Thursday, May 28, 2015

Medicine and Memling

May in Belgium doesn't have quite as many days off as May in France, since we don't get the 8th, but there are still three, which means, particularly this year as they fell well, plenty of long weekends in which endless thumb-twiddling eventually leads to getting out of the house and seeing what there is to do around Belgium. I've been to Bruges before, in the dead of winter, but Jules had never visited, so against my better judgement, we visited during the May Day long weekend.

I had expected it to be fairly crowded, being a long weekend in spring, but it was even worse than I thought. Here's something that might surprise you - Brussels and Antwerp have the worst and second-worst traffic in Europe and North America (or the world, depending on what source you read). This is evidently not a new phenomenon either - try Googling "Brussels worst traffic" and you'll find year after year of different surveys in which Brussels tops the worst league rankings.

I take the bus to work, so while there are definitely times when the bus is sitting in traffic, or (even more often) turns up late, presumably due to traffic, bus lanes along part of the route means that it's usually not too bad in my day-to-day life. The bizarre thing for me, though, is that the traffic never stops. Traffic back home in Auckland can get pretty dire in rush hour, but bar some massive accident, it's pretty rare to get caught in traffic on the weekend or in the middle of the day. Whereas almost every time we've tried to go anywhere across town or between cities here in Belgium, we've ended up in a massive traffic jam.

The 100 kilometres to Bruges is supposed to take about 1 hour 10 minutes to drive, but we ended up sitting in crawling, nose-to-tail traffic for around 2 1/2 hours. And then had to queue up to get into one of the jam-packed parking garages once we got there. Even worse, first off I had suggested going by train in case parking was an issue, and then the GPS had told us to get off the motorway, but its suggested route, that took a big loop around and added half an hour on to the travel time seemed so outlandish that we were convinced it must be on the fritz. So we had frustrated stupidity to add on to the annoyance of sitting in a cross-Belgium traffic jam.

When we finally got out and about in Bruges, there were way too many people everywhere and I, in particular, got rather grumpy. It was too crowded and not nice enough weather to think about the big tourist drawcards like the bell tower or the Groenige Museum, but we managed to escape the bulk of the crowds with a visit to the perhaps lesser-known Memling/Saint John's Hospital Museum.

In front of the ornate Basilica of the Holy Blood

Pretty sure a mother-in-Psycho situation is going on here with this animatronic lace-maker

Even though I like Hans Memling's bright, vivid paintings as much as the next girl (slash more), I had dismissed the idea of visiting the museum dedicated to him, housed in a medieval hospital, because I thought it pretty much consisted of a handful of Memling paintings and nothing else. Turns out, along with the atmospheric old building and the jewel-like Memlings, the museum also, fittingly, contains a range of exhibits explaining the history of the hospital and medieval and early modern medicine in general.

I'm a bit on the squeamish side when it comes to all things medical, but even I found it fascinating and horrifying in equal measures to see cases full of the different drills, scalpels and saws used in medical procedures in the past, and to contemplate how awful it would have been to undergo these operations with no pain relief and no knowledge of germ theory or basic hygiene!

Along with the medical instruments, there was also a large number of reliquaries and devotional paintings - hence the Memlings, some of which were specially commissioned for the hospital. This reflects the important religious role of the hospital, which aimed to care for its patients spiritually as much as (or more) than medically - praying for the saints to intercede with miraculous cures followed by praying for the patient's soul as they died.

I don't know about you, but I think I'd rather have the surgeon's full attention at a time like this

An anatomy lesson
This amazing shrine, telling the story of Saint Ursula, was specially created by Memling for the hospital

More beautiful Memling works

Memling's Saint John altarpiece

Details from the altarpiece

The hospital pharmacy, which like the hospital, stayed operational into the 19th century, was also worth a visit, with its walls lined with apothecary jars and boxes full of exotic herbs and minerals used to treat ailments.

Thankfully the car trip back was incident-free, but while we're still up for visiting Bruges again some time in the future, I think we'll be waiting for next winter, after the Christmas markets, when the tourists have left again for the year.


  1. I hate to break it to you, but since you left Auckland the population has boomed and the traffic is now horrible at most times.

  2. I have also been to Bruges in the dead of winter. There were no crowds. It was freezing though. The canals were frozen, as when you went-- quite a sight to behold!

  3. I've never tried memling, or if I did I have no memely of it.

  4. I've been to Bruges twice. Both times it rained. A lot. Needless to say, I don't really have a good impression of the city. I much prefer Ghent!

    And I hear you when it comes to traffic jams in Belgium! When we cross through Belgium to go to Franche-Comte, we get stuck in these stupid jams for no reason - we don't even go around any big cities! Like, say one out of three lanes is closed due to work, and it's not rush hour - we're stuck for hours! That would so not happen back home. I don't get it.


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