‘In the market place of Bruges/Stands the Belfry old and brown/Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilt/Still it watches o’er the town.’

Visible from miles around, the tower symbolises the opulence, power and ambition of the leading medieval Flemish cities, while the word ‘market’ is almost as important. It stands for long tradition. Five minutes from that market place, you will find the Smedenstraat. Largely unknown to tourists, it contains four outstanding food shops: a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheesemonger and a greengrocer. Although the ingredients could rival any food store anywhere, we are not talking about Fauchon or Fortnum and Mason. Proprietors and customers alike would find the comparison bewildering; these are everyday shops for everyday people’s shopping.

Tourists who seek out the best that a foreign country can offer are often too ready to believe that it has a superior quality of life. But Smedenstraat proves that there are two respects in which Bruges does beat Britain. First, there is nothing like the same gulf between high food and mass food. A culture of good raw materials and sound culinary techniques unites most of the denizens of Bruges, whatever their income. The second is the persistence of traditional, painstaking crafts and techniques. Especially in food production, affluence has not destroyed artisanship. The craftsmen’s fruits are on display in the Smedenstraat. The shops are usually crowded, mainly with housewives, and the atmosphere is best described as one of joyful seriousness. The whole event takes on an almost sacramental quality. While gossiping and exchanging news, the mevrouwen are also poking, prodding, sniffing, scrutinising; weighing up options and recipes.

The arrival of a male foreigner immediately arouses the ladies’ curiosity. Two assumptions are automatic: that he knows nothing about food and that – whatever the evidence to the contrary – he must be in need of a square meal. So shopping can turn into a seminar. I once went to collect a goose and was asked how we were proposing to stuff it. Everyone in the shop contributed to the discussion. Finally the butcher said that he would make some sausages which should work well. I could not quite understand what would be in them but, judging by the nods all round, the idea found favour. They were delicious.

The Smedenstraat helps to explain why Bruges is different from Venice. In Venice, it is impossible to escape the demoralising contrast between the glorious past and the shrunken present. One is always aware of the skull behind the carnival mask. In Bruges, however magnificent the heritage and however much the city depends on tourism, there is a sense of solid, undemonstrative Flemish persistence, grounded in reality and in continuity. Over the centuries, the countenances have not changed that much. To judge by their painters, the Flemings were never a beautiful race. The women’s faces have more character than grace, while the men are stocky, thickset, with gruff, knobbly visages and jutting jaws. Flemings often sport beards, but not to conceal weak chins. Since the Renaissance, little has altered except apparel. Kit out the average modern Brugeois with a leather jerkin and a steel breastplate; he would look like a painting by a minor Flemish master circa 1500.

The language is equally jutting and knobbly. You do not know the meaning of the word ‘guttural’ until you have heard a Fleming pronounce Rogier van der Weyden or Hugo van der Goes. The late Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador who made the mistake of confiding his views on Israel to Barbara Amiel, used to say that Flemish was the nearest human sound to ‘le cri de bête’. One can see his point. Given the suave and mellifluous competition from French, it seems curious that Flemish survived. Who would not prefer Saint Jean-Baptiste to Sint Jan de Doper, Charles le Téméraire to Karel de Stoute?

But the Flemings are not a suave or mellifluous race. Their language suits their character, and helps to explain their centuries-long and truculent refusal to subside into France or Germany. Yet this least ethereal of peoples produced sublime paintings and architecture. In old Bruges, alongside the canals, the ancient brickwork dances. Brick takes on a filigree quality. Its reflections sparkle in the water, while the buildings themselves sparkle when the daylight is generous. This is not the blowsy opulence of a southern sun caressing the stonework as if it were a languorous pussy-cat. This is a subtle, intellectual, northern interplay between light and masonry; this is a gentle magic emerging from the mist. If Venice is Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Bruges is a Bach suite for harpsichord and cello.

Bruges is the perfect setting for the jewel-like masterpieces of the Flemish Renaissance. Even the greatest painting can be enhanced by a context, as with an altar-piece that is still in the church for which it was painted. In the case of Bruges, the finest paintings never left their context. The Memlings are still in St. John’s Hospital, for which they were commissioned. Today the building may be a museum, not a hospital, but it is rooted in its origins, just as the Bruges masters were rooted in civic pride and civic piety.

Amidst such treasures, it seems absurd to talk about a favourite Bruges painting, but mine is in the Groningen Gallery. It is van Eyck’s Madonna and Child with Canon van der Paele. The Canon is kneeling; the Virgin is flanked by St. George and St. Donatian. Every detail is magnificently realised: this is one of the greatest painters at the top of his form. The Canon, who paid for the painting, was a distinguished Bruges churchman, and the painting of him is one of the first great bourgeois portraits. The Canon looks overawed, as well he might in the presence of such exalted personages. He is also plump – his housekeeper would have been well known in the fifteenth century equivalent of Smedenstraat – and he is holding a pair of spectacles. His face has a hint of fussiness. Is it fanciful to suppose that Canon van der Paele was well-known for playing with his glasses and that his contemporaries would have chuckled when they saw them? In Renaissance Bruges, great art was not confined to an aesthetic sanctum sanctorum. It was part of the continuum of daily life. To a greater extent than in most cities, it still is.

Apropos of the ethereal, the city does contain one woman whose features could never be accused of lacking grace. Charles le Téméraire had a daughter, Mary. When he was killed at the siege of Nancy, in 1477, she became Duchess of Burgundy and Countess of Flanders at the tremulous and vulnerable age of eighteen. With characteristic French magnanimity, Louis XI promptly invaded, intending to force her marriage to his eldest son and thus gobble up her domains. But she found an ally, Maximilian of Austria, whom she did marry. He helped her to save Flanders. Though the marriage appears to have been inspired by love, it was also the most important of all dynastic unions. From Mary’s womb sprang centuries of history and conflict. Her grandson was the Emperor Charles V.

But her reign and her happiness were brief. In 1482, while hunting near Louvain, she was thrown from her horse. Three days later she expired. Queens have died young and fair. Her tomb is in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges (the Flemish is Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk) and the effigy is a masterpiece. No doubt, she was idealised, but there are few finer female portraits. The sculptor rescued her from transience and tragedy, and captured her for immortality in a poem of girlhood. ‘Like Mary, Mother of God, your exemplar/How beautiful, how beautiful you are’.

This five hundred-year-dead Princess has the strangest effect on me. It has never been suggested that she was a candidate for sanctity – that might change if she converted me – but up to now only embarrassment has prevented me from falling to my knees to pray beside her tomb. Pray to what or whom? I do not know. But in that girl’s presence I always feel an overwhelming sense of a sacred in which I do not believe.

That said, the most ardent secularist might be tempted to pray in Bruges, to give thanks for the city’s survival. Over the centuries Flanders was one of Europe’s favourite battlefields. A few miles from Bruges, the Abbey of the Dunes used to enhance the Flemish coastline until it was utterly destroyed during the religious wars of the sixteenth century. Four miles north-east of the city, Damme and its church are worth a visit, even though the church was also ravaged during that time. Fortunately, this was the nearest that the iconoclasts got to Bruges.

The guide books will tell you where everything is to be found, including the restaurants. Gouden Harynck and De Karmeliet are among the best in the world, and priced accordingly. But a more modest establishment should not be missed: Breydel-de-Coninck. A couple of years ago I had a meal there. It began with a mystic marriage of langoustines and garlic butter; it was hard to imagine that anything from the sea could taste better. For the main course, I found something that almost did; a couple of Schelde sole: at their best, in my view, superior to the

would be booked up a year in advance. There is also De Garre, a small, very Flemish pub which is an ideal place to learn about the glories of Belgian beer. Customers are restricted to three half-litre glasses of one house speciality, and when you have drunk them you will understand why. As strong as some wines, it is also excellent: as good a glass of wallop as is to be found in Belgium. The proprietor often plays Wagner, which seems appropriate. His beer would help Brunnhilde to resuscitate fallen heroes in Valhalla.

The ideal time to visit Bruges is whenever you feel like doing so, though high summer is best avoided. The canals niff, there can be mosquitoes and there are too many other people, even if nothing on the scale of the great Italian cities. When you do go, take your time. There is great art to see, great food to enjoy, and a centro storico where it is a delight to wander. You will come across little bridges leading you to the last enchantments of the Middle Ages. As the vista takes your breath away, you expect to see Princess Mary and her wimpled ladies riding by on their palfreys. This is a place to conjure up the clip-clop of long-dead hooves on ancient cobbles. It is impossible not to enjoy yourself in Bruges, and if you go by car, fill it up in Smedenstraat.

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