Geographically small, fought in and over for centuries, the ‘cause’ of a World War, Belgium is full of surprises and quirky juxtapositions. The battlefield of Waterloo is a morning ride from the glitz of Brussels – as in Napoleonic times. The capital’s most famous statue is Mannekin Pis - a little boy relieving himself. Nearby is one of most elegant squares in the world, the Grand Place with high-fashion shops and restaurants for local Eurocrats, and the site of a spectacular medieval pageant (Ommegang) and equally colorful Christmas Market. Bruges was once a thriving port; the coast retreated and it is now a beautiful city, its car-free centre still best seen by boat on innumerable canals. Antwerp still is a busy port but has reinvented itself as an ultramodern centre of commerce. Ghent holds to its classic past a little more, the home of the superb St Bavo Cathedral and the van Eyck brothers’ ‘Adoration of the Blessed Lamb’. Shopping and eating? Range from diamonds in Antwerp (visit the ‘diamondland’ expo/showroom), to exquisite Brussels and Bruges lace. Sample incredible taste combination chocolates from over 2,000 chocolateries – or collect a cone of national dish, ‘frites’, from a street vendor.
Antwerp is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most attractive ‘commercial’ cities. A major trading centre since the 16th century, its fine harbour and the River Scheldt made it a vital shipping centre for Europe, the Americas, and the Indies and it is still a bustling international port. Its historic centre is the traffic-free Market Square with its splendid surrounding buildings and the landmark ‘Brabo’ statue. Van Dyke was born here and the city is a rich treasure house of art … though for real ‘richness’ there are diamonds. The world centre for the industry, there are four distinct diamond ‘bourses’ giving a whole new dimension to souvenir buying.
Bronze statues, cobbled streets, medieval shuttered windows, crenellated gables… a walk around Bruges is like stepping into the work of a Flemish master. Between tasting regional specialities such as steaming mussels and any of over 300 local beers, a canal ride in this “Venice of the North” provides a fine introduction. Linger on the Market Square with its towering belfry as it peels the hour. Visit the Beguinage, ancient almshouses that surround a sea of daffodils in springtime. Gaze at Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, said to be the artist’s only marble to have made it north of the Alps. Watch as busy fingers play with lace bobbins, then come away with fabulous filigree mementos.
Wander the streets around the magnificent Grand’Place and you’ll soon be tempted by devilish delicacies staring at you from patisserie windows, stands selling crispy waffles or chips dressed with dollops of mayo. Whatever your budget, restaurants serve spectacular seafood platters and succulent tournedos so good they even make the French blush. Brussels is a mix of grand palaces, gothic cathedrals and more than a few curiosities - the diminutive figure of Manneken-Pis, the giant spheres of the Atomium, a Chinese Pavilion here, a Japanese Pagoda there. Shoppers will be spoilt with high fashion on Avenue Louise, antiques in the Sablons… and stationers stacked with fabulous cartoon strips. After all, this is Tintin’s home town.
One end of the ‘Good News’ literary ride to Aix (look up Browning), Ghent is a medieval town that wears its antiquity with a flourish. One of several Venice-of-the-North’s, the canals were at the heart of the city’s economic importance and are still a key tourist attraction. The September music festival (classical), for example, takes to the streets and to the canals (usually more melodious than Venetian gondoliers). Like Manhattan, a limited land area meant building upwards and the towers of Ghent were a middle-ages skyscraper landscape, still highly impressive. The artistic focus is undoubtedly the Van Eyck brothers triptych masterpiece ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ in St Bavo’s cathedral.