Peaceville in Belgium: Part 1: Bruges, and 14-18 The War in Pictures

Though not a history buff and in all honesty knowing very little about the Great War, our recent Peaceville trip to Belgium thanks to Disability Horizons and Visit Flanders was an adventure that I’ll truly never forget. Being given VIP treatment, meeting curators and partaking in the magnificent Lightfront event in Nieuwpoort, the 5 special days in Belgium were exceptionally moving and a very humbling experience.

I know that I’ve discussed how easy the Eurotunnel is for disabled travellers before, so I won’t go into too much detail there. An hour’s drive into Belgium and we arrived in fabulous Bruges, finding our hotel was right behind the Belfry in the main square, a simply fantastic location! The hotel was called Martin’s Brugge, and purely due to the location I can recommend it for disabled travellers. There’s ample parking which you can pre-book underneath the hotel, at a cost of €25 per night. Our triple accessible room was very spacious, and on the ground floor tucked away so it’s not in the busy corridor, another bonus. The doorways were widened, so there’s a generous amount of space for larger wheelchairs, and though the carpet is luxurious, my mobile hoist didn’t struggle when transferring from chair to bed. Thankfully the bed is on legs, giving lots of space for the mobile hoist to glide underneath as I had shamefully forgotten my bed raisers, tut tut, I was so focused on indulging in chocolate that I wasn’t fully prepared! The bathroom was very well designed for wheelchair access, with even space to transfer in the hoist still inside the bathroom! The obvious hand and grab rails were in situ, along with a nice big wash hand basin at a good height, which seems a luxury as many hotels put in tiny little lowered sinks in their accessible bathrooms. The wet room shower was fine and a powerful one, but there wasn’t a fold down shower chair or any other chair to use, so this may be an issue for other disabled visitors in future.

We were completely blown away by a magnificent meal at Burg 9 just off the Stadhuis square. All I can say is foodgasm. The service was amazing, and the food was delicious. And all accessible too I should also mention! The very talented chef was able to whip up an equally beautiful vegetarian menu for my PA on the spot, which was ever so appreciated and we all felt extremely privileged to enjoy the wonderful food there.

The next morning we were awoken by the beautiful bells of the Belfry in front of us, a twinkling magical sound that carries across the city. We met our Visit Flanders representative in the lobby along with a group of Australian Visit Flanders staff and journalists, and hopped over the road into the Belfry for our first appointment, 14-18 The War in Pictures with its curator Sophie De Schaepdrijver, who had just flown in from Penn State especially for the occasion. Let me first say, this woman is just captivating. I thought that I’d find the exhibition a little dull as the military history of war doesn’t usually grab my attention, but this exhibition focuses on the people of Bruges in a humanitarian manner and reflects the struggles of the city and it’s people. The life and emotions that Sophie has been able to revive through years of searching for exact artefacts, is astounding. For instance, uniforms were presented in floor units as if they were simply cloth, rather than stood upright in an oppressive and domineering way as if the soldiers themselves were approaching visitors. The exhibition ranges from flirtatious photographs to wall paintings and even the first examples of aid work, where lace makers sold small pieces in return for charity aid money. The whole curatorship has been incredibly well executed leaving us feeling warmed by the courage and continuation of life, which occurred during horrific circumstances.

There wasn’t a problem with accessibility, as they have a stable metal ramp for access however be wary of the cobbles inside the Belfry courtyard, you know that Bruges is covered in cobbles anyway! The exhibition has been well laid out so there is a clear flow in which to explore it, with a translated guidebook available for English speaking visitors. The cabinets are on multiple levels depending on what is being displayed, but all of which were accessible to me in my wheelchair. Further to this, the interactive lecterns throughout the exhibition are all at optimal height for wheelchair access, though not too low that able-bodied visitors had to stoop to reach it. The angle at which it was set is key, so very well done to them for implementing this feature.

Access to the upper floors of the Belfry cloth house was via a fairly good sized lift situated by the accessible toilets, handy! The architects have cleverly integrated the modern lift within the historical building by setting it behind an original heavy wooden door, which I thought was a nice touch as it kept the atmosphere of the historic building alive even if we had to access it through a modern convenience. Upstairs was another exhibition where we met its curator David van Reybrouck. The exhibition of photographs from a selection of the Magnum association was given the brief of showing how the First World War was commemorated in their country. The variation and creativity in this exhibition was extremely moving, and the general curatorship was exceptional. The large tunnels of photographs encase a modern premise but do not block the view of the beautiful cloth warehouse roof that this space has. In the second section of the exhibition, you’ll find original glass plate photographs from the First World War having been restored by Carl De Keyzer and enlarged on an epic scale. The details in the photographs are just astounding; I would never have thought that photographs from this time could be so detailed. The large tunnels were in situ again in this exhibition but placed in a more regimented line, evoking the feel of the trenches and the shards of sunlight that flooded between them. Watch out for tighter access for wheelchairs, I was lucky that we saw the exhibition privately so we didn’t have many visitors around us, but if the exhibition is busy when you visit, it might be advisable to take your time when exploring the exhibition. On the back of the tunnels, David has another series called “Lamento” a collection of suicide notes left by young people from the area. Little information is known about why, but this area of Belgium has the highest rate of suicide in Europe and the notes are extremely emotive.

We had a lovely bright and colourful lunch at Arthies restaurant and had the afternoon free to explore the city. Luckily everything that we wanted to see was in walking distance but I made sure that I checked the public transport, and all of the bus routes had disabled access with ramps on the busses themselves. So no real issues here. We had a Bruges city card each courtesy of Visit Flanders, which meant we were able explore free of charge. Since we’d already visited Bruges in May, we decided to visit some of the places that we had missed! The heavens opened and we had to wait for about 10 minutes under the Belfry in the pouring rain, it was all a bit surreal and a bit magical, I loved it, before diving straight into the Salvador Dali exhibition next door. Wow. Now THAT was surreal! Great to see his work up close and personal, and it was refreshing to fit in one of my other passions whilst we were on the Peaceville trip, and a little lighter than the mornings activities. The gallery is accessible, with metal ramps on the staged areas, but it was a little annoying that the receptionist kept the rail of Dali tee shirts in front of the wheelchair entrance. Following that, we went in search of the Chocolate Museum, but I’m sorry to say that it was totally inaccessible for disabled visitors, and the staff were not at all happy to help. I quickly Googled “the best chocolate shop in Bruges” and was recommended Dumon, which we found and I subsequently dribbled in front of the window. Again, no access as it’s an incredibly old but beautiful building. The smell of chocolate was so intense and the woman sat behind the counter was the great grand daughter of the owner, and she had her children and possibly even grand children working there too. There are many other accessible chocolatiers in the Stadhuis Square, and I can recommend that Stef’s was the best along here. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was sadly closed at this time, but we wandered around the beautiful but bumpy streets of Bruges, did a little retail therapy and indulged with a Belgian waffle or two. Another delicious meal followed suit, served at De Florentijnen, a very modern and beautifully presented restaurant, whereby you’re welcomed with hundreds of bottles of port! The food was simply delicious, another 4 course set menu and they were extremely happy to accommodate my vegetarian PA at a moments noticed. The small lift at the back of the building allows disabled guests to sit on the mezzanine floor, which is much quieter and a great atmosphere.

In all, a fantastic time in Bruges. The next morning we spent a few hours wandering through the same streets but in daylight and collecting some souvenirs, and I think it’s safe to say that Bruges has captured my heart and I’ll be returning some day. Learning about its history, turmoil and struggles just made me fall in love even more, and because the city itself is so easy to navigate it’s a terrific opportunity for wheelchair users, baring in mind that there are the odd step or two to negotiate, which is to be expected of such a historic place. Though the bigger buildings, Basilicas and the like have been made accessible for all, so if you’re a wheelchair user with a passion for historic architecture, Bruges is definitely a good place to start your next adventure.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I feel to follow your blog as a regular follower. The top benefits of double glazing can be explained reliably only by an expert and efficient agent. Isn't it?