Discover Flanders

The original Odette who inspired the hotel owned a cafe in a French village and her photo (in black and white, of course) hangs behind the reception desk. She looks down on guests like a Gallic schoolmistress. Rates here are from about €250 ($307) per night dbl.

bruges Bruges has often been described as a city of fairy tale streets, gingerbread houses and canals. It’s Venice—if Venice were clean and had an orderly Nordic flavor. Shuttles offer regular service between the train station and the city’s Market Square (Grote Markt), where the dreamlike, gossamer quality of Bruges becomes reality.

A climb up the 360 steps of the belfry is mandatory. From here the astounding view of rooftops, bridges, canals, gabled houses and churches is stupefying.

The first impression is that the whole place looks like a movie set in both architecture and atmosphere. This old town is nearly a perfect model of a medieval town. Bruges wears an engaging air combining tranquility with modern bustle. It’s a reserved, quiet and splendidly elegant city of about 45,000 where colors gush from flower stands and the smells of bread, cheese, wine and meat add a pleasant atmosphere.

Every worthwhile place and landmark is near the market, which has been in operation in one form or another since the year 985 when Bruges sprouted from a Viking trading post. Age becomes it as it basks under the golden glow of the Northern Latitudes.

Walking its streets or taking a cruise down its canals you’ll find a certain somnolence about Bruges. After all, a town whose principal products are lace and chocolates can’t be too wild. The ancient quarter is bursting with chocolatiers and lace makers and it doesn’t take long to learn more about Belgian lace than you really care to know.

A store called The Chocolate Line offers more than 60 varieties of chocolate concocted by Trappist monks. Another fabled shop is a mom-and-pop operation called Maitre Chocolatier Verbeke, only a block from Grote Markt. The wife runs the shop while her husband churns out delicious dreams downstairs. The pralines are filled with all kinds of goodies and something called the Pharaoh’s Head explodes in your mouth, lingering long after you’ve swallowed it.

Beer drinkers should find the local brew, Brugse Zot, a jolting treat with a whopping 11 percent alcohol volume, to be one of the most flavorful beers anywhere. This is the specialty of the Halve Maan, the only brewery in the center of Bruges.

But it’s the city that captivates you with its clean, efficient and orderly northern European manner.

Die Swaene (The Swan, as swans are as common as pigeons in Bruges) is a small hotel in the city’s center facing the Groenerie Canal, one of Europe’s most romantic waterways. A family-run operation, the Die Swaene overlooks both canal and the ornate Brugse Vrije Palace. The rooms are individually furnished while the lounge dates back to 1779 when it housed the guild of tailors. The hotel does justice to Bruges.

Rates run from about €170 ($208) for a standard room dbl, to €460 ($564) for the presidential suite. Parking and breakfast are extra.

ghent Ghent may be less picturesque than Bruges. But then again, few cities rival Bruges. This is a Gothic center dominated by the towers of an old church and the belfry of the St. Bavo Cathedral. With more than 400 historical buildings, Ghent is one of the most captivating cities in Northern Europe.

The Erasmus Hotel near the cathedral is a 16th century marvel. Every room is individually furnished with antiques, and spending a night under incredibly high oak-beamed ceilings in a bed that’s as soft as a summer shower will be a memorable experience. The hotel’s restaurant is in a glorious room where the counts of ancient Flanders would have felt at home.

The Erasmus offers superb service. Its rates run from about €99 dbl ($121) for a basic room, to about €150 ($184) for a small suite.

antwerp Antwerp is to Flanders what Milan is to Italy. Here one finds ultra-modern fashion houses and designer studios housed in old buildings with architectural touches difficult to nail down: baroque, gothic, rococo and modern blend in a pleasant jumble.