There is only one perfect way to start a holiday: on a full stomach. When a quick walk around the central square in Brussels at 9am on a Sunday did not yield any outlets serving waffles, or fries doused in mayo, I ended up at Café Arcadi, at the mouth of St-Hubert Galerie du Roi (a shopping, art and theatre district which opened in 1846).
The 9th Art: (left top) Bobbin Lace is a speciality of Bruges; and celebrate the Year of the Comic Strip in Brussels by admiring the murals on buildings.
My tour of Brussels and Flanders (Gent, Bruges and Antwerp) started with a Tarte Framboise on a crusty base, laden with whipped cream and raspberries. At the end of that calorific breakfast, I could only wish that my companion had not chosen to order in French. After all, almost everyone speaks English in Belgium and, if we had stuck to it, we’d have probably got the strawberry pie we had been eyeing instead of the slightly sour Tarte Framboise.
Another place where I missed the Queen’s language was the 20-year-old Belgian Comic Strip Centre. Most of the panels tracing the history of comic strips are not in English. However, a free copy of the guidebook in English—available at the ticket counter— proved most helpful. Housed in an Art Nouveau building designed by Belgian architect Victor Horta, the three-floor museum brings under one roof the history of the 9th Art and its creators. That bubble-speak is big in this part of the world is evident from the 700 comic strip authors who have called this city home and the 36 events planned in Brussels alone this year to celebrate the Year of the Comic Strip (www.brusselscomics.com).
Though a museum dedicated to Hergé, the creator of Tintin, opened outside Brussels earlier this month, the second-floor section at the Centre contains enough trivia devoted to the boy reporter to stun all but the most dedicated fans. Did you know the first Tintin strip ever published was called Tintin in the Land of Soviets, or that it came out in 1930? Or that his only sidekick in his early years was Snowy, with Captain Haddock making his debut as late as 1941 (The Crab with the Golden Claws)?
The theme carries over on to the walls of the Pentagon area of Brussels. Not in schoolboy drawings, no, but in 31 facade frescoes, most of them three or four floors high, of legendary comic characters such as Gaston Lagaffe, The Smurfs, Roze Bottle and, of course, Tintin. Even if comics leave you cold, you have to make the trek to see two artworks: Viktor Sackville’s mural, based on a comic strip about a James Bond-like detective, and the Tintin, Snowy and Haddock mural. They are both near the Manneken Pis, a 2ft-tall bronze statue of a little boy urinating. The day I visited, Manneken Pis was dressed in an Austrian peasant’s garb. The kid apparently owns close to 800 outfits, including an Elvis costume and a Japanese kimono, collected from the world over, which the city council clothes him in from time to time.
Tintin country: A replica of the space rocket from Explorers on the Moon graces the porch of the Comic Strip Centre in Brussels.
The city’s creative spirit is reflected in its graffiti as well. I was constantly surprised by the appearance of pop art in the most unexpected of places: a white and pink cat on a bicycle outside a construction site, an alligator chained to a water hydrant on the street. My understanding of the region’s freewheeling nature, though, was modified when I learnt that in Gent (a 30-minute bus ride from Brussels), teenagers were actually given spray cans to create new artworks in a passageway “dedicated” to graffiti. Conformist wall art—whatever next?
How about an utterly irresistible confection called “Nose”? While the rest of the world recommends Belgian chocolates, waffles and fries, Gent hard sells its seasonal sweet—nothing, I promise, to do with the olfactory organ— and the Mostaard Fabriek. The latter, a mustard sauce, must be purchased only from Vve Tierenteyn-Verlent, at Groentenmarkt. The shop stocks only one type of this really pungent mustard sauce, the recipe for which is supposedly 219 years old. Its potency hits home when you smear the stuff on to a salami sandwich. If your eyes and nose do not water, then you’re made of stern stuff.
The best way to make your way around is by walking the cobblestoned streets. But after a couple of hours, be prepared to envy the locals who scuttle about on their sleek, flashy Vespas or sturdy bicycles. I know I did. On some days, my feet hurt so much that I was tempted to try recumbent bicycles (the rider cycles in a reclining position), even though the only way to learn to use this bike is to take a couple of hard falls first. The alternative, in Gent at least, is to take a boat ride on the canal. In Bruges, opt to tour the city in a horse-drawn carriage.
Unlike cosmopolitan Brussels or university town Gent, Bruges is a slice of medieval Europe. I spotted an elderly woman in the doorway of her home working with multiple bobbins to create an exquisite piece of Bobbin Lace, a speciality of the town, almost as famous as its chocolates.
All aficionados, in fact, must make a point of stopping by the Choco-Story, a museum that traces the 2,600-year-old history of chocolate and its journey from Mayan civilization to Spain, not just in words and pictures but also through ancient utensils and equipment used for making chocolate-based drinks. Enter the “Selfish”, a one-serving chocolate-drink pot, or the tea cosy-like pot covers—I especially liked one that uses a doll’s head for a handle and has a frilly dress to cover the pot. If you enjoy cooking as I do, pick up a pack of unsweetened cocoa butter from the museum’s souvenir shop.
While we are familiar with Belgian chocolate brands such as Godiva and Leonidas, Bruges and Antwerp have speciality chocolate shops. The starting price for a kilo of chocolate at Dominique Persoone’s Chocolate Line in Bruges—one of the three stores in the world to be featured in Guide Michelin—is €44 (Rs2,982).
Antwerp has the Del Rey, famous for its pralines; I opted for the diamond-shaped ones in creamy bourbon vanilla flavour.
Any ideas of shopping for the other kind of diamond in Antwerp were nipped firmly in the bud by Vera, my guide. “Don’t enter any store that has a ‘50% discount’ sign on diamonds. How can anyone give discount on a diamond… hmm?”
Chocolates, I decided, were a girl’s new best friend. Especially in these recessionary times.
Flanders is the northern part of Belgium and you can apply for a Schengen visa from the Belgian embassy at http://www.diplomatie.be/newdelhi or http://www.diplomatie.be/mumbai.
It costs Rs4,200, plus Rs607 as application fee. Jet Airways has a direct flight to Brussels from Mumbai and New Delhi; an economy round-trip ticket currently costs Rs40,000 (including airport taxes). Antwerp is an hour’s drive from Brussels, Bruges is 45 minutes away, and Gent just half an hour away. You can buy a tram day pass in Antwerp, Gent or Brussels for approximately €20 or hire a bicycle for the day in any of the four cities.
Flanders map. Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
At Brussels, The Dominican (www.thedominican.be, 00322-2030808), part of the Carlton Hotel
Collection, offers a mix of the old and new. A Dominican abbey was located here in the 15th century and the hotel has retained that special character by incorporating high ceilings in its architecture. The rooms are done up in warm hues and the lilting sound of the choir can be heard throughout the hotel. A deluxe single occupancy room starts at €175. Ever been to a hotel where no two rooms are the same? Well, Hotel ‘t Sandt (www.hotel-sandt.be, 00323-2329390) at Antwerp is the place. A charming courtyard, no tea-coffee machines in the rooms and no plasma TV, yet this hotel housed in an 18th century building that was once a soap factory, then an apartment complex, is a luxurious experience. Each suite here is named after a grand hotel and a junior suite starts at €180. NH Hotel Brugge (email: email@example.com, 0032-50449711) is located next to the city’s cultural district, making it easy to step out at any hour of the day to enjoy a meal or do some exploring. This hotel building was formerly a monastery. Rooms for single occupancy start at €110.
If you are in a mood to enjoy contemporary Belgian cuisine, visit Belga Queen in either Brussels or Gent. A wide variety of lobster dishes, at least six vegetarian main course options and an almost exclusive Belgian beer and wine menu, make this a must-try eatery for a fancy meal. Oh, and at the Brussels branch, don’t forget to visit the restroom for a really naughty surprise. Maria van Bourgondie restaurant in Bruges, opposite the famous Church of Our Lady, serves a mean beef steak, poached salmon and the best creme brulee ever.
The eatery also specializes in Flemish cuisine. Zuiderterras, with its glass facade, offers a splendid view of river Schelde. The cuisine served is once again Belgian, with a French twist. Enjoy pan-fried lamb chops, or chicken fillet in a very tangy pepper sauce. Rs.