When knights returned from the Crusades, they often returned with Relics—a fragment of the True Cross, a tiny branch from the Crown of Thorns. But when Derek of Alsace, Count of Flanders, returned to Bruges in 1150 from the Second Crusade, he brought back the Relic that staggered all of Europe: a cloth allegedly soaked with the blood of Christ. It was immediately placed in the Chapel of St. Basil, now the “Basilica of the Holy Blood.”

The relic is embedded in a rock-crystal vial, which itself is held inside a small glass cylinder adorned at each end with a golden crown. It is kept in a magnificent tabernacle on a side altar in the chapel and is brought out daily (btwn. 11:30am and noon, and 2 and 4pm) so the faithful can pray to it, and even line up to kiss it. Know that if you go up to inspect the vial, you will be expected to donate to the upkeep of the church, a fact that is made all too clear by the attendant clergy.

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The Basilica, built in the 1100s, was once a thoroughly Romanesque structure, and its downstairs interior still is—probably the purest example of Romanesque architecture you will see in Belgium, with its distinctive rounded arches and heavy pillars, its squat and horizontal lines, its gloomy, stone interior with poignant statues of the crucified Jesus. Upstairs everything changes! Now the Basilica becomes a green-and-yellow fairyland of emeralds and gilt, of rich paneling, paintings, striped ornaments of every sort, a dazzling display of both Gothic and Renaissance elements that, in later centuries, completely transformed the formerly-Romanesque facade and upper story of the building into a Venetian-like palace-of-a-church. A wide stone staircase worn by the feet of millions of pilgrims leads both to the upper story and adjoining museums housing the ornately-figured reliquaries—golden containers or casques—associated with the Relic.

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In the Basilica Museum, the magnificent reliquary created by Bruges goldsmith Jan Crabbe has a gem-encrusted case styled as a medieval castle and topped with a golden statue of the Virgin. This houses the relic on its annual pilgrimage around the streets of Bruges in the colorful Procession of the Holy Blood on Ascension Day.