Much of Belgium looks like one big historical theme park, but the tiny country is as modern as they come. Along the 1.5-hour ride from Brussels airport to Bruges, I realise how layered the place is, and peeling it off, one city at a time, would be fun. Along the highway, for instance, windmills tower over corn fields. Lazily grazing them are hefty cows. It is the kind of scenery that makes it to postcards. Just then, two Teslas whizz past me. That’s Belgium for you: its facades are medieval, people modern, and infrastructure top-of-the-line.
In my first stop Bruges, horse-drawn carriages trot around cobbled streets, but there’s also the occasional crushing sound of a Mini Cooper. In Ghent, the graffiti culture is vibrant and legal, with an entire street dedicated to it. All this in a country that’s home to Flemish masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Jan van Eyck, and surrealists such as René Magritte. In Brussels, someone’s always busking on some sidewalk. On some kerbs, hippies sit holding “for weed” placards, playfully winking at you when you pass by.
Across Belgium, there’s always more beer to be had, that one extra waffle to be savoured and chocolates to be bought. But most of all, Belgium, with its limitless offerings, is the kind of place that teases you to revisit… for the main course, for newer discoveries.
History flows through Bruges’ veins; in the crevices of 15th-century stone bridges, in canals dotted with snow-white swans, and in the busy squares of the Markt and Burg. And since last year, courtesy De Halve Maan, an 1856 local brewery, what also flows via a 3-kilometre-long pipeline in Bruges is beer.
Community Life Stroll across Bruges’ squares, especially the Markt, and climb its 272-foot-tall medieval tower Belfry. But surely visit the Princely Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde. Built in 1245, the white restored facade and lush green lawns of this begijnhof (beguinage) were home to communities of women who shunned the limited life choices 13th-century Europe offered them: marry a man (of their father’s choice) or become nuns. Instead, single, married and divorced women moved to these gated communities to live together on the city’s outskirts. The one in Bruges has survived the two World Wars and is one of the 13 Flemish beguinages that are UNESCO sites. Later, as the system declined, the Bruges beguinage became a nunnery. Visit the attached museum for an intimate glimpse into the lives of the women who lived here. My guide, Els Verlinde, tells me more about the fascinating lives the beguines led; those in Leuven, for instance, even brewed their own beer. They took vows of chastity and obedience. “But not of poverty,” adds Els. “So, unlike nuns, they could make money. They could also leave as soon as their knight in shining armour came by. They were free to say ‘bye, bye beguinage. Off I go with my chap’.” (www.visitbruges.be/highlights/beguinage; open daily 6.30 a.m.-6.30 p.m.; entry free; Museum entry adults €2/Rs148, visitors above 65 €1.5/ Rs110, visitors below 25 €1/ Rs74.)
Laced with History Cycling through Bruges one might wonder why tissue boxes, doilies and table runners made from lace are a rage across display windows. Souvenir shops, too, are full of them. To uncover Bruges’ connection with this 16th-century craft of lace-making, visit the Kantcentrum (Lace Museum). Interactive multimedia installations take you through the trying social conditions of the lace makers. On the second floor, you can even watch women make pieces using traditional wooden bobbins. “At the turn of the 18th century, locals in Bruges were dismissive of the Industrial Revolution because they felt it wouldn’t last. Others didn’t have enough money to invest in the machinery. Later, in difficult times, the women stepped up. They began making and selling laces on per piece basis,” said Verlinde. In the early 20th century, of the 47,000 lace-makers in Belgium, 70 per cent were from Bruges. Today, lace is used even to make designer lingerie. (kantcentrum.eu; open Mon-Sat,
9.30 a.m-5 p.m.; adults €5.20/Rs385, visitors between 12-25 and above 65 €4.20/Rs312, free for children below 12.)
Foraging for Food End a packed day at Bistro Bruut, where meals look like art on plate—served with love, a green philosophy and MasterChef-like perfection. Housed in a heritage building, this quaint restaurant serves salads topped with baked milk flakes, mini pork balls for buds in edible flowers and grilled asparagus with foamy sauces. Chef Bruno sources seasonal and local ingredients, and changes the menu every month. Nature is what inspires him deeply. “I believe in the force of the ground, and forage for wild herbs and flowers. Foraging makes you see things. When you see things, you interpret and serve them up,” says Bruno. He takes pride in plating up traditional Flemish flavours with a modern twist. The chef claims that he can create a seven-course meal with just one knife after a day in the outdoors. (www.bistrobruut.be; open Mon- Fri, noon-2:30 p.m. and 7-9.30 p.m.; €55/Rs4,000 for a four-course meal and €65/Rs4,800 for five.)
Ghent’s part-Gothic, part-Renaissance Town Hall is now a popular wedding venue. Some of its baroque buildings have been repurposed to house cafés and pubs. Its universities draw thousands of students. Ghent is a young city, with jazz spilling out of pubs and street art splashed boldly on walls. Europe is known for its meat, but Ghent plates up some good vegetarian fare too.
Water Ways To pack the best of Ghent in limited time, hop on a boat. Glide through the inland waterways of the Leie and Scheldt rivers, on the confluence of which Ghent is located. You’ll be flanked by symmetrical vistas of historic fortifications as you sip on wine or dip cookies into tea, listening to your boat guide as she points out the landmarks. You’ll also cross the Castle of the Count, a medieval castle that now houses a torture museum; the gateway to the old fish market that’s now home to a swanky restaurant; the Great Butcher’s Hall, an indoor market from whose ceiling hang lumps of the local speciality, Ganda ham; and Koornstapelhuis, a 12th-century granary. The beauty of the 30-minute boat ride is that it not only allows you to see and hear Ghent but to also smell it—aromas of beer, coffee, meats and mustard waft out from nooks of the city. (De bootjes van Gent-Rederij Dewaele is one of the many boating companies; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; adults €7/Rs500; children €4/Rs290.)
Divine Intervention If there’s one thing in Ghent you mustn’t skip, it has to be The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St. Bavo’s Cathedral. The 1432 altar piece by Flemish painter brothers, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, leaves you awestruck. Head to the viewing gallery, get an audio guide, squat on the floor if seats are taken (because it’s worth it) and experience the masterpiece one panel at a time. Of the 12 panels, the central painting in the lower register is the one where Christ is symbolised by a lamb on a pedestal, the skyline is dotted with spires of various churches and the 12 apostles kneel in the foreground. Several other groups can be seen revering Christ. This masterpiece has survived much iconoclasm: it was with Napolean and then with Nazi Germany before it was restored and hung where it belongs, in St. Bavo’s. (www.sintbaafskathedraal.be/en; open daily, Mon-Sat 8.30 a.m-6 p.m, Sun 1 p.m -5 p.m.; adults and children €4/Rs290 inclusive of audio guide.)
Day’s End Wind up your day with a glass of beer or two at Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a traditional pub along the Leie. Hops hang from the ceiling here and there’s a wall of notes, with international currencies clipped one on top of another (including a Rs20 note). Smoke the day’s last cigarette here, sipping one of the three house-brewed beers, Gandavum, Klokke Roeland or Mammelokker. While the al fresco section is charming, it is from the rooftop that you can see the signs of a day drawing to a close. The sun has set. Shops have shut. Boats have been parked. All you see are weary tourists, perhaps reflecting on their day or soaking in the sights, by the dimly-lit waterfront. (www.waterhuisaandebierkant.be/waterhuis-ligging; open daily 11 a.m -2 a.m.; €6/Rs450 for a Mammelokker.)
Comic murals, including the great Belgian export Tin Tin, are plastered across building facades in Brussels. Aromas of freshly baked waffles and mayonnaise-smothered fries waft through the air. Cafés such as Victor Bozar are housed inside art deco buildings and diners like Brasserie Horta are nestled in art nouveau structures.
Stranger Things As you glide up the partly transparent elevator of the Magritte Museum, what greets you on one side is a nude woman’s painting, split into five frames. It becomes clear that Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte’s works were meant to jolt and puzzle. To do justice to the more than 200 artworks displayed at the museum, dedicate at least three hours to this place, aching feet be damned. It’s one thing to see his works online, another to experience them from a foot away. There are sculptures, photographs of Magritte with his wife Georgette, and letters exchanged between him and his friends. His friends also often named his paintings. In addition to the famous “Empire of Light”, in which the artist paints both day and night, look out for “The Central Story”, which depicts the story of Magritte’s mother’s suicide. (www.magrittemuseum.be; Tue-Fri 10 a.m-5 p.m, Sat-Sun 11 a.m-6 p.m.; adults between 26-64 €8/Rs590, visitors above 65 €6/Rs445, visitors between 6-25 €2/Rs145, free for children up to 5.)
Beer Witness Belgians take their beer seriously. Pub crawls and brewery visits aren’t frivolous affairs. They impart lessons on history, process, and how beer should be poured and in which glass. Sign up with Taste this. Beer, a month-old boutique beer-tasting studio, to pick your favourite Belgian brews. This tasting gallery comes with beer taps and screens flashing names of the brews, their origin and how they taste. Just place a prepaid card against the screen, and pour. For €10/Rs740, visitors can taste as many as 10 brews. So “pour responsibly”, as the ticker at the end of the screen tells you. Money is deducted as per the quantity poured. On the menu are dark and dense beers like Affligem Dubbel and fruity ones like Liefmans Fruitesse. (Rue de la Colline 24, 1000 Bruxelles; open daily 11.30 a.m.-8 p.m.; prepaid cards from €10/Rs740.)
Grand Arcade After Magritte and beer, walk through the Grand Place, a cobbled market square that’s home to architectural wonders such as 17th-century baroque houses and the 15th-century City Hall. Past the Grand Place, let the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert be your last stop. Built in 1847, the first two storeys of this shopping arcade house apartments on either side. The ground floor is home to restaurants, luxury boutiques and chocolate stores, and the elegant cafés are where surrealist painters and writers hobnobbed in the 1800s. Today, this is the place to get your fill of Godiva, and artisanal truffles and candies. Do pick up some treats from Neuhaus—its founder’s grandson, Jean Neuhaus II, invented praline in 1912. They taste heavenly. (www.grsh.be/en/real-attractions; shops open around 11 a.m, Sun closed.)
Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.