Flanders in northern Belgium is everything travel brochures claim it is. It often seems that this Dutch-speaking part of Belgium was designed with adjectives in mind—and, for once, all the sparkling words used to describe a region seem fitting. Flanders is where “seductive,” “magical,” “historical,” “colorful,” “charming” and a ton of other worn-out words have found a nest.
Its cities roll off the tongue invoking colorful images. Here’s Brussels, the seat of the European Union, a capital that hides a lively and effervescent lifestyle flavored by beer and chocolate behind the staid and gray facade of high-voltage international politics and major league finance.
Bruges (locals spell it Brugge and pronounce it “Broo-gah), only 30 miles from Brussels, oozes medieval magic and lives up to its reputation as a synonym for perfection. You come here for its distinctive regional food (mussels and fish), local beer (Brugse Zot), cakes and chocolate (a multitude of shops perpetually lure passersby with distinct aromas), lace (a local strong suit) and for the chance to visit unparalleled museums while strolling along age-old streets crisscrossed by canals lined with ancient landmarks like Bruges’ lofty Belfry Tower and the superb Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard. But Bruges is so timeless and gorgeous that it never fails to leave visitors agog.
There is Antwerp, a shopper’s wonderland. The city that gave humankind the genius of Rubens in days of yore is today the undisputed capital of the diamond trade. The city’s Het Suid (South District) is the nucleus of Flemish culture, a beehive of artists’ studios and art galleries.
Elegant Ghent in East Flanders is full of canals and cobblestoned streets dominated by churches. This is where you come for concerts and operas.
The most appealing selling point for travel agents is that Flanders is small by U.S. standards and that most of its marvels can be reached within minutes from one another by train or car. Indeed, Flanders is a pocket Rubens, a cameo of delight.
brussels Brussels is the obvious first stop for those wanting to savor Flanders. Paris is but one hour removed by train and some Francophobes, who dismiss the City of Light as an over-rated and polluted city with an attitude to match, claim that the best thing about the French capital is its proximity to Flanders.
Perhaps the most convenient and easiest way to explore Brussels is on a bicycle and one should begin from the 75-acre Parc de Cinquantenaire, a classic European park with car-free paths bordered by manicured hedges.
Here, cyclists can pedal to their hearts’ delight on a bike from Villo Bike, part of a citywide bicycle program that began last year and now has about 200 locations around Brussels. A 1-day pass costs €1.50 ($1.84) plus the same amount for the first 90 minutes. There are additional charges after that.
The city comes alive from a bike, making it easier to make the rounds of the delightful and delicious chocolate shops. Chocolatiers are as ubiquitous as Starbucks in a large U.S. city. Laurent Gerbaud specializes in bonbons dotted with berries and nuts. Jean-Philippe Darcis’ forte is almond pralines. The classiest one is La Maison de Maitres Chocolatiers on the Grand Place, a shop of mouth-watering delights that’s almost sinful to enter.
If beer is your cup of tea, the Delirium Cafe, also on the Grand Place, is an appealing basement bar in an alley that serves more than 2,000 varieties of beer. Brussels, after all, has been known for more than a millennium for the high quality of its breweries, but food, fashion and nightclubs here all flourish under unique architecture and ambiance.
The Odette en Ville, a boutique hotel in the city’s Chatelain Quarter near the high-voltage Avenue Louise in Brussel’s shopping district, opened its doors to raves last October in what once was a private home from the 1920s. The entire hotel is a study in black-and-white where it sometimes seems that the world has turned monochrome. There are black carpets and black doors. The TV in the library (all black and white) shows black-and-white Fellini films in a loop. Black-and-white portraits of movie stars gaze down from the walls in the bar.