Most know Bruges for its romantic canals, cobbled streets and great chocolate. Fewer may know it was also a pilgrimage destination. Its Basilica of the Holy Blood is considered to keep a very special vial of blood: that of Jesus Christ.
In the olden days, the first crowds to arrive in Bruges were pilgrims – the tourists of their time – who flocked to see the vial of the Holy Blood of Christ, brought back from the Crusades in the late 12th century. The Basilica of the Holy Blood that houses it is a part of the Burg, a centuries-old building which, conveniently, also holds the city council.
The square in front of the Burg is relatively empty of modern visitors when I visit, with its dark Romanesque lower level and a gilt-heavy Gothic upper chamber that holds the Holy Blood itself.
I am lucky enough to find the vial actually on display, a rare event apart from a solemn annual procession, so I join a shuffling queue to take my turn to stare at the vial, its nondescript contents obscured by the antique rock crystal. An ancient verger sits behind it, handing over a multilingual prayer leaflet, and watching with a wise smile playing at the corner of her mouth as I wait for some deep emotion to take hold of me. None does.
The chapel itself is magnificent, however, a tribute to the craft of its builders and the wealth of its patrons, and the faith of both.
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