boats with noiseless underwater exhausts. The boat- men's voices, explaining the sights, echoed from the stone arch of a bridge, one of 82 that span the city's canals. Across one end of the lagoon called the Lake of Love, a multiarched bridge, lighted in amber, hung like a golden caterpillar over the still water and touched legs with its in verted counterpart below. When I tried later to make time exposures of the night illumination, the boats made photography difficult. If one passed while the shutter was open, it left a blur of light on the film, and the reflections of the lighted buildings would break up in its agitated wake. I had to wait until the boats stopped run ning, a little before midnight. But at 12, firemen on bicycles rode round the canals and turned off the lights. So I usually had about 15 minutes in which to make pictures-but first I had to wait until the disturbance left by the craft had died down and the reflections were motionless again. Once I waited a long time, my camera on a tripod, until the reflections stopped trem bling, then opened the shutter. When the exposure was nearly complete, a swan glided out of the shadows of the bridge, pushing a bow wave that formed a glassy rope of orange light round its breast. Swans Linked with History Swans have swum on the canals of Bruges since 1488. That was the year the towns people finally lost patience with Pieter Lang hals, a cruel henchman of Maximilian of Austria, and, after a short trial, tortured and beheaded him in the town square. Legend has it that when Maximilian later returned to power, he ordered the people to atone for the crime by keeping "long-necks" (langhals) on city canals at public expense forever. To this day, the bakers of Bruges prepare loaves each day for the town swans. City firemen pedal round and feed the birds, which bear the city's mark on their beaks (pages 632 and 650).