intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
There was once a little wooden bridge that spanned an ancient canal. Rebuilt in stone, it was nicknamed the Bridge of Sighs by the people of Bruges, because condemned convicts crossed it on their way to be publicly executed… But it is not to be expected that today’s visitors – charmed by the city’s medieval houses overhanging the water – should dwell on these dark times: particularly those who stay at the Nuit Blanche guesthouse, whose bedrooms – the quintessence of romance – embody the fairy-tale picture we might have of the Middle Ages; and steeped in the patina of age, they have plenty of stories to tell.
Nuit Blanche, with its mullioned Gothic windows evokes the tranquil intimacy of 15th-century Flemish interiors. It is as if we have crossed the threshold of a Robert Campin painting (MET New-York). © David De Graef
The Nuit Blanche guest house is part of a group of small medieval houses constructed at the end of the 15th century. No one today, knows who built these little Gothic dwellings, but it is known from archival documents that at one time they were annexed to Bruges’ prison, and served as holding houses for prisoners condemned to death on the gallows. The wooden bridge that led to their place of execution was replaced at the beginning of the 20th century by one of brick and stone. Despite its dark past, the bridge and its beautifully preserved surroundings is one of the most romantic spots in Bruges and a magnet for lovers.
The little bridge, in front of the Nuit Blanche guest house, is traditionally known as the Bridge of Sighs. © David De Graef
The canal’s plentiful running water made the buildings an attractive site for a tannery that was set up at the beginning of the 16th century. It was an important trade, but given its associated strong odours, an unusual activity to find in the centre of a city. The workshop then became a dyers’ yard – another extremely important guild in a city renowned for the quality of its cloth and sumptuous brocades. After this, there is no further record of these charming dwellings. They faded into oblivion, silenced by the stagnation and decline of Bruges as a merchant city. But at the end of the 19th century when the craze for neo-Gothic was at its height, the site came into its own again and was given over to a forge specializing in traditionally made decorative ironwork.
n the forecourt of the Gruuthuse museum – a wonderful example of the skills of a decorative ironwork artist – a ‘blacksmith’ who knew how to make a recalcitrant metal dance to the tune of anvil and hammer. © Miguel Discart
In the 1930s, the buildings were given a new lease of life thanks to Baron Jo van der Elst, who incorporated the little cluster of houses into one unit. The ancient exterior walls and elevations were preserved, while the interior was reconstituted to retain its medieval atmosphere enhanced by the baron’s acquisition of many pieces of furniture, decorative items and materials of the period, gleaned from various antiquarians.
The house’s inspiring medieval decor based on recovered, authentic objects has rendered it the perfect location for historical reconstitutions and period films. © Nuit Blanche
Particular attention was also paid to the enclosed garden, which was inspired by works of the school of Early Netherlandish painting and recreated as a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden).
View of the garden dominated, as it was in the 15th century, by the soaring outlines of the Church of Our Lady. © David De Graef
At nightfall, the town closes the gates to the little park that lies between Nuit Blanche and the Church of our Lady, the Arentshof, and the Gruuthuse museum. Now blissfully empty, you can look out onto this magical, peaceful garden from your bedroom window and enjoy it alone. (Of course, the guestrooms are accessible at any time from the street behind).
This little fairy-tale domain with its enclosed garden is so discreet, that the Barons van der Elst could have members of the royal family to stay in complete privacy. Another notable guest was Sir Winston Churchill, who enjoyed painting views of Bruges city.
One of the doors to the little haven of peace that gets locked at night. © Chiara Ortegat
Acquired in 2007, the property – now listed as a historic monument – is the residence and studio of the artist, David De Graef, and many of his paintings grace the walls of the house. In the tradition of his predecessors, you will be warmly and personally welcomed; and he will also serve you a creative but hearty breakfast.
David De Graef’s studio with its 15th-century hearth. © David De Graef
The two guest rooms are exceptionally charming. Their exposed oak beams, ancient bricks, and parchment-lined walls; their Gothic mouldings and carvings on their chimney pieces, with the attendant forged fire irons, will immerse you in the spirit of the Middle Ages.
Make sure you book your rooms at Nuit Blanche, well in advance as they are particularly popular for their medieval authenticity. © David De Graef
Wherever you go in the vicinity, you will come across museums, and remarkable monuments, such as the Church of our Lady, whose rounded part of the choir wall runs the length of the enclosed garden, and possesses a sculpture by Michelangelo – a poignantly graceful and pious Madonna and Child – the only work to have crossed the Alps in the artist’s lifetime.
The sublimely beautiful Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. © Hans Splinter
The church also houses the tombs and recumbent effigies of Mary the Duchess of Burgundy and her father Charles the Bold. The church’s pulpit is an admirable example of the eighteenth-century Flemish Baroque style.
Mary of Burgundy by Jules Lagae, 1901. © Peter Meuris
The Gruuthuse museum (currently undergoing restoration work until 2017), also near the Church of Our Lady, organises temporary exhibitions and houses a rich collection of period furniture, medieval tapestries, fine ceramics, precious metalwork, and arms. There are also many very fine paintings, amongst which, a portrait of Charles the Bold. Of interest too are the devotional objects, rare medical instruments, and an old apothecary. On the other side of the little park adjacent to Nuit Blanche, is the Groeninge museum which gives a rich insight into Belgian art from the 15th-century Early Netherlandish painting (sometimes called Flemish Primitive painting) to the present day.
Saint John’s Hospital, opposite the cathedral, is one of the oldest existing medieval hospices in the world, and is home to works of art by Hans Memling, which includes the famous Saint Ursula reliquary. Its fascinating collection of medical appurtenances and the building itself, offers an enlightening history of medicine and medical practices.
The medieval hospice of Saint John cared for the sick from the 12th to the 20th century when it ceased activity as a hospital. © Dennis Jarvis
To fully appreciate the atmosphere in Bruges, do not hesitate to enhance your stay by reading a few books. A few suggestions:
Films to watch before leaving
Period music to enjoy while you are there
Nuit Blanche, tout un programme ! David n’hésite pas à quitter son chevalet de peintre pour nous accueillir chaleureusement dans cette délicieuse chambre avec vue sur Notre-Dame. Le petit-déjeuner goûteux et copieux, "pour que mes hôtes prennent des forces avant de sillonner la ville", correspond si bien à la générosité de David.
Le soir, de la fenêtre, cet endroit magique se laisse vraiment savourer... Nous sommes seuls au monde !
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B&B Nuit Blanche
David De Graef
+32 494 40 04 47
Website of the guest house
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