Belgium’s biggest antique market, in its oldest town
Iwake on Sunday morning in Tongeren like a kid on Christmas morning, wondering what goodies are waiting for me. This is the oldest town in Belgium, just 55 miles from Brussels, and hosts the biggest weekly antiques market in the Benelux region.
Wandering out of Hotel Eburon – a modern design showcase fashioned from an old convent – the first thing I see is a woman in traditional Flemish costume, helping attract browsers to the vintage farmhouse paraphernalia she has spread out around her. In a nearby square, cafes offer coffee and pastries – plus morning beer (this is Belgium) – to shoppers pausing from treasure hunting.
What began as an impromptu flea market in the 1970s now draws up to 350 sellers every Sunday from across Belgium and the Netherlands, and they fill Tongeren’s old centre – from tiny cobbled alleys to the sports hall.
I snap up a distinctive 1960s German vase for €10 from one of the stalls lining the old town walls on Moerenstraat, their fusion of medieval flint and Roman brickwork a fine backdrop to the timeless bustle of trade. Further along, I can’t resist some 19th-century candle trimmers, which look like a tiny geometric sculpture. After some swift haggling, they’re in my bag for €25.
Complementing the street action, around 30 antique shops throw open their doors too. In one, my efforts to buy a fantastic 1920s photo of a crowd surveying a giant pig (you had to see it) fail as the shop owner says it’s destined for the town archives. I cheer myself up on a nearby street by splashing €20 on a careworn vintage autoharp, whose rust-tinged beauty perfectly embodies the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
But Tongeren is more than Europe’s secret secondhand mecca. Cultural treasures abound: its modernist GalloRoman Museum (galloromeinsmuseum. be – European Museum of the Year in 2011) chronicles the town’s evolution from neolithic times to Roman regional capital, while the Teseum (teseum. be) continues the story in a medieval treasury whose cloisters are a green oasis where I soak up afternoon sun after the market bustle.
After Sunday lunch at the canalside Infirmerie brasserie (infirmerie.be), I dive into the adjacent begijnhof – a Unesco-listed former community of unmarried or widowed women (Beguines). In a 1660s house, the Museum Beghina delves into the lives of these proto-feminist pathfinders, while its cosy basement bar challenges visitors to guess the unusual key ingredient in a glass of beguine beer. After a few unsuccessful stabs, I just enjoy its delicious herbal notes – and promise the bartender I won’t reveal the secret.
My taste buds get another Flemish workout that evening at Cafe Au Phare (on Facebook) on the Grote Markt, where a giant bronze of Celtic warrior Ambiorix gazes towards the towering 15th-century Basilica. Its special beer-pairing menu (book via Facebook) features Flemish classics such as tomato stuffed with succulent grey shrimp, which goes well with a rare vintage gueuze, a blend of old and young lambic beers.
I also venture into rural Limburg. A five-mile cab ride away – fit folk can hire a bike for a euro at Tongeren station – is Alden Biesen castle, near the Dutch border. A vast 16th-century red-brick moat-ringed edifice, it is flanked by walking trails through orchards of cherry, apple and pear.
A few miles on I walk among lime trees and vines at the Genoels-Elderen Wijnkasteel (wine castle). This is one of the finest vineyards in a country whose wines, though little-known, have won medals since the 1990s. After gawping at its beautiful 1750s manor house, I line up tasting glasses and find myself adding bottles of pinot noir and awardwinning eau de vie to my bag. This part of the world just keeps providing treasures.
Flemish frills … (clockwise from left) traders in vintage clothing in central Tongeren, the Infirmerie restaurant, and gladiators in the town’s Gallo-Roman Museum