Italy — The great churches of Bologna

Italy — The great churches of Bologna

Although Bologna is widely recognized as one of most remarkable Medieval cities in Italy, it is also one of the most important centers of the Italian Renaissance period. Nowhere can its historic and artistic evolution be better appreciated than in its many magnificent churches

The churches of Bologna dazzle with Renaissance art works.

Wander along its network of Porticoes, the ubiquitous arcades that have been woven into the fabric of the city since the13th century. They are sure to lead to a picturesque piazza, usually dominated by an ancient church. Here are my personal favorites, all within an ten-minute walk from the central Piazza Maggiore.



Basilica of San Stefano

Early fresco at the Complex of San Stefano.

By far the most fascinating is the Basilica of San Stefano. Reaching back to the 5th century and the early days of christianity in Italy, its origins are controversial. According to the most accepted theory, it was build by Petronius, then Bishop of Bologna (dead circa 450 AD), on the ruins of a pre-existing temple dedicated to Isis — a major Egyptian goddess whose whose worship had subsequently spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.


The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher — The original sanctuary, a reproduction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, is a small circular space with rising columns, high up arched windows and  a domed brick ceiling. In the center is a carved stone structure, part altar, part tomb, flanked by a spiral staircase, and topped with a simple crucifix.  Upon his death, Petronius was buried there.

A simple crucifix adorns the domed choir of the Church of the Holy Crucifix

Additional sanctuaries were constructed, all in different styles, over the next six centuries.The San Stefano complex became known as “Sette Chiese” (Seven Churches). While the moniker still endures, changes throughout the centuries have resulted in the current four churches, each a striking example of the evolution of religious Romanesque  architecture.



Church of the Holy Crucifix – 16th century frescoes of Saints Vitale and Agricola frame the altar.

Church of the Holy Crucifix — The only entrance to the complex is through the 8th century Church of the Holy Crucifix. Of Lombard origin, it consists of a single nave with a trussed vault and a raised presbytery. At the center of the presbytery, the Crucifix, by Simone dei Crocifissi dating back to about 1380. On the walls, there are 15th century frescoes with the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Under the presbytery, at the far end of the crypt, an altar hold two urns containing the remains of local martyrs: Saints Vitale and Agricola (305 AD). On the sides of the altar, a few years ago, two 16th century frescoes were discovered under layers of plaster, illustrating the martyrdom of Vitale and Agricola.

Sarcophagus of San Vitale

Church of Saints Vitalis and Agricola — The oldest of the complex, this simple 4th century basilica-shaped church without a transept, is dedicated to saints Vitale and Agricola, respectively servant and master, the first two martyrs from Bologna. Extensively rebuilt in 12th century, it still hold the medieval sarcophagi that once held the remains of the saints, and on the floor, a mosaic of Roman origin.

The Courtyard of Pilate.

Church of the Trinity — Originally intended by Petronius as a major basilica to duplicate Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was never completed (probably due to lack of funds), With the advent of the Lombards, it became a Baptistery, with a remarkable central marble basin and intricate brickworks, in what is now known as the Courtyard of Pilate. Then the Benedictines added a superb cloister with dual storied arcaded loggia (10th -13th centuries). The current church was added in the 13th century, and substantially altered several times since. The church displays statues representing the Adoration of the Magi, also thought to be from the 13th century, and a number of fragments of lovely 14th century frescoes.

Basilica of San Petronio

The ornate base of the facade of the Basilica of San Petronio.

Dominating the Piazza Maggiore and dedicated to Saint Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna, the Basilica of San Petronio is the most imposing  — and the most visited — church in the city. Built between 1388 and 1479, its main facade has remained unfinished ever since.  It is the largest church built of bricks in the world. The facade appears cut in half: the base is an opulent creation of rose and white marble, with steeples and decorative sculptures over the portals, then right above it, it’s just plain brown bricks.

The soaring Gothic nave of the Basilica of San Petronio

The interior, however, is a soaring Gothic extravaganza. Its light-filled nave is lined by 22 side chapels decorated with works by prominent Italian painters and sculptors from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although Petronius was originally buried in the San Stefano complex, a conflict arose after his canonization and the construction of the Basilica of San Petronio, as to the resting place of the saint’s relics. Eventually, the head of the saint was placed in the Chapel of Cardinal Aldrovandi, now Chapel of San Petronio.

Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore

Bentivoglio Chapel -Vision of the Apocalypse (Lorenzo Costa).

Located on Piazza Rossini, one of the most attractive squares in Bologna, the Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore was built in the mid-13th century and renovated at the end of the 15th century, which accounts from its Romanesque exterior and Gothic interior. Its single monumental nave houses a wealth of art treasures, most notably in the 15th century Bentivoglio Chapel, regarded as one of the most significant creations of the early Bolognese Renaissance. In addition to the white marble tomb of A.G. Bentivoglio by Jacopo della Quercia, its walls are covered with artwork by Lorenzo Costa, depicting the family’s victories over other Bolognese dynasties.

The wedding of Saint Cecilia (Francesco Franzia).

Santa Cecilia Oratorio Flanking the Basilica, an elegant Renaissance portico leads to the Santa Cecilia Oratorio, enriched with ten splendid frescoes depicting episodes from the life of the saint and her husband San Valeriano. The paintings were executed in 1504-1506 by some of the most important artists of the Bentivoglio court.




Basilica of San Domenico

The shrine of San Domenico is an early work of Michalengelo.

Another of Bologna’s most notable churches, the Basilica of San Domenico holds the remains of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. The tomb is on a raised white marble shrine by Nicola Fisano and the young Michelangelo. The basilica also boasts a remarkable 102 stalls wooden choir that is an exquisite example of Renaissance carving by Dominican Friar Domiano da Bergamo, and magnificent Baroque ceilings


The tomb of Rolandino de’ Passeggeri on Piazza San Domenico.

The square in front of the church is paved with pebbles, as it was in medieval times. Here, in addition to a brickwork column holding a bronze statue of St Dominic (1627),  two platforms raised on high columns hold the tombs Rolandino de’ Passeggeri by Giovanni (1305) and on the left, adjoining a house, the tomb of Egidio Foscarari (1289), enriched with an ancient Byzantine marble arch with relief works from the 9th century.



Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita

The terracotta figure of Mary Magdalene (Niccolò dell’Arca).

Built in the late 17th century on the foundations of an earlier church, the late Baroque-style Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita (Church of Holy Mary of Life) is especially notable as the home of Compianto del Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), This haunting terracotta masterpiece of Italian Renaissance sculpture by Niccolò dell’Arca was created during the second half of the 15th century and has been in the church ever since. It features six life-sized figures hovering over the dead Christ, their faces in various stages of grief and torment. The pathos of the scene is magnified by the howling figure of Mary Magdalene entering the scene with her robe and veil flapping in the wind.

Fragment of ancient fresco at the Basilica of San Domenico

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By Air: Bologna international airport receives scheduled flights from most major European cities. By train or road: Bologna is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. High speed trains connect the center of the city to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. The A1 highway efficiently connect the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes. To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting — San Stefano complex , Via Santo Stefano, 24 – 40125 Bologna, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and  2:30 pm to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday Contact: Tel. +39 0514983423. E-mail. Basilica of San Petronio, Piazza Galvani, 5 – 40124, Bologna is open daily from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm and from 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 051231415. E-mail.  Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore, Piazza Rossini – 40126, Bologna is open Monday through Friday from 07:30 am to12:00 noon and 3:30 pm to 6.:30 pm, Saturday from 9:30 am – to 12:30 pm and 3:00 pm to  6:30 pm, Sunday and holidays from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6.:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 05 122 5970. E-mail. Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Via Clavature, 10 – 40124, Bologna is open  Tuesday through Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: Tel. +39 05 119 936385.

Location, location, location!

Bologna, Italy

A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

Leaving behind the monumental Roman vestiges of the southern French city of Nîmes, we head down the coastal plain of the western Mediterranean. Here, with the coastline a string of lagoons and saltmarshes, the main road is some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland, following the route of the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to its province of Hispania.

The Villa was a large viticuture facility for over six centuries.

Although a modern roadway now covers the original works in many places, sections of the original paved roadbed, mileposts and bridges have survived. They can occasionally be spotted close to the highway as we drive through a verdant landscape of agricultural land and vineyards. But more than these passing landmarks, the Via Domitia also left us the remains of Roman Villas. These were both rural residences and large-scale farming domains that benefited from the proximity to the road to export their products. One of them, a mere one-hour drive away from Nîmes, is our first destination of the day.

The Roman Villa of Loupian

Over the past five decades, a three-hectare (eight-acre) excavation site south of the village of Loupian has revealed the ruins of one such villas and told the story of an estate that was active for more than 600 years.

The entire ground floor of the excavated villa is covered with intricately decorated mosaics.

Originally a hillside farmstead overlooking the Bassin de Thau, the largest of the area’s lagoons, a short distance south of the Via Domitia, the Villa of Loupian rapidly prospered. By the time of the High Empire (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) it had become a large patrician residence with its own thermal springs and an abundance of Gallo-Roman mosaics. Its main agricultural activity was viticulture, for which a vast storage facility capable of holding 1500 hectoliters (40, 000 U.S. gallons) of wine was constructed. This period also marked the development of pottery workshops producing amphorae for the transportation of wine, and the creation of a small shipping port on the north side of the Bassin de Thau.

Pottery workshops produced amphorae used to transport wine,

In the 5th century, the villa was completely rebuilt. The owner’s home became a small mansion, the floor of the thirteen ground floor rooms covered with highly decorated mosaics. Relatively well preserved, these are particularly intriguing in that they show influences of two geographically separated and culturally diverse countries as Gaul and Syria. There is no other known villa anywhere in which the such remarkable combination of styles has been found.

The Abbey of Valmagne

The chapter house opens onto a cloister with a tall fountain nestled within a domed pergola.

It’s a mere ten-minute drive through a countryside streaked with vineyards from Loupian to the Abbey of Valmagne. Founded in the 12th century, and built of peach-colored local limestone, this grand Cistercian abbey is one of the loveliest in the country, as well as one of the oldest vineyards in Languedoc. The church, begun in 1257 and inspired by the great gothic cathedrals of northern France, is an imposing 83-meter (272-foot) long and 24-meter (79-foot) high. Its adjoining chapter house opens onto a vast square cloister surrounding a light-filled garden and a remarkable octagonal fountain enclosed within a domed pergola.

The abbey has retained its medieval atmosphere.

In its heydays, it was one of the richest abbeys in southern France, before it suffered the effects of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), followed by the Religious Wars (1559-1598). But it was the French Revolution (1789) that finally sealed its demise as a religious institution. Rebellious peasants ransacked the abbey and destroyed all its stain-glass windows.




The Cathedral of the Vineyards

The nave became a wine cellar during the French Revolution.

It did escape further destruction, however, by being confiscated as a national property and subsequently sold to a local vintner in 1791. The new owner converted the magnificent gothic church into a wine cellar. He installed the huge storage casks that still sit in the apse and side chapels, earning the church its moniker of “Cathedral of the Vineyards.” Upon this original owner’s death in 1838, Valmagne and its vineyards were acquired by Count Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne. It has remained in possession of his descendants ever since, each generation consistently working to restore the abbey to its original splendor.


The Vigneron Restaurant

The restaurant sits at the edge of the vineyards.

One of the old farm buildings adjoining the abbey is also getting a new life as an attractive rustic restaurant offering authentic local cuisine based on the vegetables and aromatic plants from the abbey’s organic kitchen gardens, complemented by meats and cheeses from nearby producers.

Our meal is paired with some of the elegant wines of the estate (also certified as organic since 1999). These can likewise be sampled and purchased in the stately tasting room with its soaring vaulted ceiling and grand medieval fireplace. The modern estate consists of 70 hectares of vineyard, more than half of it was classified since 1985 with the coveted “Appellation d’Origine Controlée” (a.k.a, AOC). With one more destination on our itinerary for the day, we regretfully forgo  the wine tasting.

A Medieval Gem – Pezenas

Pézénas is an exceptionally well preserved medieval town.

Twenty minutes later, we reach Pézénas, a lively small town of about 9,000 that was the seat of of the Governors of Languedoc in the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, visitors have a rare opportunity to experience a complete city as it was in the middles ages. Many of the Renaissance buildings along its narrow alleys remain intact, as does its ancient ghetto complete with walls and gates. This small medieval gem is one of the first cities in France to have been declared a secteur sauvegardé (protected area) in 1965 by the Ministry of Culture, with more than 30 of its buildings classified as historical monuments.

The Hôtel de Lacoste has maintained its superb Gothic galleries.

A number of artists and craftsmen have made it their home, often with a workshop or gallery open to the street, adding a creative flair to the rough cobbled streets lined with notable mansions. Among those, the Hôtel de Lacoste, built in the early 16th century, stand out for its central courtyard surrounded by a grand square staircase and exceptional second floor Gothic arched galleries. Another magnificent 17th century residence is the Hôtel d’Alfonce. Over time, it was home to a succession of town notables who contributed their own additions to the property. Behind an unassuming façade, four wings are distributed around two courtyards and a garden. In the covered loggia gallery of the entrance courtyard, five monolithic twisted columns support the sloping roof. The rear wing features three levels of arched galleries opening onto the second courtyard and the garden.

The rear courtyard of the Hôtel d’Alfonce opens onto a garden.

We end up on the town square dominated by the consular house where the States of Languedoc held their meetings.  Behind an 18th century façade enhanced with remarkable ironworks, the body of the building dates back to the mid-16th century. Today it houses the House of Crafts, a venue for temporary exhibitions by local artists.

While there are a number of welcoming boutique hotels and guest houses in Pézénas, we opt to continue on to the nearby city Beziers for the night, to be on site for the next morning ‘s visit on our itinerary.


In the Villa of Loupian, some of the mosaics designs show intriguing Syrian influences,

Good to Know

  • VisitingThe Loupian Roman Villa is open daily from 10:am to 12 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm, with variable extended closing time during the summer season. It is closed through December and January, on May 1st, May 8th  and November 1st. The site is enclosed into a 1,000 square meter (10,750 square foot) building that protects the remains of the villa and its mosaics. It includes a small museum that shows artifacts found by the excavations and traces the history of the site. Contact:  tel.  +33 4 67 18 68 18. The Valmagne Abbey, Route de Montagnac, 34560 Villeveyrac, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, from April 15th to September 30th , and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. It is closed on Monday, except July through September. The restaurant is open daily for lunch April 15th through September 30th and weekends only for the remainder of the year. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 67 78 06 09. The Pézénas Tourist Office, Place des Etats du Languedoc, 34120, Pézénas, offers a complimentary map for a walking tour of the most notable sites of the city. Contact:  tel.  +33 (0) 4 67 98 36 40.

Location, location, location!

Loupian Roman Villa

Abbey of Valmagne


Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Many a road trip starts in Dijon. Located at the northern tip of the legendary stretch of rolling hills dotted with small towns with names like Chablis, Beaune, Meursault, Nuit-Saint-George and Puligny-Montrachet, it is the ideal departure point for “La Route des Grand Crus” (The Great Burgundy Vintages Road). But with its rich history reaching back to pre-Roman times, Dijon is also the logical place to begin an exploration of the many archeological sites of the region.

Back in Time

Dijon-Darcy Fountain.

The fountain at the Garden Darcy.

My journey back in time begins in the Jardin Darcy, the lush 19th century one-hectare (2.5 acre) neo-Renaissance public garden in heart of town. After a quick pause to admire its fountain cascading into a vast oval basin at the entrance of the park, and the famous “Polar Bear in its Stride” sculpture by local artist Francois Pompon (circa 1922), I head down the a few steps to the Rue de la Liberté (Freedom Street).


Dijon-rue Liberté

Medieval houses on the Rue de la Liberté.

Known as the Rue de Condé until the Revolution (1789), and the town’s main artery since medieval times, it is lined with buildings dating mostly from the 15th century to the 18th century, many of them classified as historic monuments. A busy shopping street from the start, it features storefronts at street level, topped by residential floors. A leisurely walk down this historic pedestrian mall leads to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.


The Capital of Burgundy

Dijon-ducal place detail.

Facade detail of the Ducal Palace.

Already a crossroad of several Celtic trade routes long before Roman times, Dijon became the capital of the Kingdom of Burgundy in the 5th century. Annexed in 1004 to the crown of France as the Duchy of Burgundy, it grew in power and wealth through the ages. By the 14th century the Dukes of Burgundy were Peers of the Realm and a force to be reckoned with. They held their court in Dijon, making it one of the great provincial cities of country.

Dijon-John the Fearless monument.

The funerary monument of John the Fearless.

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy (or Ducal Palace) is the most important monument in Dijon. What had begun as a simple fortress in the 9th century was entirely rebuilt by Duke Philip the Bold (1342-1404), with his successors adding on to the palace for the next three centuries to create a sumptuous architectural ensemble going from the Gothic to Renaissance to Classic style. Today the left wing houses a number of city services including city hall, the city archives and the tourism office, while the vast right wing is holds the magnificent Musée des Beaux Arts  (Museum of Fine Arts). A major section is dedicated to the history of Burgundy and the Dukes, including the superb tombs of John the Fearless, his wife Margaret of Bavaria and Philip the Bold, and three remarkable altarpieces.

The Churches of Dijon

Dijon-Saint Michel portal.

The Gothic portal of the Saint Michel Church is heavily decorated  with a mix of religious and secular subjects.

Saint Michel, an imposing parish church located just a stone throw away from the Ducal Palace, is unique for its architectural split-personality. By the end of the 15th century its congregation, having outgrown its ancient Romanesque church, commissions a new  one in the flamboyant Gothic style of the time. It includes a deep, cathedral-worthy triple portal heavily carved with a startling mix of religious and secular subjects. David slaying Goliath, John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene co-exist with Leda and her swan, Cupid at the toilette of Venus and the labors of Hercules. Apparently fund-raising doesn’t keep up, construction is slow and the Renaissance takes over. The façade especially, with its towers of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, is a perfect representation of the style, making Saint Michel a superb illustration of this major transition in European art.

Dijon-Notre Dame,

The roofline of Notre Dame of Dijon is a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture.

Dijon-Saint Benigne crypt.

Columns of the crypt of Saint Benigne are topped by pre-Roman capitals.

Within a five-minute walk of the Saint Michel and the Ducal Palace, the church of Notre Dame of Dijon is widely recognized as a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture, and well worth a visit. If you do go, take a walk along the north side of the church on the Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street). In one of the corner buttresses, a tiny niche holds a carving of an owl, worn smooth over the centuries because of the superstition that it brings luck to those who strokes the bird with their left hand while making a wish. Worth a try.

The Saint Benigne Cathedral is a former abbey church in the Burgundian Gothic style (circa 13th century). Its most impressive feature is its early Romanesque crypt, originally created in 511 to hold the sarcophagus of an early Christian martyr (Saint Benigne). Restored in the 11th century the large circular crypt consists of in inner ring of six columns surrounded by an outer ring of sixteen columns, some of them still topped by their pre-Roman capitals. This crypt is one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries still active in France.

Archeological Treasures

Dijon-Blanot treasure.

The Bronze Age Treasure of Blanot (10tth century B.C.) includes remarkable gold jewelry.

Dijon-Gallic offerings.

Votive offerings to the Gallic goddess of the Seine River.

Around the corner from Saint Benigne, what was once the cloister of the abbey is now home to the Dijon Archeological Museum with its exceptional collection of relics discovered within the region. Highlights include the Treasure of Blanot (a small village some 100 kilometer (65 miles) south of Dijon, a Bronze Age treasure of amazingly sophisticated gold necklaces, belts and leg ornaments, as well as bronze and pottery household items.

Another gallery is dedicated to votive offerings to Sequana, the Gallic goddess of the Seine River, worshiped for her healing powers. These artefacts were found in a 2nd century BC shrine by the spring that is the source of the river, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Dijon. The museum also displays Gallo-Roman stone carvings and objects of every life, and early medieval weapons and jewels, all an irrefutable testimony of the presence of man in Burgundy from prehistoric times through the middle ages.

Dijon-Ducal Palace

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By Train. Dijon is less than two hours from Paris-Gare de Lyon by high-speed train (TGV), with multiple departures throughout the day. There are also regular train services from a variety of destinations, including major cities in France as well as Italy, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Belgium and beyond. By car. The city is well connected to freeway and highway networks. However, traffic is limited within the centre of the city, and visitors are urged to park their vehicle for the duration of their visit.
  • Getting around – Most of the center of the city is closed to car traffic, well paved and a joy to wander around on foot. Complimentary maps and pamphlets for self-guided tours are available at the Dijon Tourist Office, 11 Rue des Forges, open daily from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm from April to September and 9:30 am to 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from October to March. Sunday and national holidays: 10:00 am to 4:00.  Complimentary smart phone apps of guided tours around the city may also be downloaded – links are on the Tourist office website.
  • Staying – There is a wealth of short-term lodging options to suit all preferences and budgets in and around Dijon. On this recent two-night stay, I chose the historic four-star Grand Hôtel la Cloche, 14 Place Darcy, 21000, Dijon. Contact: Tel. +33 3 80 30 12 32, mail
  • Visiting – The Musée des Beaux Arts, Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, Dijon, is open daily Wednesday to Monday, from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. The Musée Archéologique, 5 Rue Docteur Maret, is open daily Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. Opening hours vary with the season and are available on the website of the museum.

Location, location, location!


The medieval gem in the heart of Belgium

The medieval gem in the heart of Belgium

Bruges, just one hour’s drive from the cosmopolitan center of Brussels, is one of these enchanted cities European fairy tales are made of; cities vanished into the sea at the height of their grandeur to reappear untouched by time every 100-years or so. Bruges, however, was simply abandoned by the sea.

Belgium - Canals and Belfry in Bruges

The thirteenth century Belfy dominates the skyline of Bruges.

The first records of its existence trace back to Julius Caesar’s conquest of the area in the first century B.C., when fortifications were built to protect the coastal settlement from North Sea pirates. Over the next millennium it grew into the most important citadel of the Flemish coast. By the time it received its city charter in 1128 Bruges was on its way to becoming a major seat of trade between the Flemish countries and the Mediterranean, ushering in a golden age that was to last three centuries. Great commerce wealth flowed in and Bruges became one of the artistic hubs of Europe. Then the late fifteenth century, the Zwin River silted up. Deprived of its access to the North Sea, the city became a sleepy backwater town.

Sleeping Beauty reawakened

Belgium - Bruges' Provincial Courthouse

Horse-drawn carriages await tourists in front of the Provincial Courthouse.

Belgium - Bruges canalside gothic architecture.

Grand gothic public buildings line the main canals.

Bruges slept for 400 years, when the development of twentieth century mass tourism turned its long-ago demise as a commercial powerhouse into posterity’s gain. Today, with its gothic architecture still intact Bruges is one of the most visited medieval cities in Western Europe. High-speed trains have put it within an easy three-hours’ reach of Paris, Amsterdam, London, and the western part of Germany. Hordes of sightseers stop for a quick look on their way from one major city to the next. These daytime tourists mainly congregate around the Grote Markt (Market Square), the grandest square and commercial heart of Bruges since the thirteenth century, dominated by its 272 foot (83 meter) belfry, and the Burg (Town Square) that was and remains to this day its administrative core. The cobbled streets surrounding the two squares are lined with shops brimming with the chocolate and lace for which the city is famous, conveniently ensuring that visitors do not have to stray far afield to load up on souvenirs, and miss most of the romance of the city.

A treasure trove of romanic boutique hotels

The elegant lounge and library of the Pand Hotel are filled with antiques.

The elegant lounge of the Pand Hotel is filled with antiques.

Belgium - Breakfast at the Pand in Bruges.

The Pand Hotel is breakfast is prepared to order.


Every decade or so, I conjure up an opportunity to return to Bruges for a couple of days. The historic center is a treasure trove of centuries-old mansions reborn as lovely boutique hotels that combine the latest in twenty first century comforts with the all the charm of their bygone heydays.

My personal favorite retreat is the Pand Hotel, an early eighteenth century carriage house turned luxury boutique hotel, on a tiny tree-shaded square right in the heard of the city. Owned and managed for a couple of generations by the Vanhaecke family, the property has been personally decorated by Mrs. Chris Vanhaeke. An enthusiastic antiques collector, she used superb pieces from her own collection to give the hotel the authentic feel of a gracious home from Bruges’ romantic past, with the welcomed addition of a whirlpool bath in most rooms and Wi-Fi access everywhere on the property. With its warm, attentive staff and wonderful, prepared to order champagne breakfast, I find the Pand reason enough to return to Bruges anytime.

Back to the middle ages

Belgium - Bruges Jerusalem Church

A lone cyclist rides along the tourist-free street by the Jerusalem Church.

During the day, I leave the main squares to tourists to wander in a world unchanged for centuries. Regal swans glide by canal-side homes. Humpbacked stone bridges lead into a maze of narrow lanes opening onto squares bordered by stately gothic mansions or culs-de-sac surrounded with whitewashed almshouses. There, I revisit my personal favorites:

Built in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, the grand gothic Church of our Lady with its 401 feet (122 meters) bell tower remains to this day the tallest structure in Bruges. It’s quite a climb but I am rewarded with the best view of the city and surrounding countryside. The church is also home to a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo.

The cradle of Flemish Art during the renaissance, Bruges has retained many works of the Flemish Primitives masters Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes and Gerard David among others. While some their paintings are scattered around the churches and public buildings of the city, the most important collection is at the Groeninge Museum.

Then in a quiet neighborhood north of the city center, there is the small Jerusalem Church with its unusual octagonal tower, and even more unusual history. Completed in 1470, the church is a replica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, including a faux tomb of Christ. It consists of a nave, with right in the center of it the tomb of Anselm Adornes (deceased in 1483). The church is still privately owned by his descendants, originally merchants from Genoa, Italy, settled Bruges in the thirteenth century. The Bruges Lace Museum is next door in the former Adornes mansion.

Belgium - The Beguinage in Bruges.

Individual homes surround the serene park of the Beguinage.

I never miss a return visit at the Beguinage, a pastoral retreat at the edge of the historic center. It is a walled religious community founded in the thirteenth century by beguines (women who wanted a life dedicated to God without retiring from the world). Inside, some 30 individual medieval homes, many with small walled-in front gardens and a sixteenth century church surround a central park shaded by soaring trees. The park, church and largest house, originally the home of the Grande-Dame who ruled over the Beguinage and now a small museum, are open to the public. Since the Beguinage is now a Benedictine nuns’ community, visitors are required to keep silent, making the park a serene hideaway only a few minutes from the city center.

Belgium - Nighttime in Bruges.

Nighttime in Bruges

As dusk descends on the city, the daytime visitors fade away. The ancient buildings are bathed in the glow of soft floodlights, their reflection mirrored in the stillness of the canals. After dinner in one of the cozy local taverns, I walk along the deserted streets echoing with the steps on cobblestones and muted voices of occasional passers-by. High in one of the many towers that dominate the jagged roofline, chimes mark the passing evening hours. This is when Bruges finally reveals itself as it must have been at the peak of its medieval romance.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bruges, Belgium