Four worlds in Flanders
It’s a bright morning as we land in the de facto capital of the European Union. Flanders, one of the lesser-known communities of Belgium, shimmers in the dappled sunlight.
It may be famed for its chocolate (and rightfully so) but Flanders is also a country of iconic architecture, lush green rolling countryside and a lifestyle of beer, French fries and serenity.
Ghent is steeped in a gorgeous historic past that spills over into everyday life; a bicycle city with cobblestoned streets and picture postcard canal waterways. Then, there is metropolitan Antwerp of diamonds, Jews, shopping, fashion, haute couture and culinary panache. Finally, there is Brugge — another canal port city, a European charmer with its magnificent folding bridges over waterways and some of the best Belgian chocolate and lace in Flanders. With all street names in Flemish and French, Flanders is an amalgamation of many worlds.
Brussels, the home of NATO, is a contemporary city bustling within the antiquities of an era gone by. A city of international significance within the EU status, Brussels wears its dignity and stature with ease. The city has the grace of a silver old lady who knows that she is as beautiful as she is powerful.
Brussels is a mysterious blend of old-world charm, with its central square that houses French and German architecture from various eras and museums of modern art and music. Walk down Brussels city centre and it’s a feast for the eyes and the tastebuds. Every third person on the street is munching crunchy waffles layered with chocolate, and you should begin your architecturally awe-inspiring walk with one as well. The city centre or Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has often been referred to as one of the most beautiful squares of Europe.
The Grand Place’s ornate baroque and Gothic architecture from the 13th century make it a stunning city centre. Here, the Town Hall stands tall with its famed Gothic needle-like crooked spire — topped by the archangel, St Michael.
Walk around the little bylanes and find yourself at the Galeries St Hubert. These are stunning, glass-domed arcades lined with cafes, theatres and luxury stores. Created in 1847, these have the distinction of being the first shopping arcade in Europe.
Round off your walk with a quick peak at the darling of Brussels, Manneken Pis — the famous statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain. Of course, ensure you have enough time to go to the The Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art — the museum that pays homage to cartooning. Tintin and the Smurfs are Belgium’s most- loved exports, but this museum displays artwork from over 670 cartoonists. If you have time at your disposal, Brussels has some fantastic museums to visit.
If not, make your way to celebrity Laurent Gerbaud’s chocolate shop and you might be lucky enough to get a demonstration and a tasting of chocolate from across the world. It begins with chocolate from Trinidad, takes in Peruvian raisins, Chinese versions with salted cashews, Iranian with cranberries and even a strong ginger flavour.
All that walking leaves you hungry. Brussels is home to some fantastic epicurean restaurants and we recommend you stop by for an early dinner at the legendary Taverne du Passage. It promises to be a heart-warming meal. The national favourite of Flanders, Waterzooie, is the star. It appears steaming hot, in a huge bowl that holds a thick broth of cream, eggs and lemon, all spiked with wine and of course, meat of your choice. If you are in the mood to experiment, also try the eel in a green curry, accompanied by thick-cut Belgian fries. Soul-satisfying food, perfect for a night of deep slumber.
The next day, it’s time to check out Ghent. This lovely architectural city, steeped in history, meanders around its rivers. The jigsaw of stone and heritage snugly fits into this young, vibrant and colourful city. Ghent has one of the largest universities in Belgium and around 65,000 students zipping around on their bicycles.
Make your way to the 14th century Belfry, again on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Then, hopscotch your way to St Bavo’s Cathedral and breathe in the silence of the masterpiece painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
Stop for a historic lunch. The Het Pakhuis is a green, bustling multi-storey structure. The restaurant is one of the few places where Trappist beer (brewed by the monks — only six trappist breweries are now functional and the beer is therefore available in limited quantities) flows freely. We highly recommend the Chimay with fresh oysters on ice and a dash of lime.
Move on to a stronger and darker Westmalle with your main. Tartare Tatin is another local specialty. This is raw beef ground and spiced to such a smooth consistency that it’s almost as smooth as a pate and several times creamier than cooked steaks.
Let the meal settle in your very happy tummy as you sway along on a boat-trip around Ghent’s canals. Floating along gives you a beautiful view of the ancient castle and the serenity that surrounds this city. Ghent’s cobblestoned streets and the buildings that surround them are all very old world. Its residents are proud of their culture but, ancient they definitely are not.
Dinner at Belga Queen plays through the delicious dichotomy. Located in one of Ghent’s oldest buildings, what was once a corn store-house, today is a three-tiered restaurant and lounge. Here, give the Kriek Boon Cherry beer a try. It’s a beer of sunny days and happy times, with the sweet taste of fruits of Spring.
After a meal that you can tick off on your epicurean dinners list, opt out of taking a taxi back to your hotel. Instead, walk to the hotel. As the air starts frosting and the lights dim on Ghent’s architectural beauties, soak in the atmosphere of young romance and beer along the shimmering waterways. The resonance of rock playing on laptops lightly bounces off the stone blocks of antiquity.
The next morning, drive into Brugge. The city takes its name from Brigia, which means the landing of ships in Flemish. Nine hundred years ago these canals were linked to the sea and Brugge was, once upon a time, a busy port city of Europe. Today, it is a serene, quaint little town.
If you have been enchanted by Ghent’s canal-lined walkways, Brugge will be love at first sight.
With its reputation for being Belgium’s chocolate centre with over 50 artisanal chocolate boutiques, Brugge is also often love at first bite. Walk around the city-centre’s cobble-stoned alleys lined with lace, chocolate and souvenir shops. The air is still nippy during Easter, but people everywhere are happy, hanging around in outdoor cafes enjoying the sun over their glasses of beer.
Soon, you will inevitably walk into Brugge’s city square and it will astound you. The variety of architecture styles within its radius begin with the Romanesque, to Gothic vertical, to Renaissance, to Baroque with gold hints and finally, to the Classic.
If all that stone-gazing makes you hungry, head to any of the cafes for a local specialty of mussels and fries. Flanders legend has it that mussels are best in the months with an R (that only leaves out May, June, July and August). Messy as they are to eat, the flavour-bursts are worth the exercise.
Brugge has various museums, and art and history overflow from all of them. Kids and adults alike will especially enjoy two here — the Museum of Fries and the Chocolate Museum. The first will take you along on a journey through the many avatars of the humble tuber as it
conquered lands and captivated imaginations. The Chocolate Story will take your through the history of the dark velvet from as far back as the 15th century. Don’t forget to head downstairs for a quick chocolate-making workshop. While in Brugge, do not forget to pick up some nougat (available in walnut, chocolate, nuts, apricot and many more) from Chocolate Crown. And if you are the romantic sort, end your stay here with a drink at the Vlissinghe — a café built in 1515, whose owners, a husband and wife duet — both lived to the age of 105. A must-try is the Brugge local beer — the one with the clown face.
Before you leave Brugge, an early morning walk will make for lasting memories. Watch the swans (symbols of medieval Brugge) uncurl their pristine sleepy long necks and little ducklings (now, we know why they are called ugly ducklings!) get excited about following their gorgeous parents into the canals for a brand new day.
As the church bells ring and sunbeams try to create a space for themselves through the morning fog, breathe deep. Breathe in a little bit of history, culture, nature and artistic brilliance. This city of approximately 21,000 people will leave you enchanted.
Antwerp is almost Mumbai, New York or Tokyo — just with a European flair. This is a big diamond-city full of big city noise and chaos. Yet, the bustle of the city accentuates the beauty of the past — perhaps, a lesson in co-existence for various international cities across the world.
You see the blend right away. The ancient and the modern world co-exist harmoniously at the bustling Central Station (an in-use but gorgeous monument) as well as at the gold-flecked Town Hall at the Mier (now, a shopping arcade).
Antwerp is home to some spectacular dessert shops. Of course, none more famous than Dominique Persoone and his Chocolate Line. Persoone calls himself a shock-o-latier and rightly so. His gleaming shelves are heaving with wasabi, vodka, curry and other flavoured chocolates. Then, there is the chocolate lipstick, the chocolate snorter and even an edible chocolate massage cream. Indulge!
Antwerp has enough to keep you glued for at least three days. Shop the day away with their wide variety of international brands. You will be spoilt for choice in clothes, accessories and of course, some stunning deigns in diamonds. Remember to pick your rocks with care from reputed shops and get stamped bills for authenticity. Ask for guidance at your hotel.
Spend another day taking in the many museums and the zoo. Sit around and have a meal at Appelmans. They have one of the best absinthe cocktails to keep your spirits high. Whatever your choice, Antwerp will not disappoint.
Or you could go harbour-watching and sailing around Antwerp on another day. End that day with dinner at the stunning Zuiderterras. This waterfront restaurant with views of the awesome bay serves up some of the best international cuisine with local favourites — a wonderfully warm finale to Flanders.