September 2010 Cover Feature and Interview
Flanders for the Casual Connoisseur
By Kathy Renwald • Photo Credits: Tourist Office for Flanders, Belgium
Though the technicalities of the various geographic and ethno-linguistic boundaries that constitute Flanders may remain a mystery to everyone but the locals, this much is clear: this diverse cultural region in the north of Belgium is stocked with treasures that appeal to every single one of the senses. With the lure of both traditional and cutting edge fashion, art and architecture; its world-class chocolate and premium beers, Flanders boasts some truly impressive offerings for its compact size. And with six diverse cities ideally situated between France and the Netherlands, travel within Flanders is always immediate yet unhurried, while the region on the whole somehow manages to feel both dynamic and cozy; always on the move and always at rest. It might have something to do with the experience of arriving from Amsterdam by train.
Brussels, a Quintessential European Village
Uncrowded, quiet, and with polite service by staff, the Thalys train (www.thalys.com) is a welcome breather for travelers arriving by air and venturing on to Brussels, a city that is both grand and intimate. Referred to as the capital of Europe, and the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, Brussels is home to some serious business. The architecture runs from the ornate, towering, gold dipped buildings of the 14th century, to the stylishly stripped down Art Nouveau classics best realized at the wonderful Belgian Comic Strip Center.
The beauty of Brussels comes together in the historic central square, The Grand Place. In late afternoon, with the sunlight glinting off the gold leaf decorating the Guildhall buildings, and under a canopy of a soft blue sky, it becomes more than a photo or a memory, it becomes a masterpiece of European life.
Buildings are grand, but people make a place come alive, and the Grand Place thrums with activity and tourists strolling, chatting, and enjoying the many cafes and shops that line the square. In December the Grand Place becomes magical during the Christmas Market, and every other year the Floral Carpet (www.flowercarpet.be) transforms the square as thousands of begonias cover the pavement in designs using stained glass windows, French tapestries or even the gardens at Versailles as inspiration.
As always in the great cities of Europe, one of the deepest joys is walking and discovering. In Brussels I must say the walks are often interrupted by the lure of chocolate shops. When the windows look like jewelry stores, and the chocolates are as beautiful as gems, then it is your duty to go in and consume. After all, the chocolates, free of the additives that give them extended shelf life, are made to be eaten lickety split.
Fueled by chocolate, a walk though a park makes a proper follow up. I enjoyed the Le Petit Sablon, a lovely park from the 19th century, where 48 little statues representing the medieval guilds of Brussels seem to stand guard over the green oasis. Surrounding the park, the Sablon area has become a center for antiques and art galleries.
Museum lovers have many choices to balance, from a museum of musical instruments, to Autoworld Brussels, to the Museum of Fine Arts. The Brussels Card (www.brusselscard.be) gives access to 30 museums and public transport for timed periods. I walked from my hotel, The Conrad, to the Museum of Fine Arts where it was a pleasure to see both the work of classical artists and artists working in contemporary style.
The Conrad Hotel, located on the fashionable Avenue Louise, had an old world elegance, a spa-perfect for the weary walker, and should it be needed, a suite suitable for people traveling with their dogs. (http://conradhotels1.hilton.com)
Ghent, the 7th Century University Town
Tempting as it might be to linger in Brussels, a very capable train system makes it easy to carry on exploring Flanders. To reach Ghent, all I had to do was wait for the next train to arrive on the half hour.
The Marriott Hotel (www.marriott.com) is centrally located overlooking the river Lys. Though it occupies a handsome historic building, the lobby is light-filled and contemporary and the rooms are stylishly modern. It made a welcoming home base for exploring Ghent.
Seemingly every turn you take in this city of 236,000 there is a photo opportunity to be had; 15th century buildings reflected in the calm waters of the many canals, pastry shops and bakeries, displays of fine linens and flowers, and plants spilling out of pots in front of picture book houses.
For a true taste of what lies beneath the surface of the city it is best to begin at the The Groot Vleeshuis—also called the Great Butchers Hall—built between 1407 and 1419.
We sampled the buttery rich local Ganda ham as our guide covered the historical highlights of the imposing building. Today it is used to showcase local foods, including the giant hams that hang to dry from massive timbers. The ham did a good job at tempering the appetite so that the next samples of chocolate, pastries and cheese were not devoured in a display of gluttony.
Though there are buses and trams, the town center is mostly closed to cars so the best way to explore is on two wheels or on foot. With reference signs in 114 locations and the city divided into quadrants, it is impossible to get lost though with all the cafes, churches and parks to be explored, it’s still worth trying. A Ghent “To Do” list should include a visit to the Mustard Store for Tierentijn mustard, a tour of the Design Museum, a canal boat trip and a stopover for one of 150 different Belgian beers at Het Waterhuis aan Bierkant with its terrace over looking the Lys.
A perfect day in Ghent ends with a nighttime stroll along Graslei. Perhaps under a moonlit sky it is possible in the shadow of the house of the Grain Weighers and the Guildhall of the Free Boatman to imagine Ghent as it blossomed in the Middle Ages.
When I was preparing for my Flanders trip I was expecting to fall head over heels for Bruges, but in reality it was Ghent that stole my heart.
Bruges, the ‘Venice of the North’
I could not have imagined the drama and pageantry in store for us as we waited for the beginning of the Procession of the Holy Blood. Every year on Ascension Day since 1291, the procession—representing scenes from the Old and New Testament—makes it’s way though the ancient streets of Bruges. Horses, camels, sheep, choirs, dance groups, and floats-proceed slowly through town, building to a climax when the Blood of Christ relic is paraded through town for veneration. Thousands attend the religious pageant, lining up patiently and quietly along the parade route. When it’s over, Bruges somehow absorbs the masses and becomes once again a quietly remarkable place, often called the Venice of the North.
With its cobbled alleys and perfectly preserved medieval buildings, Bruges itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. It’s most powerful charm for me unfolded along the canals, where the soft light and still water reflected gabled houses, and gardens overflowing with wisteria and clematis. Along these serpentine routes one encounters artists sketching, families going for walks, and students making their way to class. Fanning out from the town center, it’s possible to find reasonably priced B and B’s and restaurants off the beaten path. After the Procession I ate in what really felt like a neighborhood café and enjoyed asparagus soup with scampi, and a crisp white wine.
Walking around, you can really feel the heft of the city’s history here. On Burg Square the gothic town hall from 1376 seems to inspire civil obedience, on Market Square the belfry tower and cloth hall cast a stern shadow, though a carillon of 47 bells produces a lovely sound.
Bruges can be seen by boat, by bike and by horse-drawn carriage. It is a city of stirring architecture and fascinating history, but still manages to be vibrant with interesting places to dine and stylish places to stay. I checked into the Grand Hotel Casselbergh (www.grandhotelcasselbergh.com), which combined three historical residences to provide 188 elegant rooms. Located at the heart of the historical center, it’s a breeze to leave the hotel and immerse oneself in the magic that is Bruges.
Antwerp, City of Diamonds and Designers
Antwerp is the place of cool café culture, ahead of the curve design, edgy art and hip clothes. The fashion scene is sizzling, both on the streets and in the shops. Arm yourself with an Antwerp Fashion Map, (www.ffi.be/en/antwerp-fashion-map-2010), a collaboration of the Antwerp Tourist Board and the Flanders Fashion Institute, and follow the insider trail for shoes, bags, vintage, international design and street wear.
Museums run from the classic to the modern. The Museum of Contemporary Art (www.muhka.be) is a fabulous looking building utilizing a former grain silo and warehouse. At the Rubens House, (www.rubenshuis.be) it is possible to step back in time to 1610, when Peter Paul Rubens acquired his house and painting studio in Antwerp.
Fresh interior design is another reason to visit Antwerp. Kaai Design, one of the best, occupies a huge industrial building. Studio Job is an exhibition space housed in a former cigar factory. And you might see some of the modern inspiration in Antwerp’s hotels.
The Ramada Plaza Antwerp dips into retro and sophisticated style, (www.ramadaplaza-antwerp.com). The Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel makes some trendy moves, (www.radissonblu.com/astridhotel-antwerp) and is located near the Central Station.
After shopping and sightseeing, the day might wind down at one of the many lively Antwerp nightspots. Cocktails at Nine, in the center of the city near the Cathedral of Our Lady looks like just the sort of hip but cozy, high style but homey places to savor a city that’s made the list of Cool Capitals. Those are places where old meets new, art and architecture are passions and history is revered but very much alive.
Getting There and Getting Around
American Airlines, Brussels Airlines, United, Delta, Continental, Jet Airways, US Airways and Air Canada all offer direct flights to Brussels. Two new connections this year have linked Chicago-Brussels on United and Montreal-Brussels on Air Canada. Thalys (www.thalys.com) and Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) have a dense network of train service linking all the major cities in Flanders, France and the Netherlands.
To find out more about Flanders visit the Tourist Office for Flanders at www.visitflanders.us or call 212-584-2336.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW By Ryley Hartt
With Geri Jacobs, Director, Tourist Office for Flanders, Belgium
Geri Jacobs (right) came to New York as the newly appointed Director of the Tourist Office for Flanders in May, bringing with her a background in Marketing and Communications, having previously worked as a Brand Strategist for international projects with AB Inbev, Heineken, Coca-Cola, Virgin and Brussels Airlines.
Does your marketing background offer any special blueprint for expanding Flanders’ appeal in the U.S.?
We focus on 6 cities: Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and then Leuven and Mechelen, which are perhaps lesser-known here. But those six are really what comprise our product, which is really an arts and history product. I think most people are probably familiar with Brussels, as it is the capital of the European Union, and Bruges as well. For most people who want to come to the Flemish part of Belgium, Bruges is always a high priority, and that’s a good starting point and a major asset that we will continue to leverage. We want to highlight all of the 6 art cities through advertising, collaboration with trade partners and social media to create a maximal effect. We don’t do an awful lot of advertising to consumers one-on-one, but we can use our website, our Facebook page and Twitter to create a maximum effect. We will be directing more people to our website (www.visitflanders.us) and our Facebook fan page (VisitFlanders) by making it more attractive, creating more dialogue, running contests, sweepstakes and giveaways to get people more involved.
What are some of the things you hope to highlight in the coming year?
Culture is one thing I want to delve a bit deeper into. I mean, we have the traditional arts and history product, and we also have the good life: gastronomy, beer and a nice box of chocolates. But I also think it’s time we added some other elements into the mix. Our cities are always developing and the juxtaposition between new developments and some very old historical sites is very interesting. Flanders is not frozen in time, it is very much alive and kicking. So next to the old art and historical buildings, I also want to focus on recent architecture, on modern design and fashion and the latest food pairing trends. (www.theflemishprimitives.com)
What I want to work on is really identifying some key themes and products to explore next year. For me a big one to explore is beer—Belgian beers—which we are just as proud of as Belgian chocolates. They’re brewed and enjoyed all over Flanders and Belgium and we really consider them to be a common heritage and it generates so much enthusiasm among American beer buffs that I want to explore what we can do for visitors who share a penchant for Belgian beer brewing traditions.
How do you approach the challenge of expanding visitors’ radar and creating an equal interest in all of your cities?
Well, one way of looking at it is that people are always coming back to explore more cities and Belgium is really a very small country. You don’t get the anxiety of “How do I get from this city to this city?” because everything is ridiculously close by. You can base yourself in Brussels and reach Antwerp or Ghent in less time than most people’s morning commute. The proximity is a big selling point, as is the value for money during this economic period. We’re not the premium destination, we’re not as expensive as London or Paris and we still have very good value in our hotels. The Dollar to Euro rate is also beneficial.
How would you summarize the personality of each city you mentioned?
Bruges is the picture perfect medieval city that time forgot. The reason for this is that the harbor silted up and it killed Bruges as a trading city. There is very little traffic and you can leisurely explore its picturesque streets and canals. Bruges is also the place to sample some chocolates and it has a whole museum dedicated to this delicacy. (www.choco-story.be). Recently, Bruges was the décor for the motion picture ‘In Bruges’ and for people who want to get a feel for what Bruges actually looks and feels like, the film is a good starting point. Even though the characters use rather ‘colorful’ language in the film to describe the city, the actors Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell loved their stay there.
Antwerp has a more trendy, young, hipster vibe. Antwerp is a girl’s best friend. They have diamonds and fashion. What’s not to like? The fashion academy is rolling out all of these incredible styles and you can see it in the streets. It’s more hip and extroverted. You have to see the cathedral, which people say is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. It’s kind of half-finished, but that’s part of the charm.
Ghent is similar to Bruges in that it has a beautiful historical center that is really mind blowing but less recognized. In fact Ghent is less known altogether, but it has a beautiful decor and easy flow. What sets Ghent apart from Bruges is that it’s really a liveable city; it’s owned by the people and less by the tourists. In my opinion, Ghent is the best combination of history and everyday life. They have a very nice culinary route where you basically eat your way through the city, and they just have a very nice way of going about life and enjoying themselves.
Apart from having the oldest still existing Catholic university in the world, Leuven is very much the city that’s most associated with beer. Leuven is home to the world’s largest brewery AB Inbev, but there’s also a local micro brewery, Domus, that has a cafe attached to the brewery and you can almost get the beer fresh from the vats. The main square has cafes running around all sides of the marketplace that creates one big open-air terrace and there is an incredible beguinage that is like a peaceful little town in itself.
Mechelen is to Antwerp as Leuven is to Brussels. It suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex, although at a certain point in history, Mechelen was the capital of the Netherlands, both Holland and Flanders. Mechelen is very modest but it’s really an undiscovered little gem in Flanders. Located in between Antwerp and Brussels (1/2 hour drive), Mechelen makes for an easy day trip from each of these cities.
Brussels is everything. It’s chaotic and charming and very compact. It is known for its Art Deco architecture, its comic strip walks, and one of the world’s most unusal landmarks, the Atomium (c.1958), a 335 feet tall monument in the shape of an iron atom magnified 165 billion times. The Tourist Office for Flanders, Belgium has an office right by the Grand Place and visitors are welcome to come by anytime.
Proximity is not only a big selling point within Flanders, but outside of Flanders as well, isn’t it?
Absolutely. We have a program with Holland (www.hollandflanders.com) to develop and promote itineraries that originate in Holland and go across the border to Flanders as well. Amsterdam, but also Paris and London, are a stone’s throw away.
Cultivating a Taste for the Finer Things in Flanders
By Phyllis Meras Cocroft
I have just come back from Flanders—the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. In Brussels’ Grand-Place (Grote Markt in Dutch), which many consider Europe’s most beautiful square, I admired the 17th century guildhouses with bell-shaped gables. All across Flanders, I gazed at art masterpieces and explored winding lanes. I have listened in the darkness to 16th century carillons playing familiar songs and watched diamond-cutters and chocolate-makers at work. I have enjoyed succulent chocolates, fresh fish and crisp vegetables; and quaffed my thirst with some of Belgium’s more than 400 kinds of rich, smooth beer.
Though it’s only half the size of Maryland, there is plenty to see and do in Flanders. Since the Middle Ages, it has produced some of the world’s finest artists. Pieter Breughel the Elder, Jan van Eyck, Pieter Paul Rubens and Anton van Dyke are among those whose work can be seen in the Musee d’Art Ancien in Brussels. In more recent years, James Ensor and Renee Magritte (www.musee-magritte-museum.be) have been among Flemish painters of world renown. Nineteenth-century Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta (www.hortamuseum.be) and designer Henri Van de Velde are both Flemish-born. Flanders has soaring Gothic cathedrals and picturesque canals. Along its North Sea, the climate is warmer than in much of the north of Europe, so visitors hasten to enjoy it in summer. In Bruges and Ghent and Mechelen, clusters of neat little cottages (or begijnhofs) can be found down cobblestone alleys or in quiet gardens. Existing only in Holland and Belgium, they first appeared in the 13th century to house widows and single women. The women took no vows, but dressed as if they were nuns. Often, they did charitable acts or made the lace for which Flanders was long renowned.
Small as it is, Flanders is ideal for pleasant, laid-back visiting either by car or train. Most tourist towns are not more than half an hour apart. Rail passes may be bought at the airport in Brussels or at any station. Though Flanders’ native language is a dialect of Dutch, English is spoken by virtually everyone. My weeklong visit took me from Brussels, the Flemish capital and the capital of all Belgium, to Antwerp and Bruges, Ghent and Mechelen. On other visits I have seen the grim reminders of World War I in Ieper.
In Antwerp, for centuries a center of diamond cutting, I stopped at the Diamond Museum near the Central Railway Station. Then I walked to the house that Pieter Paul Rubens (www.rubenshuis.be) bought in 1610 and lived until his death in 1640. In it are some of his pictures and sketches, along with those of other famous contemporaries. I spent an afternoon at the Plantin-Moretus Museum (www.museumplantinmoretus.be), a 16th century publishing house filled with rare books and early printing presses. I window-shopped on the Meir, the city’s grandest shopping street, in the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady (www.dekathedraal.be), and saw Rubens’ Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross.
At a Neuhause chocolaterie in Brussels, I learned that it was Jean Neuhaus Jr., who in 1921 invented the praline and his wife Louise, the cardboard box in which her husband’s chocolates could be safely placed. Until her invention, chocolates had simply been piled in a paper cone. In Antwerp, I sampled chocolates at Guither Watte’s Chocolate Café and Renee Gossen’s chocolate shop. For heartier fare, I tried Carbonnade de Boeuf Flamande, a traditional Flemish dish of beef slowly cooked in beer.
In Ghent, street work has left the city somewhat disrupted. In the Cathedral of St. Bovo however, I saw Jan Van Eyck’s altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. And I learned it was in Ghent that the waffle was born. At a canal-side stand I sampled my first Belgian fries and was told that these strips of crisp, deep-fat fried potatoes, are a Belgian and not a French invention. Originally it was tiny fresh-water fish that were fried, but when fresh water ponds froze over, inventive Belgians, using a cut known as a “French cut” substituted potatoes for fish. In Bruges, at the Friet Museum, the history of the “French fry” is recounted.
When I reached Bruges, a city with 52 chocolatiers, I chose to go to its museum of chocolate history rather that to its potato museum. I also saw innovative chocolatier Dominique Persoone who fills today’s chocolates with smoked eel combined with cauliflower and orange; sun-dried tomatoes, olives and basil; or oyster juice and fresh cream. Then there were the narrow streets of Bruges to explore, lined with houses of red and gold brick, canals and footbridges, its Begijnhof, the Groeningemuseum and the Memlingmuseum of medieval Flemish art. After sightseeing all day, I warmed up with Chicken Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty that is a cross between soup and stew.
Mechelen, where modern tapestries are still being made and old ones mended at the De Wit Factory (www.dewit.be), was my final stop in Flanders. The factory is open to visitors on Saturdays. The Het Anker Brewery (www.hetanker.be) is also open to visitors. So, too, is the museum at the Royal Carillon School, which attracts students from around the world. In Mechelen, my gustatory adventure was an unsuccessful search for Koekkoek, a local braised chicken dish. Instead, I dined on Belgian endive and ham au gratin.
The 59-room Park Inn Antwerpen is minutes away not only from the train station, but also from the Diamond Museum and the zoo. For shoppers, it is close to the Meir and De Keyserlei, two of Antwerp’s main shopping streets. A half-hour walk away is the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedral), where Rubens’ Descent from the Cross hangs, and en route there are many sights to see. Visit www.antwerpen.parkinn.be.
In Bruges, the charming Hotel Boterhuis has an unbeatable location, 11 rooms and an attractive dining room at the back of what used to be a butterhouse in the Middle Ages. Out the door in one direction is the Markt, the main market square; in the other the winding streets and picturesque canals and bridges of old Bruges. Visit www.boterhuis.be.
The four-star Ghent Marriott, with its impressive glass atrium and picturesque setting on the River Lys, has been open only three years. The handsomely restored waterfront façade of this 150-room hotel is made from four 15th and 16th century guild houses, dating from the days when the Kornlei was the gateway for grain coming from France to Flanders. Visit www.marriottghent.com.
Right in Mechelen’s former Fish Market, where fish stores are still found, the 36-room, four-star Hotel Vé has been welcoming guests since 2006. It was renovated from a former fish-smoking plant. Just a stone’s throw away are the Grote Markt with its elaborate, 16th-century town hall, restaurants and cafes and towering late-gothic St. Romboutskathedraal. Visit www.hotelve.com.
Further information is available from the Flanders Tourist Office at www.visitflanders.us.