We tour Brussels, Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp in four days and returns with myriad happy memories
It's almost 9 a.m. We step out of Brussels airport in a sleep-deprived daze, after crossing countries and time zones in barely 10 hours. The trees are bare. Brussels is yet to shrug off its winter chill. Our hands delve deeper into the inviting warmth of our jackets, our shoes scraping narrow streets of cobble stone. There's a thin drizzle.
Our five-member group is to tour Brussels, Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp, the four cities that comprise northern Belgium or Flanders, in four days. We toss around bits of information gleaned from those travel brochures — Belgium's a country of contrasts, cosmopolitan yet conservative, medieval yet modern, bewitching yet bewildering. Our tour guide dismisses our dilemma. “Forget the magazines, just walk around to feel Flanders, and you'll walk away with magical memories,” she laughs.
We reach the Grand-Place, or the city square in Brussels, bordered by 13th-Century guild houses. Gothic... Baroque… our cameras angle to capture the fusion of architectural styles. There's a curious crowd around the Manneken Pis, that notorious icon of Belgium. A little further, is a more recent addition, his sibling, the Jeanneken Pis! Not impressed, we meander into the Tintin boutique, dedicated to Herge's popular hero. Comic books, stationery, keychains, tees… there's plenty of merchandise to splurge on.
An hour's drive from busy Brussels, we arrive at the serene university town of Ghent. Surprise! We're bang in front of a castle, fortress, towers, dungeons, torture chambers and all, right in the heart of the city. It's the Castle of the Counts, believed to have been built in 1180. Unfortunately, it's closed to visitors for the day. The graceful spires of Ghent's churches graze the heavens. The carillon chimes every now and then, marking the passage of time. There's no leaving Ghent without stopping to admire its most significant work of Flemish art ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' by the Van Eyck brothers at Bavo's Cathedral. A boat cruise along the numerous canals is a great way to acquaint ourselves with the city's landmarks. We pass the music conservatory from which emanates the sweet strains of a Mozart minuet. A young student exploring the work of the master?
Onward to Bruges, the city of bridges, waterways and windmills. Horse-drawn carriages clip clop through the streets introducing tourists to a heritage harking back to the Vikings and the Norse gods. Some of us shop for vintage lace. Others visit Choco-Story, a Chocolate Museum, and the Friet Museum, which showcases the story of French (read Belgian) fries. A popular annual event is the Procession of the Holy Blood, a pageant that relives the passion and resurrection of Christ, played out on Ascension Day (May 17). We stop at the Church of Our Lady to discover that it enshrines a national treasure: Michelangelo's marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child.
A hub for diamonds
After picture-perfect Bruges, Antwerp looks like a catwalk for Boho-chic. Its most renowned citizen may have been Peter Paul Rubens, but it's also a hub for designer diamonds and gold jewellery. At the imposing Cathedral of Our Lady, we're introduced to at least four original works of Rubens. But it's a visit to Rubens House (Rubenshuis) — so carefully preserved on Wapper Street — that gives us an intimate insight into the life and works of the prolific Flemish artist, sculptor and scholar.
Flanders is for the epicure. Indeed, food seems like a national obsession. There's an abundance of breads and baked dishes, seafood and steaks, vegetables and wines. Portion sizes are substantial — not for the faint-hearted! Beer is the national drink and a peek at a pub, aptly named Delirium, confirms this — 700 different brews line the racks, each with its special glass. Our guide recommends the Trappist varieties made by the monks that have won international acclaim. Besides food and beer, chocolates are a magnificent obsession with the locals.
The addiction does not stop there. Neuhaus, Leonidas, Godiva… Belgian chocolate brands have become household names the world over. Master chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud does not allow us to leave without tasting some of his creations or trying our hand at making chocolate. In Antwerp, Dominique Persoone's store, The Chocolate Line, that's housed in a restored palace, stocks not just chocolates spiced with chilli and curry, but also outrageous innovations such as lipsticks, cigars, paint, and body massage creams. Chocoholics can even inhale the aroma of chocolate to experience a high. That explains why he prefers to call himself a shock-o-latier!
We meet our tour guide for the last time at a café-restaurant on the River Scheldt that winds its way through Antwerp. Night envelops the city and the gentle waves twinkle with the lights reflected from the scores of buildings dotting the waterfront.
Have we enjoyed the flavours of Belgium?
Myriad happy images chase one another — of castles and counts, dukes and dragons, the pretty notes of a piano, pealing church bells, radiant diamonds, a man strumming his guitar, gypsies coaxing plaintive tunes out of quaint instruments, frothing mugs of beer, horses and carriages, people on bicycles and, of course, warm sugary waffles and chocolate sauce.
(The writer was in Belgium at the invitation of Tourism Flanders)