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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsSaunterings - The Low Countries And Rhineland - Amiens And Quaint Old Bruges
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Saunterings - The Low Countries And Rhineland - Amiens And Quaint Old Bruges Post by :jamesc96 Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2717

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Saunterings - The Low Countries And Rhineland - Amiens And Quaint Old Bruges

They have not yet found out the secret in France of banishing dust from railway-carriages. Paris, late in June, was hot, but not dusty: the country was both. There is an uninteresting glare and hardness in a French landscape on a sunny day. The soil is thin, the trees are slender, and one sees not much luxury or comfort. Still, one does not usually see much of either on a flying train. We spent a night at Amiens, and had several hours for the old cathedral, the sunset light on its noble front and towers and spire and flying buttresses, and the morning rays bathing its rich stone. As one stands near it in front, it seems to tower away into heaven, a mass of carving and sculpture,--figures of saints and martyrs who have stood in the sun and storm for ages, as they stood in their lifetime, with a patient waiting. It was like a great company, a Christian host, in attitudes of praise and worship. There they were, ranks on ranks, silent in stone, when the last of the long twilight illumined them; and there in the same impressive patience they waited the golden day. It required little fancy to feel that they had lived, and now in long procession came down the ages. The central portal is lofty, wide, and crowded with figures. The side is only less rich than the front. Here the old Gothic builders let their fancy riot in grotesque gargoyles,--figures of animals, and imps of sin, which stretch out their long necks for waterspouts above. From the ground to the top of the unfinished towers is one mass of rich stone-work, the creation of genius that hundreds of years ago knew no other way to write its poems than with the chisel. The interior is very magnificent also, and has some splendid stained glass. At eight o'clock, the priests were chanting vespers to a larger congregation than many churches have on Sunday: their voices were rich and musical, and, joined with the organ notes, floated sweetly and impressively through the dim and vast interior. We sat near the great portal, and, looking down the long, arched nave and choir to the cluster of candles burning on the high altar, before which the priests chanted, one could not but remember how many centuries the same act of worship had been almost uninterrupted within, while the apostles and martyrs stood without, keeping watch of the unchanging heavens.

When I stepped in, early in the morning, the first mass was in progress. The church was nearly empty. Looking within the choir, I saw two stout young priests lustily singing the prayers in deep, rich voices. One of them leaned back in his seat, and sang away, as if he had taken a contract to do it, using, from time to time, an enormous red handkerchief, with which and his nose he produced a trumpet obligato. As I stood there, a poor dwarf bobbled in and knelt on the bare stones, and was the only worshiper, until, at length, a half-dozen priests swept in from the sacristy, and two processions of young school-girls entered from either side. They have the skull of John the Baptist in this cathedral. I did not see it, although I suppose I could have done so for a franc to the beadle: but I saw a very good stone imitation of it; and his image and story fill the church. It is something to have seen the place that contains his skull.

The country becomes more interesting as one gets into Belgium. Windmills are frequent: in and near Lille are some six hundred of them; and they are a great help to a landscape that wants fine trees. At Courtrai, we looked into Notre Dame, a thirteenth century cathedral, which has a Vandyke ("The Raising of the Cross"), and the chapel of the Counts of Flanders, where workmen were uncovering some frescoes that were whitewashed over in the war-times. The town hall has two fine old chimney-pieces carved in wood, with quaint figures,--work that one must go to the Netherlands to see. Toward evening we came into the ancient town of Bruges. The country all day has been mostly flat, but thoroughly cultivated. Windmills appear to do all the labor of the people,--raising the water, grinding the grain, sawing the lumber; and they everywhere lift their long arms up to the sky. Things look more and more what we call "foreign." Harvest is going on, of hay and grain; and men and women work together in the fields. The gentle sex has its rights here. We saw several women acting as switch-tenders. Perhaps the use of the switch comes natural to them. Justice, however, is still in the hands of the men. We saw a Dutch court in session in a little room in the town hall at Courtrai. The justice wore a little red cap, and sat informally behind a cheap table. I noticed that the witnesses were treated with unusual consideration, being allowed to sit down at the table opposite the little justice, who interrogated them in a loud voice. At the stations to-day we see more friars in coarse, woolen dresses, and sandals, and the peasants with wooden sabots.

As the sun goes to the horizon, we have an effect sometimes produced by the best Dutch artists,--a wonderful transparent light, in which the landscape looks like a picture, with its church-spires of stone, its windmills, its slender trees, and red-roofed houses. It is a good light and a good hour in which to enter Bruges, that city of the past. Once the city was greater than Antwerp; and up the Rege came the commerce of the East, merchants from the Levant, traders in jewels and silks. Now the tall houses wait for tenants, and the streets have a deserted air. After nightfall, as we walked in the middle of the roughly paved streets, meeting few people, and hearing only the echoing clatter of the wooden sabots of the few who were abroad, the old spirit of the place came over us. We sat on a bench in the market-place, a treeless square, hemmed in by quaint, gabled houses, late in the evening, to listen to the chimes from the belfry. The tower is less than four hundred feet high, and not so high by some seventy feet as the one on Notre Dame near by; but it is very picturesque, in spite of the fact that it springs out of a rummagy-looking edifice, one half of which is devoted to soldiers' barracks, and the other to markets. The chimes are called the finest in Europe. It is well to hear the finest at once, and so have done with the tedious things. The Belgians are as fond of chimes as the Dutch are of stagnant water. We heard them everywhere in Belgium; and in some towns they are incessant, jangling every seven and a half minutes. The chimes at Bruges ring every quarter hour for a minute, and at the full hour attempt a tune. The revolving machinery grinds out the tune, which is changed at least once a year; and on Sundays a musician, chosen by the town, plays the chimes. In so many bells (there are forty-eight), the least of which weighs twelve pounds, and the largest over eleven thousand, there must be soft notes and sonorous tones; so sweet jangled sounds were showered down: but we liked better than the confused chiming the solemn notes of the great bell striking the hour. There is something very poetical about this chime of bells high in the air, flinging down upon the hum and traffic of the city its oft-repeated benediction of peace; but anybody but a Lowlander would get very weary of it. These chimes, to be sure, are better than those in London, which became a nuisance; but there is in all of them a tinkling attempt at a tune, which always fails, that is very annoying.

Bruges has altogether an odd flavor. Piles of wooden sabots are for sale in front of the shops; and this ugly shoe, which is mysteriously kept on the foot, is worn by all the common sort. We see long, slender carts in the street, with one horse hitched far ahead with rope traces, and no thills or pole.

The women-nearly every one we saw-wear long cloaks of black cloth with a silk hood thrown back. Bruges is famous of old for its beautiful women, who are enticingly described as always walking the streets with covered faces, and peeping out from their mantles. They are not so handsome now they show their faces, I can testify. Indeed, if there is in Bruges another besides the beautiful girl who showed us the old council-chamber in the Palace of justice, she must have had her hood pulled over her face.

Next morning was market-day. The square was lively with carts, donkeys, and country people, and that and all the streets leading to it were filled with the women in black cloaks, who flitted about as numerous as the rooks at Oxford, and very much like them, moving in a winged way, their cloaks outspread as they walked, and distended with the market-basket underneath. Though the streets were full, the town did not seem any less deserted; and the early marketers had only come to life for a day, revisiting the places that once they thronged. In the shade of the tall houses in the narrow streets sat red-cheeked girls and women making lace, the bobbins jumping under their nimble fingers. At the church doors hideous beggars crouched and whined,--specimens of the fifteen thousand paupers of Bruges. In the fishmarket we saw odd old women, with Rembrandt colors in faces and costume; and while we strayed about in the strange city, all the time from the lofty tower the chimes fell down. What history crowds upon us! Here in the old cathedral, with its monstrous tower of brick, a portion of it as old as the tenth century, Philip the Good established, in 1429, the Order of the Golden Fleece, the last chapter of which was held by Philip the Bad in 1559, in the rich old Cathedral of St. Bavon, at Ghent. Here, on the square, is the site of the house where the Emperor Maximilian was imprisoned by his rebellious Flemings; and next it, with a carved lion, that in which Charles II. of England lived after the martyrdom of that patient and virtuous ruler, whom the English Prayerbook calls that "blessed martyr, Charles the First." In Notre Dame are the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary his daughter.

We begin here to enter the portals of Dutch painting. Here died Jan van Eyck, the father of oil painting; and here, in the hospital of St. John, are the most celebrated pictures of Hans Memling. The most exquisite in color and finish is the series painted on the casket made to contain the arm of St. Ursula, and representing the story of her martyrdom. You know she went on a pilgrimage to Rome, with her lover, Conan, and eleven thousand virgins; and, on their return to Cologne, they were all massacred by the Huns. One would scarcely believe the story, if he did not see all their bones at Cologne.

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What can one do in this Belgium but write down names, and let memory recall the past? We came to Ghent, still a hand some city, though one thinks of the days when it was the capital of Flanders, and its merchants were princes. On the shabby old belfry-tower is the gilt dragon which Philip van Artevelde captured, and brought in triumph from Bruges. It was originally fetched from a Greek church in Constantinople by some Bruges Crusader; and it is a link to recall to us how, at that time, the merchants of Venice and the far East traded up

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The Prince and Princess of Wales came up to Paris in the beginning of May, from Italy, Egypt, and alongshore, stayed at a hotel on the Place Vendome they can get beef that is not horse, and is rare, and beer brewed in the royal dominions, and have been entertained with cordiality by the Emperor. Among the spectacles which he has shown them is one calculated to give them an idea of his peaceful intentions,-a grand review of cavalry and artillery at the Bois de Boulogne. It always seems to me a curious comment upon the state of our modern