Before lunch, I leave the ultra-chic precincts of The Dominican, our hotel near the iconic Grand Place in Brussels, and follow my nose to the Arcadi café, fragrant with fruit tarts, chocolate and coffee. At first I think they’ve given me the whole raspberry pie instead of the slice I asked for, but no, it’s just a typically supersized Belgian portion.
I shouldn’t have; my lunch degustation platter at the Belga Queen restaurant includes salmon marinated in white beer, ravioli of king crab bisque, celery and truffle and pan-fried tenderloin, capped by the best chocolate mousse dessert I’ve had in my life, no exaggeration. I would fall down dead of obesity and happiness except that I don’t have the time: we’re off for a much-needed walk around town.
We pass the grand 14th-century opera house, where a subversive play set in motion the process that culminated in Belgian independence in 1830. There are many beautiful buildings in this town but no single dominating style. We wander through the golden Art Nouveau style Arcades (Les Galleries), inaugurated by King Leopold I and now a vibrant dining and upmarket shopping area, lined with cosy cafés and brasseries selling everything from Belgium’s justly famous waffles and fries to fine dining, in every cuisine you can imagine.
Brussels, like all of Flanders, is stuffed with bars full of beer, many concocted by jolly Trappist monks who liked their drink. They don’t do things half-heartedly either: some establishments offer 1,500 kinds of beer. It’s not just the beer that’s old. Here and there are ruined traces of the Pentagon, a 12th- and 14th-century ring of fortified walls that surrounded the mediaeval settlement when it began at St Gery, on an island in the mesh of waterways that was then Brussels, and which is now thick with hip jazz clubs.
We visit the beautiful St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, dedicated to the patron saints of Brussels, its Gothic vaults soaring over the ruins of a Roman church. Outside, people are lounging on benches that were created in a contest to design city furniture. There’s the Art Deco building known as the Bozar, an exhibition-cum-theatre-cum-concert space, most of which lies beneath street level; the Art Nouveau building made of iron and glass, which is a museum of musical instruments. Crowning the hill is the 18th-century Palace, unobstructed views from which determined the height to which other buildings could aspire. The area around the Palace was rebuilt for the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, and there’s a rotating sculpture called The Whirling Ear. Many buildings sport comic strips painted on their façades, of which Tintin is, of course, the most famous.
The mediaeval Grand Place is full of cafés where late summer light makes dinner at 10pm a sunset affair. If you’re dying to shop, try Lombard Straat, or Hiasmarkt, on the pedestrian-only streets like the one where the city’s famous mascot, the (surprisingly small) Mannekin Pis, wees endlessly into a fountain.
If you like that sort of thing, visit Mini Europe, a collection of miniature mock-ups representing the signature sights and sounds of the European Union, and press a button that topples the Berlin Wall or explodes Mt Vesuvius; but if you ask me, the Atomium next door is much more interesting. This enormous silver replica of the structure of an atom was built for that famous 1958 Expo. There are lots of stairs to climb between each exhibition space, but it’s worth the breathlessness.
A 45-minute drive on pristine highways brings us to Ghent, a small but fiercely proud port city made lively by immigrants and 3,000 university students. The city’s symbol is a black-and-white noose, thanks to Emperor Charles V, who had the bad judgement in 1540 to humiliate its famously stroppy citizens by marching them to the prison with nooses around their necks. As a result it became necessary to build some impressive fortifications in the city to protect the authorities from the people, who to this day all wear nooses around their necks on festive occasions, just to remind everyone who’s boss.
We go straight to lunch at Chez Leontine, a beautiful 18th-century house turned restaurant to sample one of the best broths I’ve had anywhere. Waterzooi is a rich, creamy, wine-dazzled soup chunked up with vegetables and seafood or chicken — a subtly-flavoured meal unto itself, with a selection of brown or blond beers: Westmelle, Augustine, Leffe or Gruut (a Ghentish brewery) in cherry, peach and apple flavours. Our guide tells us that her grandfather always encouraged his family to drink water at home out of the tap, and beer when dining out, because water is so much more expensive.
Then we hop into a low, long boat and go for a ride on the river Lys. Not only do you get a tour of beautiful old guildhouses, but also a sense of how important river networks like these were — and are — to the economy and infrastructure of marshy Flanders. We see a mediaeval fortress with two-metre thick walls built by a count, the Meathall with its own chapel, the poorhouse that served as social security, and a bunch of chimneys that nod to the fact that Ghent was the first industrialised town in Flanders.
Walking in the old town we see the three architectural jewels of St Nicholas’s Church; the Belfry, topped by a nasty-looking dragon that served as city watchman and guards the Constitution of 1180, drawn up when Ghent was a city-state; and St Bavo’s Cathedral, with its beautiful rococo pulpit in marble and oak, Rubens’ painting, and Jan van Eyck’s luminous 1432 painting of the Adoration of the Lamb. There are 55 churches in Ghent (the Protestants once threw all the Dominicans’ books into the river, and it’s said that that day you could walk above the water on the books) — but only seven per cent of the population goes to church.
We wander into a shop called Veuve Tierenteyn-Verlant, where they make the tangiest, best mustard in large vats, from a secret recipe handed on by a French soldier in the 18th century. From a streetside vendor we try a ‘nose’ — a delicious, sticky, raspberry-flavoured candy. Langemunt Straat is lined with shops; the large square of the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market) is the nerve centre of leatherworkers. On Kraanlei is a red building called Hell, where, predictably, the artists hang out. Hertogstraat, with its 600-year-old paving, in the old quarter of Patershol is the restaurant centre of Ghent. Beyond, the fortress of the Castle of the Counts rises in the heart of the old city.
Don’t forget to walk down Werreganrenstraatje, an alley given over to graffiti artists. Every inch is covered, often with quite beautiful art, and it changes constantly as people paint over old stuff. And then we cap it all with — what else? — a beer and squares of cheese at Dulle Griet (Evil Woman), named after the 12,500kg cannon near the river which has never been fired and was used as a bed by drunkards before they stopped up the barrel. It’s a pity it’s Monday and not Thursday, because Thursday is going-out night in Ghent; they’re not quite sure why.
An hour’s drive away is gorgeous Bruges, where the movie In Bruges was shot, and it doesn’t disappoint. We arrive in a showy sunset splashed behind its great mediaeval spires, and head to dinner at a cosy restaurant called Marieke van Brugge where I sample another famous Flemish specialty: Vlaamse stovery, a fantastic beef stew cooked in beer with lots of steaming spinach.
When we set off the next morning for a walk around town, the guide is careful to stress that Bruges (the 2002 Cultural Capital of Europe) isn’t only about the old: evidence, the blocky new red-painted concert hall which houses the Tourist Office. It’s interesting, but citizens are understandably divided about it. We walk down Steen Straat, the main shopping street sprinkled with handmade lace shops and chocolatiers. (Newsflash: Belgian chocolate is really all it’s cracked up to be. The city’s chocolate museum, Choco-Story, explains that this is because it’s ground down to 15-18 microns.)
The Market Square, surrounded by stunning buildings including the 13th-century Belfry, is full of bleachers for tomorrow’s Procession of the Holy Blood, which attracts 25,000 visitors. The 12th-century Chapel itself, on Burg Square, is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and the Basilica of which it’s a part is richly painted over every inch. On the same square is the City Hall, the secretariat picked out in real gold, and the baroque Provost Hall.
Don’t miss a visit to the pretty, grassy Béguinage, where nuns and women whose husbands had gone off to the Crusades found refuge and accommodation. A boat tour on the canals takes in guildhouses, churches, palaces and houses, many in the Flemish style, with stepped gables. The skyline is dominated by the Belfry, the Church of Our Lady, and St Saviour’s Cathedral. It’s blindingly clear why a city of 20,000 inhabitants gets 3.5 million tourists a year.
We drive an hour and a half through fields filled with buttercups and cows, to Antwerp. This city is a revelation to me. It’s got the street buzz of New York, the aesthetics of Paris, and the hipness of London — and the natives are way friendly. The bars stay open for as long as clients are spending money. The 16th-century is said to have been the golden age of Antwerp, when it was a hotbed of culture and innovation, but the 21st century isn’t treating it too shabbily either.
Don’t fail to see the Plantin-Moretus museum of printing and bookbinding, and Rubenshuis, the Italian palazzo-style dwelling where Rubens, the greatest-ever son of Antwerp, lived and thought and painted. Both are not only fascinating, but also extremely beautiful. Also peek in at the Cathedral, which was once turned into a stable by the anti-Catholic French; it’s filled with Rubens’ work.
Gorgeous Central Station is worth walking through; it’s said to be only the fourth-most beautiful railway station in the world, but it’s definitely the best looking I’ve seen. Behind the Station is Pelikaan Straat, the diamond heart of Antwerp. You have to put on your sunglasses to cut the glare. It’s a largely Jewish area, but Indians do 60 percent of diamond-related business in Antwerp. It’s bristling with surveillance and traffic restrictions. “Forty billion dollars worth of diamonds fits in a single delivery truck,” the general manager of Diamondland tells us, “so it’s a good idea to be careful. They say Brussels is the capital, but Antwerp has the capital.” In the upscale area of Zurenborg, that capital results in a collection of stunning residential properties.
Despite its commercial clout, and the fact that it’s big on fashion (think the Antwerp Six, and the fact that the Madonna at St Andrew’s Church was dressed by An De Meulemeester) it’s also an utterly laidback city. ‘Terrasseren’ is the big rage — this is the popular pastime of lounging around your terrace or other outdoor space in minimal clothing to get some sun, drinking beer and watching the world go by (if it’s freezing, they do the same but with an extra pair of socks on). I emerge from the metro into a square where an open-air Amnesty concert is raging. The band currently onstage, a local bunch called ‘The Ditch’, are excellent, and I spend a happy time listening to the music, chatting with fellow concert-goers, and scarfing a chocolate waffle. It’s an unbeatable aftertaste.
Getting there: There are several flight options to Brussels from Delhi and Mumbai, with one stop at airports in Switzerland, Germany, Austria or France.
Where to stay: You’ll find a list of accommodation in various budget categories at www.brussels.info, youth hostels at www.brusselsmania.com and bed-and-breakfast guesthouses at www.bnb-brussels.be. Those looking for luxury could try The Dominican (€105 onwards Ph: +32 02 203 0808; www.thedominican.be), while a less expensive option is the centrally located Hotel Barry (from €45; +32 (0) 25112795; www.hotelbarry.com).
Getting around: A one-day public pass costs €4.50, and allows you unlimited travel on buses and the subway. You can get a City Card for 24, 48 or 72 hours which offers free public transport and admission to 30 museums for €20, €28 and €33 respectively. You can also opt for a €18 pass that admits you to various attractions and museums with 10 vouchers (+32 02 513 8940; www.brusselsinternational.be).
Things to do: A trip to Brussels without a visit to The Grand Place, or the central market square, is incomplete. Another chief attraction is Mini Europe, the only park that allows you to see Europe’s most famous sites all at once. Other must-visits include the Royal Museum of Fine Art and the Belgian Centre for Comic-Strip Art. The city is always hopping and has a full calendar. Among the highlights of the year are, in August, the Summer Festival — free or low admittance to over 150 concerts, plays, and street entertainment (www.brusselssummerfestival.com). In October, there’s the three-day BRXLBRAVO arts festival and an Art Nouveau Biennial.
Where to eat: For a taste of fine Belgian cuisine, the upscale Belga Queen merits a visit (+32 2 217 2187; www.belgaqueen.be). Don’t forget to visit the bathroom — it’s a very cool design. If you’re feeling homesick, La Porte des Indes (+32 2 647 8651) with its fine-dining Indian cuisine, is the perfect antidote.
Where to stay: Enjoy understated elegance at the four-star Ghent-River-Hotel (from €155; +32 9 266 1010; www.ghent-river-hotel.be) or the Boutique Hotel Carlton (from €122; +32 9 222 4992; www.carltongent.be). The centrally located Flandria-Centrum is easier on the wallet and offers clean, comfortable accommodation. (€54; Ph: +32 9 223 0626; www.flandria-centrum.be)
Things to do: There are 13 main museums in Ghent — of fine art, contemporary art, nature, design, industrial archaeology and textile, psychiatry, weapons etc, in addition to other smaller ones. You can get a museum pass for €20 valid for three days. Contact the Tourist Office (near the Belfry) for details; (www.visitghent.be). Also, don’t miss the flower market at Kouter, open 7am to 1pm
Where to eat: Enjoy excellent French/Belgian food at ‘t Buikske Vol (09/225-18-80), and equally good seafood/Flemish cuisine at Jan Breydel (09/225-62-87).
Where to stay: Occupying a 17th-century monastery, NH Hotel Bruges blends historic charm with luxury (from €88; +32 50 44 97 11; www.nh-hotels.com). A cosy, and more affordable option is Lucca (from €50; 050/34-20-67). More hotel listings are at the Brugge tourism site.
Where to eat: Vegetarians will love Salade Folle for its enormous vegetarian dishes with set and a la carte menus, while seafood lovers shouldn’t miss Marieke van Brugge (+32 50 34 33 66; www.mvb.be). For chocolate connoisseurs, trips to The Chocolate Line (+32 50 34 1090; www.thechocolateline.be) and Choco-Story/The Chocolate Museum (+32 50 61 22 37; www.choco-story.be) are essential. At the latter, look in at the demonstration centre for a taste.
Things to do: The Markt, the main market square at Bruges, is the heart of the city, around which lie most of the tourist attractions. Among the many museums, the Groeninge Museum, is possibly the most prominent. At this museum of fine arts, you’ll find an extensive collection of paintings from the 15th-20th centuries. Other sites worth seeing are the ancient Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is said to hold a relic of Christ, and the historic Belfry, a landmark, whose bell chimes every 15 minutes and can be heard through the city.
Where to stay: There are any number of excellent, comfortable hotels in all price ranges from five star to bed-and-breakfasts to hostels. Located in the heart of town, the stylish Hotel ‘t Sandt is within easy walking distance of historic/cultural sites and trendy restaurants and bars (from €150; 32 3 232 9390; www.hotel-sandt.be). Rubenshof, once home to the Belgian cardinal, is now an intimate boutique hotel with tasteful, ornate interiors (from €40; 03/237-07-89; www.rubenshof.be).
Where to eat: For Michelin-starred fine-dining French cuisine head to Dome Restaurant (+32 3 239 9003), while Dome-sur-Mer (+32 3 281 7433; www.domeweb.be) offers more casual, but excellent, French seafood. Gran Duca (+32 3 202 6887) comes recommended for great Italian food, while Flamant Dining (+32 3 227 7441; www.flamant.com) is the place for some excellent creative cuisine. For Indian food, there’s little to beat Saffraan (32 (0) 3 237 66 56).
Things to do: Among the museums, the Plantin-Moretus museum (+32 3 221 1450; www.museumplantinmoretus.be) and Rubenshuis (The Rubens House) are definitely worth checking out (+32-3 201 1555; www.rubenshuis.be). Main shopping is on Meir; look in at Stadsfeestzaal, an ancient, beautifully-restored mall.
The Tintin Museum
The intrepid reporter with the ginger cowlick and the little white dog is one of Belgium’s most famous exports. If you’re a fan of Tintin, or have never heard of him despite the fact that he’s sold 230 million books around the world and been translated into 80 languages, make sure you visit the town of Louvain-la-Neuve, 30km south of Brussels. This is where the €17m Tintin Museum is. The building, imaginatively designed by French architect Charles Portzamparc, is dedicated to Hergé (real name George Remi), the creator of the comic strip which first appeared 80 years ago. Hergé’s wife Fanny conceived of the museum after his death in 1983. It’s intended as a tribute not just to Tintin, but to the genius of his creator, featuring Hergé’s original sketches, creative methodology, and other non-Tintin work.