Travel in Belgium
Fabulously historic and deliciously tasty, bursting with cutting-edge art yet never really showy, gently humorous and decidedly multilingual – Belgium is a little country full of big surprises.
Cobblestone lanes, dreamy canals, soaring spires and whitewashed old almshouses combine tomake central Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) one of Europe’s most picture-perfect historic cities. The only problem is that everyone knows, so it does get very busy. But come midweek in February and you’ll have it largely to yourself. Or escape the crowds and carriage rides by dipping into some of Bruges’ majestic art collections. The Groeningemuseum is hard to beat, offering a potted history of Belgian art, with an outstanding selection of works by the Flemish Primitives.
Brussels’ Grand Place
The magnificent Grand Place is one of the world’s most unforgettable urban ensembles. Oddly hidden, the enclosed cobblestone square is only revealed as you enter on foot from one of six narrow side alleys. The focal point is the magnificently spired 15th-century town hall, but each of the fabulous antique guildhalls has a charm of its own. The cobblestones were laid in the 12th century, when it was used as a marketplace; indeed the square still plays host to a flower market, as well as hosting Christmas stalls, concerts and – every two years – a dazzlingly colourful ‘carpet’ of flower petals.
Antwerp Art & Fashion
Cosmopolitan and confident, Antwerp is a city that has everything. Its skyline is still dominated by one of the lowlands’ most magnificent stone steeples and its medieval house-museums are stuffed with works by its most famous 17th-century resident, Pieter Paul Rubens. Today it attracts art lovers and mode moguls, club queens and diamond dealers, with state-of-the-art museums, vibrant nightlife and a reputation as one of Europe’s capitals of haute couture. It’s hard to think of anywhere else in the world with so many designer fashion boutiques huddled so close together.
For much of the 20th century, Flanders Fields were synonymous not with potato and hop production but with poppies and death in the wake of the mindless battles of WWI. The area around Ypres remains dotted with manicured graveyards where white memorial crosses bear silent witness in seemingly endless rows. Museums improve every year at explaining the battles’ context and helping visualise conditions. And the incredible rebuilt central squares of Diksmuide and Ypres are wonders in themselves.
If you love the medieval charm of Bruges but want to be a little more original, a great choice is Ghent. Known as Gent in Dutch and Gand in French, Ghent is Flanders’ unsung historic city. Like agrittier Bruges without the crush of tourists, it sports photogenic canals, medieval towers, great cafes andsome of Belgium’s most inspired museums. Always a lively student city, it’s small enough to feel cosy but bigenough to stay vibrant and dynamic.
Caves of the Ardennes
You don’t need to be a daring speleologist to explore some of northern Europe’s most awesome cave systems, hollowed out beneath the rolling countryside of the Belgian Ardennes. The best known at Hansur-Lesse even starts with a train ride, while at Remouchamps you float part of the way on an underground river. Once you’re caved out, the surrounding areas have opportunities for gentle kayaking and are set amid pretty valleys with grey-stone villages and plenty more castles.
Ordering in a Belgian beer pub requires you to trawl through a menu that might have 200 choices. Incredibly, each brew comes served in its own special, occasionally outlandish, glass. Exports of Hoegaarden, Leffe and Stella Artois have introduced mainstream Belgian brewing into bars worldwide. Many breweries offer visits by arrangement for groups. Drop-in opportunities are possible at De Halve Maan in Bruges and the brilliantly old-fashioned Cantillon lambic-works in Brussels.
I hope to enjoy this “travel in Belgium” article.