The very beautiful chapel of Bruges

Last year while on business in Brussels on a weekend I visited the historical city of Bruges. Bruges is probably the biggest quite well preserved and carefully revived medieval city in Europe. The local authorities put much attention so that new constructions or upgrades fit well into the historical city style (compare photo gallery >>>). I went there without any plan just to take a walk, sightsee and make photos. (A train from Brussels reaches Bruges within one hour.)

To understand the city heritage I took a one hour guided tour on a small touristic bus that starts and ends its tour at the main square. I was not planning to see any interiors. But one place drew my attention as I was listening to the audio. It was described as the most beautiful church in the city with relics of value inside. As it is located five minutes of walk from the main square I came back there after descending the bus. The church turned to be rather a big chapel with a status of minor basilica.

Yes indeed, as I entered my only reaction was ‘Wow!’ Of beautiful interiors I saw last year (including the most opulent rooms in the royal palace of Madrid) this one turned to be on a definite must-see list.


The Neo-Gothic interior of the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges


The Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges (Belgium) is famous for the venerated relic of the Holy Blood. But from the sightseeing point of view it is a place of true architectural and artistic value. It was originally built in XII century as the chapel of the residence of the Count of Flanders. The status of a minor basilica was awarded 1923. The Basilica consists in fact of two chapels (the lower and the upper one) built within the residence of the Count of Flanders.

It is easy indeed not to see it from outside as the entrance facade does not look like it leads to a church. In fact it is a small building in the top right corner of the Burg square. The building has a very decorative facade but … many buildings in Bruges look like that.

The both chapels were originally built in Romanesque style. The upper chapel was however transformed into the Gothic style at the end of the 15th century and once again on the Gothic revival architectural wave in XIX together with other major revival works in the whole historical city of Bruges.


A close up onto the main entrance facade and the front view of the interior


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The historic city of Bruges

A couple months ago while on business in Brussels I decided to make a short trip to Bruges located North-West of the European capital in a couple kilometers distance from the English Channel. I visited this city once and remembered it as full of medieval architecture and many water channels. That time I did not enjoy it much as it was quite heavily raining the whole day. This time weather was just fine. So, I spent around four or five hours walking the streets of the historical medieval city of Bruges.

The area is told to be the biggest medieval city area preserved in Europe. First, it is to the fact that Bruges was one of the leading commercial centres in medieval Europe. Some historians even say that for some period the most important one. The city was simply very reach, or at least many of its inhabitants either locals or foreign ones were very affluent people. (The inequalities led once or twice to social unrest and political interventions). Secondly, because besides a few smaller events, the city was neither devastated by a bigger fire nor leveled to the ground by warfare.


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In general, it is true. But some additional explanation is needed here. The city was thriving in the early Middle Ages thanks to the tidal inlet that connected it with the sea. Its economic existence was however endangered as in the late XI and early XII century a gradual silting caused the city to lose its direct access to the sea. A storm in 1134 re-established the access through a natural channel. For years, Bruges was a thriving harbour connecting merchants from the North (England, Scandinavia), West (through Hanzeatic League) and South (Italian merchant cities, Spain, Portugal). Merchant or trading usances developed by the city authorities and the merchant guilds became the very basis of the modern exchange trading (>>>).

Around 1500 slitting closed the channel for good. The city lost its position and many affluent inhabitants to nearby Antwerp. A decline that lasted for almost four hundred years begun. Like other affluent cities of Northern Europe, Bruges was looted in times of the religious wars in the XVI century, French Revolution and Napoleonic wars in the late XVII and XIX centuries (>>>). Much furniture, stained glass, paintings and tapestries were destroyed or in later years sold to art dealers or antiquaries, who resold them internationally.


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Bruges has the style of its own, and the buildings are for sure historical ones. However, early medieval Bruges besides some brick Gothic architecture was mainly a wooden city. Bruges, we can admire today, has in most parts brick facades with characteristic step gabbling. Only few wooden structures are preserved. Thus, in the years between Middle Ages and the present day the city was reconstructed. The wooden facades were replaced as they had been susceptible of fire. The interior construction of many houses is however still of the past ages. The medieval origins of the city are mostly well preserved in its street pattern, with main roads leading towards the important public squares and the network of canals once used for the mercantile traffic. Most buildings have retained the original parcels of land.

The actual revival of Bruges was a direct consequence of damage, and thievery that plagued the city in the XVIII and XIX centuries. The local community as well as many immigrants from England fought to stop the practice and engaged to revitalise the city. There is no sign of the revolutionary damage today. In fact, the city is very well taken care of. The ‘conservation movement’ prevented also conversion of the city style into more modern look as it happened for example in Brussels. Bruges seems also to have missed the XIX century industrial revolution. The old/modern facades are described as of Neo-Gothic style that is  specific for Bruges. The modern additions of XIX and XX centuries fit well the overall picture.

So, the historical city of Bruges is not that originally medieval as it is often claimed, but still it is one of the most interesting historical cities in Europe.


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Beurse. The very roots of exchange trading

For many English speakers the word ‘beurse’ would not arise any thought. But many Europeans will quite quickly associate it with exchange trading (commodity or stock trading).

The first official exchange (with written down rules and official building) for commodities and bills of exchange was established in Antwerp in the mid XVI century. Quite quickly other European trading centers followed. Half century later in 1602 the Dutch East India Company issued the first equities that quite quickly were introduced into the Antwerp trading. For further two centuries commodity exchanges shared also securities trading, till around 1800 first pure stock exchanges had been established.

However, the first official exchanges did not emerge from nowhere. In the early middle ages commodity trading at seasonal fairs was practiced in may European countries from South to North. But only at few places the trade was truly international. Later on the so called entrepot cities emerged where trade was thriving all year long. One of the main harbours that serviced that time the trading routes in Norhern Europe was Brueges. (Due some natural sea movement Bruges lost however its position to Antwerp in XVI century). So, merchants from all around Europe met in the city of Bruges to perform their trades.

Quite naturally the local inns (taverns) were their meeting point. Innkeepers provided food and shelter to foreign merchants, but also warehousing space, commercial credit (even standing surety for their debts) and references. They connected foreigners with buyers or sellers and helped to negotiate deals. One of them was an inn called ‘The Three Purses’.


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The restored Van der Beurse family house, that replaced the original Three Purses tavern building. The building was sold to the Venetians and became their nation house. Although by far it was not the first and only trading place in the medieval Europe, its name is widely used in Europe to describe commodities and securities exchanges.


In front of it, at a little square local and foreign brokers met to perform their trades. If it was raining they moved inside. Or, they did so if they wanted to make their trade private. Trading in the opening was that time a condition by the local authorities, who wanted to oversee trade to later collect taxes. Trade was by far not free in the middle ages. With time the trade took place within preset hours and no non-traders were allowed to the place while the trading was taking place. The price quotations were displayed on the inn front wall. Soon foreign traders’ representations called ‘nation houses’ emerged in the vicinity of the square. The word ‘purse’ became the synonym for trading. With time the family owning ‘The Three Purses’ tavern changed their name to Van der Beuerse. (‘Beurse’ in Dutch means ‘purse’ in English).

With time, the word purse (beurse) as synonym for commodities and securities trading spread into many European languages: Börse (German), bolsa (Spanish), borsa (Italy) and bourse (French). Even the English used the word burse for almost two centuries till it was replaced with ‘exchange‘.


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