Flanders is Belgium's fairytale land, rich in culture, history and scenic beauty.
Snoozing off can virtually shorten an otherwise boring eight hour air journey from India to Europe. My miraculous doze of dreamless sleep was not the only blessing. On waking up, I happened to stumble upon a soul-stirring rendition of the early morning Raga Ahir Bhairav by legendary Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in the in-flight entertainment system and the melody seemed to tune the cloudless stratosphere to the sweet rays of dawn as my Jet Airways flight made its way through foggy Belgian airspace, into the vibrant capital, Brussels.
A short drive from Brussels brings you to a fascinating world of its own, Antwerp, with loads of classical art, culture and history packed into its tiny framework. Walking or cycling are the most preferred ways to discovering Antwerp through its winding cobbled lanes with quaint old-style buildings, historic sites and cathedrals juxtaposed with itsultra-mod haute couture boutiques, malls, cafes, bars and perfumeries.
Stepping into the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady is instant meditation, as the profound silence prepares your mind to be mesmerized by some of the most outstanding works of classical art by legendary Peter Paul Rubens on its walls, depicting the life of Christ and other Biblical events. Each stroke of Ruben's brush has a story to tell and the incredibly vivid and realistic expressions of each of the characters invariably move admirers to tears. The Raising of the Cross, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, The Descent from the Cross are some of Ruben's all-time masterpieces.
A visit to Ruben's sprawling classical Italian style villa known as ‘ Rubenshuis' in Flemish, leaves you spell bound, with a magnificent courtyard, a picturesque garden, his personal studio, exquisitely designed interiors with many of his revered works that include Adam and Eve and a self-portrait, all of which speak volumes about him. Unlike a few other classical European artists, Rubens was wealthy, and spent most of his lifetime in this palatial villa.
Another of Antwerp's attractions is the Central Station regarded as one of the world's most impressive railway stations ( dubbed as ‘Railway Cathedral'). A huge dome above the waiting area, an antique clock, the inscriptions Antwerpen and an ornate entrance lead you to the trains plying to different European destinations. There is this magnetism about Central Station, a surge of positive energy that makes you want to stay on, endlessly staring at the trains!
Fragrances are manna for the mood and niche perfume boutiques like the world renowned In Fine in Antwerp offer tourists an insight into their own personalities through their selection of fragrances. Separate varieties of fragrances with number tags are laid out for men and women and a combination is prepared based on the ones selected. The parfumeur then outlines your personality based on your preference of fragrances with flawless accuracy, mellowing down the negative qualities with customary French panache!
Antwerp is also famous for its diamond industry and one can often hear the familiar “aai aai bhaila!” (come, come brother!) from Ahmedabadi and Palanpuri Gujaratis of the trade!
Next stop, Bruges. Known as ‘the Venice of the north', this charming little Flemish town offers solace for tourists with its innumerable tranquil canals, relaxing boat cruises , flee markets and the rhythmic trotting of handsome steeds pulling old-style carriages ridden by expert guides draped in traditional grabs taking international tourists through the charming balustrades of Bruges. A fairytale town, Bruges reminded me of the famous lines of Kalapi, the great poet of Gujarat “Jyaan jyaan nazar maari tharey, yaadi bhari tyaan aapni” ( wherever I glance, its you Oh divine beloved, that I am reminded of).
Belgium is famous for beer, with an outrageous 450 varieties to its credit! Tourists flock to the De Halve Maan brewery in Bruges for a guided tour through the various steps involved in making the country's most sought after drink. Quaint bridges and long winding canals are Bruges's leitmotif with guided boat cruises in both French and English being the principle attraction. One would also find highly talented street musicians playing soulfully on unique instruments, adding to the tranquillity of the place.
A short drive away, Ghent is yet another city of myriad colours. Effervescing with youth round the year , this university town never sleeps. You literally look forward to loosing your way in Ghent, for one can get around the pretty city on foot, with any number of friendly Flemish, Tunisians, Turks, Moroccans and Gujaratis to guide you with utmost prowess!
Ghent is known as the gourmand's paradise and Flemish fine dining restaurants like the swank Belga Queen rated Ghent's finest, pamper your palate with sumptuous sea food preparations, while vegetarians never run out of options. Besides cute souvenir shops, one can find eateries and cafes selling Waffles, the famous Flemish dessert, lines of carts selling fresh bread varieties and a pink triangular sweet delicacy of the region know as ‘nose', a hard crust with jelly on the inside!
Boat rides, café dining, cycling, walking tours, high-end boutiques and cosmetic shops are Ghent's USP, while spending hours listening to Flemish classics, West African Fiddling or a very young Asha Bhosle at the famous music store Fnac, are every music lover's high! Known to have practically no crime, stray policemen are often seen moving on bicycles! “I have never felt unsafe in Ghent, not even at odd hours” smiles Freya, a young Flemish brunette. Moving on to the Belgian capital Brussels makes you realise the stark transition from the distinctly Flemish towns of Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent to the chique and vibrant, predominantly French speaking city.
A tour of what is called Mini Europe, a theme park with the landscape and architecture of all the countries of the European Union recreated with very realistic models, is a joy for both children and adults!
A mix of history and modernism, Brussels, also the capital of the EU, offers you a kaleidoscope of experiences. The grand old Jewish Synagogue, the old musical conservatory, the musical instrument museum that houses more than 3000 instruments from around the world, The House of Justice and the palace of the Belgian king, the Grand Place ( the central square of Brussels and its most important landmark ) surrounded by the town hall, the Maison du roi ( kings house) and the guildhalls, each reminiscent of classical architecture, along with plush five stars like the Sofitel Louis and The Hilton, exotic fine dining restaurants, sprawling shopping malls and suited sahibs in S class Mercedes zooming past the city centre.
In Brussels, music is always in the air and one can listen to hours of the works of the classical Flemish masters known for their intensity and profound depth, at renowned classical stores like La Boite a Musique.
Chocolate is another jewel in the Belgian crown and the exhilarating flavours send your senses soaring above the clouds! La Maison des Maitres Chocolatiers at the Grand Place is undoubtedly the city's most famous chocolatier conducting chocolate making workshops for tourists. Eclectic varieties in dark, light and white chocolate like Caramel with orange, Brazilian Champagne ( white chocolate), Poire William Marzipan, bitter chocolate ganache flavoured with Ceylon tea along with many having Persian and African ingredients are all-time Belgian favorites. A unique concept at La Maison des Maitres Chocolatiers is chocolate dinners where guests can gorge on these delicacies, defying their fitness regimes for pure bliss!
Indian food is big in Brussels and one can enjoy mouth-watering Bhajiyas, Samosas, Biryani and paneer innovations at highly acclaimed restaurants like La Porte Des Indes overflowing with locals every evening. Be it music, beer, chocolate or desi food, Belgians truly know how to live it up, and the spirit of gaiety never ebbs in Europe's Joie de vivre!
Jet Airways has daily non-stop flights from Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai.
Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges are 30-45 min away from each other by road.
Top-end boutique and luxury hotels in varying budgets in all destinations.
Excellent Indian restaurants in all three destinations.
English is widely spoken and understood.
Belgium is famous for its 450 different varieties of beer and several exotic chocolate varieties.
Euro is the currency.