Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges (pronounced Bruzh) was founded in the 9th century and is the capital of Belgium’s West Flanders province. With most of its medieval architecture intact the city looks like something out of a fairy tale. Since 2000, the historic city centre has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Among the city’s claims to fame is that the first book in English ever printed was published in Bruges.
The Minnewater is a canalized lake with a small park with plenty of swans. The story goes that in 1488 the people of Bruges executed one of the town administrators. The administrator’s last name was Lanchals which means ‘long neck’ and his family coat of arms featured a white swan. Maximilian of Austria punished the town for the execution by ordering the town to care for swans for eternity.
The guinage of Bruges was founded in 1245. In 1937 it became a monastery for the nuns of the Order of Saint Benedict.

The town is often called “The Venice of the North” because of its canals. A 30-minute canal ride is only €8 and it’s a great way to see Bruges from a different perspective.

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (The Church of Our Lady) is the world’s second highest brick tower. The steeple is 122.3 meters (401.25 feet) tall. It took 200 years to complete the church, from the 13th – 15th century.
Inside is the marble sculpture Madonna and Child created by Michelangelo around 1504. It is the only one of his statues to leave Italy during his lifetime. It had been purchased by two wealthy brothers and donated to the church in 1514. It has been taken twice by foreign invaders. In 1794, the statue was ordered to Paris but was returned after Napoleon’s defeat. In 1944, German soldiers smuggled it to Germany, hidden in mattresses in a Red Cross ambulance. Two years later is was found and returned to Bruges.
Bruges is a city with two town squares. The largest one is Grote Markt and this was the commercial center of medieval Bruges. The main monument is the 13th century belfry tower. It is 83 meters (~272 feet) tall and is supposed to have a great view of the city. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to make it to the top of the belfry. Around the square are guild houses.
Burg is the second square and is the administrative section of town. There are some great looking buildings from various architectural styles. In the corner of the square is the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (The Basilica of the Holy Blood).
It was built from 1134 to 1157 as the chapel for the Count of Flanders. It was became a minor basilica in 1923. The relic of the Holy Blood (Christ’s blood) was brought to Bruges from the Holy Land in 1150 after the Second Crusade. Every year there is a mile-long religious procession and many people dress as medieval knights.
Seeing Ghent and Bruges made for a long day trip from Brussels. Both cities are well worth a visit. But after a while it all becomes information overload. It’s probably best to spend a full day in each city as opposed to trying to see both in one day. I originally thought about trying to squeeze in a half-day visit to Antwerp but I’m glad I didn’t. This way I have an excuse to visit Belgium again. Maybe next year if I manage to make it to the Netherlands.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent is the capital of the East Flanders province and the 4th largest city in Belgium with around 250,000 inhabitants. During the Middle Ages it was one of the largest and richest cities in northern Europe. This is where the Treaty of Ghent was signed which formally ended the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain. Ghent suffered little bomb damage during WWI and WWII so the town's medieval architecture is very well preserved. You can view the 1,400 years of history int he town's medieval towers that overlook the old city center Saint Nicholas' Church, the belfry and Saint Bavo Cathedral.
Sint Niklaaskerk (Saint Nicholas’ Church is one of the oldest and most prominent of the town’s landmarks. The Gothic church began in the 13th century as a replacement for an earlier Romanesque church. It was completed between 1220 – 1250. During the French Revolution, when the country was attacked, the church was used a horse stable.
The town belfry was completed in 1380. It is 91 meters (~299 feet) and served as a bell tower, a fortified watchtower and the town treasury. The belfry is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sint Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo Catherdral) is the the seat of the Ghent diocese. It is based upon the Chapel of St. John the Baptist and it was consecrated in 942. The cathedral was expanded in the Romanesque style in 1038 and again in the Gothic style in 1569. This is where Charles V was baptized in 1500. However, in 1539 there was a rebellion against Charles V and the old Abbey of St. Bavo was dissolved. The church became a cathedral in 1559.
Het Gravensteen (the Castle of the Counts) is a 12th century castle that was partially restored and converted to a museum. The original castle was built around 868 by Count Baldwin I and later rebuilt by the Count of Flanders around 1180. A medieval castle in the middle of a city is pretty cool.
In the center of town is Sint Michielsbug (St. Michael's Bridge), near St. Michael's Church. From here is a great view of the town's row of historical buildings along the river.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Kingdom of Belgium

The Kingdom of Belgium is a constitutional monarchy and was put together in 1830 - 1831 by the international powers as a political compromise. It has a population of 10.5 million and is about the size of Maryland. The capital city Brussels is also the capital of the European Union and is home to NATO

The country has one of the largest debts in Europe running at about 99% of its GDP. Belgium is getting ready to assume the presidency of the EU for the next six months. The EU’s main goal is creating an ever closer union in Europe yet, at times, it seems that the country may break apart due to the tensions between Flanders and Wallonia.

Flanders makes up the northern part of the country and Wallonia is in the south. Flemish (Dutch) is spoken in Flanders and French is spoken in Wallonia. There is a small German speaking region in eastern Wallonia. Brussels is officially bilingual, but most people speak French, even though Brussels is in Flanders. Each of the three regions has its own government.

There is a movement in Flanders to break away from Wallonia. Wallonia has about 1/3rd of the population but 46% of the unemployment, with another 40% working for the government. Since Wallonia accounts for only 24% of the country’s GDP, Flanders is tired of supporting Wallonia. Plus it seems that the people in Flanders tend to be more bilingual than those in the south.

My Belgium itinerary consists of Ghent, Bruges and Brussels; all in Flanders.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

German Military Cemetery

About 1.5 km away from the American Military Cemetery is the German Military Cemetery in Sandweiler. It contains the graves of 10.913 German servicemen from the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1952 Luxembourg and West Germany reached an agreement and moved 5,286 servicemen from 150 different cemeteries in Luxembourg to Sandweiler. Of the 10,913 soldiers buried here, 4,829 are in the large comrades’ grave behind a large cross. There are 810 unknown soldiers buried here.
In contrast to the white tombstones at the American cemetery the tombstones at Sandweiler are dark stone crosses. Most of the gravestones bear the name of the dead but some simply state Ein Deutscher Soldat (a German soldier). Many of the tombstones list two names and all of them have names listed on each side of the tombstone.
The last person interred here was an unknown German soldier discovered near Wiltz in Fall 2007.

Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial

The Battle of the Ardennes, more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge, was the bloodiest of the battles that American forces experienced in WWII. It was a major German offensive launched toward the end of the war through Luxembourg, Belgium and France from 16 December 1944 25 January 1945. The battle caused 80,987 American, 1,400 British and 84,834 German casualties.
The Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial sits on 204,000 m2 (50.5 acres) in Hamm. Under a 1951 US-Luxembourg treaty the US government was granted free use of the land in perpetuity without taxation. It is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
The cemetery contains the remains of 5,076 American service members who died serving our country. One of the graves belongs to a female army nurse and 101 graves contain the remains of unknown soldiers. There are 22 instances of two brothers resting side-by-side in adjacent graves.
Near the entrance is a white stone chapel. The chapel's mosaic ceiling depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove on a cloud held by four angels.
There are two fountains with bronze dolphins overlooking three pools on descending levels. The fountains represent resurrection and everlasting life.
Not far from the chapel is the grave of General George S. Patton Jr., commander of the Third U.S. Army. He was originally buried amongst the other graves but his grave was moved because the high number of visitors caused damaged to the grass around his and the other soldier's graves.

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

Luxembourg City was founded in 963 and is the country’s capital. It’s also headquarters for the European Investment Bank and home to the administrative offices of the EU Parliament.

It has to be the most provincial capital city I’ve ever seen. It can only be described as quaint and charming. The city sits amidst a valley and with its windy, hilly roads and cobblestone streets it looks like something out of a fairy tale. The oldest sections of the city have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

At Constitution Square is the Gëlle Fra memorial. Sort of. The Golden Lady commemorates the Luxembourgers who perished during WWI. She normally sits on top of a stone obelisk but she was missing. Perhaps the statue was going through renovations. I guess I’ll just have to go back and see it next time.

Not far away is the Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was originally a Jesuit church and the foundation stone was laid in 1613.

Near Notre-Dame and the government district is Clairefontaine Square. Here there is a memorial to the Grand Duchess Charlotte who reigned from 1919 – 1964. She was one of the most beloved rulers and the inscription on the bronze statue reads Mir hun lech gaër (We love you).
The Palace of the Grand Dukes is in the old town, near William II Square. It has functioned as the city residence of the royal family since 1890.
William Square is named after William II, King of the Netherlands and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. He ruled from 1840 – 1849. One year before his death, he granted Luxembourg its first parliamentary constitution.
The Adolphe Bridge, also called the New Bridge, was built from 1900 – 1903. It crosses the Pétrusse Valley and at the time it was built it had the biggest stone arch in the world.
The “Red Bridge”, officially the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge, crosses the Pfaffenthal and connects the city center to the EU quarter on the Kirchberg Plateau.
The National Monument of the Solidarity on Cannon Hill commemorates the dead of WWII. It recalls the Luxembourger resistance and solidarity of the country to the Nazi occupation. In front of the monument is an eternal burning flame.
In nearby Hamm is the American Military Cemetery with over 5,000 graves of American soldiers who died in 1944-45 in the Battle of the Bulge.
A couple of kilometers from the American Cemetery, in Sandweiler, is the German Military Cemetery. There are over 10,000 German soldiers buried here that perished fighting in Luxembourg and Belgium.