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Bruges business: The city’s ancient markets
Within Belgium, the Brugeoise have a reputation for being greedy and rapacious. Hardly very surprising when their city was built on business; their essence was to market. The heart of the city is Markt, a beautiful open market square. It’s surrounded by gabled medieval buildings and the former market halls. The old stone slabs which traders used to cut and sell meat and other produce, like cloth, have been preserved. Looming over it all is the Belfort, the city’s 13th-century belfry – the scene of a particularly dramatic moment in the film In Bruges. In a place as flat as Belgium, the only way to get a view – to really get a sense of the lie of the land and see how the city works – is to get up high. From the top of the tower you look down on to a web of canals, on to the little roof terraces that the people of the city are so fond of cultivating, and out across the flat landscape towards distant wind farms.

Around the corner, Bruges’ fabulous fish market is still very much a working market. The Brugeoise December 2012 Lonely Planet Traveller 83 love their fish; fresh, raw herring is the Belgian equivalent of Japanese sushi, and highly prized. Every summer, the first barrel of herring to be caught – enough for, say, 100 people to eat – is sold at auction and traditionally goes for around €70,000. The winning bid is given to charity, so it’s a big prestige thing among the benevolent super-rich.

A great delicacy, herring is eaten with raw onions and gherkin. A really nice thing to do is to stop at the fish market, buy a load of herring and make yourself a little picnic, with a couple of bottles of Belgian beer. Again, with a meal like this you’re eating the history of this place, because herring was traditionally what local people lived on; it’s how human habitation was even possible in this cold, wet place, before the city became rich. The Romans called the Belgians a ‘miserable tribe of herringeating primitives’, but the Belgians had the last laugh when they created Bruges.

Rich in oil: Bruges on canvas
During the 15th century Bruges became a centre for a stunningly new and completely beguiling artistic technique: oil painting. Its great masters were Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and their work can be seen at Bruges’ Groeningemuseum. It isn’t a huge gallery but its collection is spectacular. It has the wonderful Madonna with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck – a frozen, seated Madonna with a Bruges clergyman kneeled beside her. At the same time this was painted, 1436, the Italians were using fresco, painting murals on freshly laid plaster. It gives vivid images but not the sense that you can actually touch someone’s arm or see the moistness in the corner of their eye – as with oil.

Oil paint’s potential was discovered in Flanders in the 1430s. We’re not sure how it was discovered, but it completely transformed the whole history of western art. Perhaps because the Low Countries’ culture came from a world of near nothingness, derided by the ancient Romans as a watery wilderness, they loved art that was rich. In Flemish painting you get everything – gold, silver, jewels; the Madonna wearing something beautiful; castles in the landscape. Artists stacked up visual elements for the viewer to enjoy. At the time, people were so stunned by the hypnotic realism of oil painting they put it about that Jan van Eyck had sold his soul to the devil for the ability to paint like that. It’s impossible for us now to understand its impact. Imagine a world with no advertisements, no photographs, no cars. You go to church and see an altarpiece that is almost photographically real – it must have been astonishing.

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