“Yeah, I’m sure this is where Ray tried to kill himself.”
My girlfriend and I are standing on a grassy knoll in a children’s playground in Konigin Astridpark, Bruges, and I’m trying to work out where Colin Farrell sat with a gun to his head in In Bruges.
I didn’t even know where Bruges f*cking was.
It’s in Belgium.
The setting for the 2008 dark comedy was arguably its breakout star, showing off its main tourist attractions and finding itself the subject of some of the most memorable bits of dialogue in the film (not always complementary).
The film put Bruges on the map for me when I first saw it at 17, and I’ve watched this immensely quotable comedy a dozen times since. So it was to my girlfriend’s delight that I spent our weekend in Belgium reciting bits of dialogue from a film she’d only seen once, and didn’t much care for.
You know, there’s that big, dual carriageway when you get off the train? Well, as soon as he got into, like, the old town proper, and he saw the canals and the bridges and, you know, the swans and that, well, he just f*cking loved it then.
Leaving the train station, it didn’t much feel like a fairy-tale town. There really was a big dual carriageway and a man peeled away from the arriving pack of tourists do a wee in the first canal he came across.
But after crossing the road and the canal that rings the town, I started to see some the things I’d been expecting: church spires towering over medieval houses, narrow cobbled streets, “the swans and that”.
It’s been very nice, all the old buildings and that
Having dumped our bags at the hostel, we headed to Grote Markt, the centre of the old city. We approached the square via Steenstraat, a typical high street lined with recognisable shopfronts like H&M and McDonald’s, but set in Medieval-looking buildings. Horse and carriages park up where the shopping strip meets the square. There their rider’s idly fiddle with their phones as they wait for tourists to stump up for the 50 Euro ride. But most are content to pose for photos with the animals.
The open square is completely cobbled, and in the light rain each stone took on a shine. Ornate buildings of different shapes and colours frame the market square. At its north side, flags bearing the city’s crest flutter in the breeze. The Belfry, perhaps the most recognisable landmark in Bruges (and DVD cover-star), towers overhead and I start to piece together another cheery scene from the film – “where did Ken land?”
What’s up there?
The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that from down here.
The queue to climb the belfry was about half an hour, but we were kept entertained by a Russian artist who cut people’s silhouettes out of paper. He devotedly cut out the bobble hat of the woman in front of us.
“I love to do bobble hats; they are very interesting to cut”.
“Come and see me when you come back down”, he said, spotting my own bobble hat.
The first flights of stairs lull you into a false sense of security before they become steep and narrow. Be prepared to spend minutes wedged into a corner while an endless line of people squeeze past you. One ascending American sneered “backpack probably not the best idea” as he came face-to-face with somebody’s Eastpak.
The top of the belfry is not as open as it is in the film. Unsurprising, given the ending. But the mesh walls manage not to spoil the view. From above, the city is a colourful crazy-paving patio of tiles, bricks and cobbles. There are no tower blocks or offices, churches are the only buildings that punctuate the skyline.
It’s Jesus’ f*cking blood, isn’t it?
The Basilica of the Holy Blood was the last stop on our unofficial In Bruges tour. Built in the 12th century and later renovated in the gothic style, the church takes its name from a phial of what is said to be Jesus’ blood, brought to the city during the crusades. Is it Jesus’ blood? Probably not. It’s also not The Basilica of the Holy that appears in the film. The scene in which Ken scolds Ray is actually filmed in the Jerusalem church down the road.
Not realising this at the time, we sat in the pews admiring the detailed murals and tried to mentally reconstructed the scene. A PA announcement pierced the silence and announced that visitors could now pay their respects to the holy blood. A quiet queue quickly formed at the altar.
The sound of money dropping into a collection box echoed around the chapel. It was coming from the PA system again. I like to think they had a cassette on repeat.
It is a fairy-tale place. It really is. It’s just a shame it’s in Belgium, really. But then you figure if it wasn’t in Belgium, if it was somewhere good, there’d be too many people coming to see it.