Until recently the remains of St Donation’s (or St Donaas, as it’s known by the Dutch) cathedral lay unknown, buried beneath the streets of Bruges. Uncovered during excavations for a new hotel, it is now open to the public. However, as it’s only found by those that venture into the hotel’s basement, it appears that very few are aware of its existence!
I mean, have you ever thought you’d head down into a hotel basement and come face-to-face with the walls of a 10th century church turned cathedral? Me neither, but that’s what I discovered during a trip to Bruges’ Crowne Plaza Hotel, just off the popular Burg square.
After seeing a fleeting mention of St Donnaas in a guidebook I decided I had to see it for myself, so when the rain came in during my short stay in the city I headed off to see what I could find.
Bruges hotels with a difference!
When you enter the lobby of the modern-looking hotel there’s absolutely no sign or mention of St Donaas, so after ten minutes of looking a bit odd as we wandered around reception, we asked the staff if this was the place and we were pointed in the direction of an unlit staircase that took us to the basement. Feeling a bit uncomfortable and unsure as to whether we were actually heading into a ‘staff only’ area, we wandered down the stairs and discovered the dimly lit remnants of this ancient place of worship.
St Donation’s was demolished in 1799 in the wake of the French Revolution and only rediscovered in the 1950’s when the hotel’s foundations were excavated. Diggers literally hit a wall: one that belonged to the cathedral. After a short halt to the work, the hotel’s construction was allowed to continue but with one caveat – the hotel had to care for the remains and make them accessible to the public for free.
Although well cared for and free to access, it appears that St Donation’s isn’t highly advertised and so we had the place to ourselves as we wandered around the very surreal settings – even the staff we came across during our explorations were surprised to find anyone there.
A secret Bruges cathedral
What we discovered during our visit to St Donation’s was something we’d not experienced before when visiting an old church or cathedral. What is left of the cathedral are some of its walls, and so you can wander the St Donation’s ruins whilst walking on modern carpeted flooring and looking up at shiny ceilings with in-built lights! It also looks like the remains now double as a conference hall, which might well be the case with the towers of chairs we saw stacked around on several of the corners.
Don’t expect to be able to envisage St Donaas as it once looked, but its caretakers have done a great job of salvaging what they could, and putting on displays of what was a very important building in its time. For example, it was where Charles the Good, Count of Flanders was assassinated and is also where the famous Dutch painter Jan Van Eyck was buried.
There are great collections of plates, tools and other things discovered during the excavation, plus there’s some wonderful artwork still intact and signs scattered around the ruins, explaining where you are standing in regards to the cathedral’s original layout. A great diagram also shows you how big and grandiose the cathedral would have looked in its prime.
Bruges points of interest – hidden gems
I love going off the beaten tourist track and finding hidden gems when I take a trip and so I loved the feeling of having St Donation’s all to myself. That said, I find it sad that so few people are aware of the cathedral and its history and hope that more people get to discover this great ruin for themselves. If you take a trip to Bruges and find yourself on the main city squares of Burg or Markt be sure to take five minutes out to hunt down this hotel and experience the surreal setting of St Donation’s for yourself.
I’d love to hear of other visitors to St Donaas. If you’ve been there yourself, what did you think of it? What about other hidden gems you’ve uncovered on your travels? Got one you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!