Our Stories Journeys

A Knight’s Trail

The medieval Belfry of Bruges in the main square was once used as a look out tower. Now open to the public, the tower offers a panoramic view of the city.

Story by Whitney Highfield
Photo courtesy of Russell
Schindler

As my train rolled to a stop, I glanced across the road to the blue sign reading “Bruges” in large white letters. The industrial sign gave no indication that century-old stories of the Holy Grail can be found along each canal-lined street of this idyllic Belgium city. From Indiana Jones to Dan Brown, from King Arthur to Hitler, hundreds have searched for the legendary relic and none have been successful. Yet few have mentioned a location that is a contender for the actual Holy Grail: Bruges, Belgium.

I stepped off the train’s platform and became part of what could have been a familiar autumn scene of a jigsaw puzzle. I soon learned it was anything but familiar. The story behind this puzzle-like town is missing more than a few pieces. It is concealed with mysteries that many who walk along its cobblestone streets are unaware of.

I was immediately taken back to my childhood in Reno, Nevada – sitting cross-legged on the carpet, watching autumn leaves fall slowly to the ground outside the window. I could feel the cold air creeping in through the sliding glass door. I ran my fingers through the box sitting on the table beside me, feeling all 1,100 cardboard puzzle pieces. Some were turned upside down, blending in with the musky brown-colored box, while others had pastel bits of trees, homes, and people. The gritty cardboard residue covered my hands as I reached for my sandwich.

As I finished the last bite, my grandma found the last of the corner pieces. Hours passed, and small towns and trees formed. Eventually, those 1,100 randomly cut puzzle pieces created a pristine autumn scene of green hills, churches, and faultlessly content townspeople.

Founded in the ninth century by Vikings, Bruges excelled as an international trading center. As Bruges flourished, people around Europe were taking great interest in pilgrimages to the Holy Land: Jerusalem. Later, during the Crusades and into the nineteenth century, the West Flanders province in Belgium became one of the poorest European cities. But it was the relic behind a set of common black doors tucked away in Burg Square that later strengthened Bruges’s economy and made it a destination of great interest.

Entering the Flemish region on a rainy October day, tourism was not at its peak. I started down the desolate streets avoiding the loose, grass-lined cobblestones and made my way toward the market square. It was as though the Grimm brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel” came to life around me. The homes could have been made from gingerbread, and the smell of warm, homemade waffles and chocolate filled the air. The roads were peaceful and the alleys content. Occasionally a moped or bike would pass, but rarely any cars. As the distant bell tower appeared closer, I could hear voices growing louder. Small boutiques, department stores, pubs, and chocolate shops along Steenstraat Street led into the square.

The streets normally filled with tourists were once occupied by the Order of the Knights Templar. The Templar’s mission was to protect pilgrims who visited the Holy Land. Founded in 1119, the Templars are a group of great mystery. Their first European headquarters were in Ypres, Belgium, a short journey outside of Bruges. Stories and myths have circulated for years about an unidentified object in Europe protected by this group of warrior monks. Though there is no documentation to prove this, with the exception of the Holy Blood of Bruges, which many believe is the Holy Grail. Although history tends to be slightly disjointed, Grail researchers Patrick Bernauw and Corjan de Raaf believe modern claims that the Holy Grail is in fact the blood of Christ, which makes the Holy Blood of Bruges a primary candidate.

Upon entering the square, two larger tiers topped with a hexagon-shaped bell tower contribute to the medieval architecture. A visit to Bruges is not complete without a climb to the top of the famous Belfry Tower. Eleven euros and 366 steps later, I conquer the tower. The climb to the top was not a normal climb, but instead a spiral staircase with no railing, the opening not much bigger than the width of my shoulders. Lifting my legs to the last platform proved to be worth every curse word and blister, which began to bleed on the way up.

The view from above Bruges showcased the city’s blood-red rooftops, clusters of golden foliage, and surrounding canals. The rights to the canals are shared by five prestigious families who run daily tours from March until November. The waterways surround the city and weave between buildings, giving Bruges the nickname, “The Venice of the North.” However, a glance out the tower to the west holds Bruges’s alternative alias as the “New Jerusalem of the West.”

At first glance, Burg Square, left of the market, appears to be another cluster of local stores, churches, and homes. But on Christmas Day in 1148, it was where the legend of the Holy Grail in Bruges began.

Before the Holy Grail made its way to the medieval Burg Square, knights and kings searched for it endlessly. French writer Chrétien de Troyes was the first to record the accounts of Perceval, the main knight who searched for the Holy Grail in the seventh century. Despite his mother’s disapproval, Perceval set out to become a knight and sought the Grail. Chrétien’s story of Perceval’s quest continues for 9,000 lines. In 1190, Chrétien died, leaving Perceval’s story unfinished and never explaining what exactly the Holy Grail was assumed to be.

While the identity of the Grail has never been uncovered, it is known that Perceval did join the Grail Brotherhood, a brotherhood formed to protect the Holy Grail by Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’s disciples.

Philip of Alsace, the son Thierry of Alsace the Count of Flanders, supplied Chrétien with the documents of Perceval’s adventures. It is Thierry who the Flemish people can thank for eventually bringing the Holy Blood to Bruges. Thierry set out for the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. Along with King Baldwin III of Jerusalem and the Templars, Thierry fought in the Battle of Antalya, continuing to participate in the Siege of Damascus. While the siege was unsuccessful, Baldwin was so impressed by Thierry’s bravery that he granted him a relic discovered by the Templars.

According to the tale, the Templars found a stone jar in the Holy Grave, claiming it contained the Holy Blood of Christ. They poured the blood into an octagonal vial sealed with golden roses at each end. Once given to Thierry, the vial was placed into the hands of his wife, Sybilla of Anjou, on Christmas Day. Sybilla had suffered from leprosy, but when she held the vial, not only was her disease cured, but she also had a vision of Bruges as the “New Jerusalem of the West.”

Examining Burg Square from Belfry Tower, the small building in the corner appears to be nothing more than a mundane house. Tucked away, the small charcoal-gray building with gold-leafed statues reflects the twelfth century Romanesque architecture. Here in this chapel, the Basilica of Saint Basil, is where Sybilla’s story continues.

As I stepped out from the bell tower, the rain began falling harder. I hurried through the square into a pub. I sat and savored the dry, tolerably lit, English-speaking pub, while the now-torrential downpour caused pandemonium for those making their way through the square. Umbrellas were forced inside out; purses, scarves, and hats were soaked by rain and blown every which way by the wind. But nobody seemed to mind. The drivers of horse-drawn carriages comfortably awaited business, while tourists continued snapping pictures to relish every aspect of the unfamiliar Holy City of Bruges, even during a monsoon.

Once the rain began to subside, I opened my umbrella and meandered down the Spinolarei canal. Passing schools and flower shops, I found myself staring at the heavy black wooden doors of the basilica where Sybilla had stood nearly nine centuries ago.

After being healed of leprosy, Sybilla pledged to transform Bruges into the Holy City. In 1150, Sybilla, her husband, and the Flemish crusaders arrived at the steps of the Basilica of Saint Basil, where they placed the octagonal container filled with the Holy Blood, which remains there to this day. Every year on Ascension Day, since 1291, the people of Bruges gather to celebrate the procession.

It was clear from the weathered structure and battered walls that the basilica is home to dozens of legends and stories. While many writers have taken their chances at finishing Chrétien’s tale, none of them are confirmed to be true. The missing lines of his story may have been the key to the whereabouts and identity of the Holy Grail. The incompletion reassures the unknown manifestation of the Grail, even though it does not disqualify the relic as being the Holy Blood of Christ.

In 1310, Pope Clement V issued a Papal Bull stating the relic in Bruges was of great interest. It cannot be certain that the vial behind the black doors of the Basilica contains the Holy Blood. The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown wrote of the secrecy and whereabouts of the Holy Grail. In his story, the Templars transported “something” to Scotland to be buried under the Rosslyn Chapel. Transportation seemed to be the only part Brown got correct. There have been no documents found stating Scotland as a possible location for the Grail.

And while documentation like the Papal Bull gives hope that the blood in Bruges could be the much-sought Grail, we cannot be certain. From Chrétien’s work in the tenth century, to Brown’s fictional novel, the search for the pieces of the Grail’s history has become a crusade. Though a physical object that completes the story and reinsures faith has yet to be discovered, it doesn’t need to be.

“The belief alone that it is [in Bruges] would be enough for it to inspire faith and legends as if it were real,” de Raaf says. “It is this belief that gives value to the relic and that might have found its way into legends and books.”

I turned away from the Basilica and made my way back toward the train station. I walked over another bridge, passing a canal filled with a flock of swans paddling under the weeping willow trees. The canal flowed into a grand lake, the Minnewater, also known as the Lake of Love. Sybilla promised to transform Bruges into the New Jerusalem, and while the small destination town may not have Jerusalem’s fame – its charm, character, and mystery deserves to house the precious relic.

As I took my seat back on the train, I felt a slight sadness at leaving the city with so much undiscovered. Tracing the Grail turns into an endless path of dead ends and different versions only create more uncertainty. Each document claims a different story, dates don’t quite match up, and when the Bible and Gospel make no mention that the blood of Christ was ever collected, the epic poem of the Holy Grail of Bruges is limited.

It may be true that the pieces of the Holy Grail puzzle will never come together. And while the actual bottle, the story, and the religious symbol can be topics of great debate, it is clear that the Holy Blood of Bruges gives the enchanting city an everlasting element of ambiguity around every picturesque corner.

This northwest view out of the Belfry of Bruges reveals a section of the canals where people are able travel the city by boat. In the middle ages, trade ships were famiiar to the waterways. The rights of the canals are now owned by five families who run open-boat tours.

So often we look for evidence and factual proof – the Blood has never been DNA tested – but for those who believe, it doesn’t need to be, much like the Shroud of Turin, which has been carbon-dated to hundreds of years after Jesus’s lifetime. “[The shroud] will never cease to impress those who believe and will still hold monumental value for them,” de Raaf says.

My adventure was slightly less melodramatic than the epic tales from Dan Brown or Indiana Jones, but I realized that the mystery and secrets about the Grail are what allows the people of Bruges to believe in something, gather every year for a procession, and continuously inspire faith. Because of the legends’ missing pieces, the story continues to change – allowing some to continue believing and some to keep searching.

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