Flan­ders keep­ers

Bel­gium’s big­gest an­tique mar­ket, in its old­est town

The Guardian - Travel - - Front Page - Train travel from Lon­don to Ton­geren (Eurostar and Bel­gian Rail) costs from £86 re­turn. Ac­com­mo­da­tion at Ho­tel Eburon (dou­bles from €107 room-only, dif­fer­en­tho­tels.com) was pro­vided by Visit Flan­ders (vis­it­flan­ders.com)

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

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