TRAVEL

A ROUND- UP OF THE FLEM­ISH TRIO OF BRUGES, GHENT AND AN­TWERP. AND THEN AN OUT­ING TO BRUS­SELS

WKND - - Contents - By Charukesi ra­madu rai

A round- up of the Flem­ish trio of Bruges, Ghent and An­twerp. And then an out­ing to Brus­sels

If Eat, Pray, Love was a town, it would be Bruges. So pretty, so pic­ture post­card that some guide­books have de­scribed it as touristy and a tad fake. Our guide in Bruges splut­ters in­dig­nantly about the Amer­i­can who thought of it as a me­dieval Dis­ney­land, ask­ing him, “Is Bruges shut for win­ter?”

Bruges is an- all weather des­ti­na­tion, but to me, spring is the per­fect time to be there. The tourist groups have just be­gun to trickle in, the daf­fodils are in full bloom at the charm­ing Beguinage, where Bene­dic­tine nuns re­side, and the weather makes me hum a happy tune all the time.

As walk on the cob­ble- stoned lanes, I keep an ear open for the clip clop of horses fer­ry­ing tourists across the UNESCO her­itage town, the horse­man ( or in many cases, woman) dou­bling up as guide. Then, there are the be­guil­ing win­dow dis­plays on the choco­late shops lin­ing the nar­row shopping streets and the heady smell of Bel­gian frites ( fries) in the air; to­gether they erase all thoughts of calo­ries and choles­terol from my mind. Re­mem­ber, Eat is one of the leit­mo­tifs for this town.

To Pray, I head to the Church of Our Lady, to see Michelan­gelo’s sculp­ture of the Madonna and Child, in white Car­rara mar­ble. There is some­thing so peace­ful, so gentle about it that I find my­self alone — in a very nice way — in the crowd. And Love? The en­tire town is about ro­mance: the wind­ing canals, the gabled build­ings, the arched stone bridges, the el­e­gant swans on Min­newa­ter ( mean­ing Lake of Love) and the vi­brant town squares.

Just an hour away, Ghent is another en­chant­ing pack­age. Af­ter the sun­shine of Bruges, the grey skies at Ghent are a damp­ener. My guide is not too per­turbed and says proudly that Ghent sees four sea­sons in a day — a sen­ti­ment I hear ex­pressed in An­twerp too later. Most of the town is un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tion but the in­her­ent charm of all that is old and beau­ti­ful man­ages to peek through the cranes and scaf­folds ev­ery­where.

If the ex­te­rior of the mag­nif­i­cent Saint Bavo cathe­dral is Gothic, in­side it is a mish- mash of ar­chi­tec­ture styles, from the baroque al­tar to the ro­coco pul­pit. Among many works of art, an orig­i­nal Rubens paint­ing hangs in a quiet cor­ner. And in­side a small room is one of the most famous paint­ings

in the world, Ado­ra­tion of the Mys­tic Lamb, from the early 15th cen­tury — a mas­sive trip­tych by the brothers Hu­bert and Jan van Eyck.

Af­ter duly ador­ing the lamb and all the rest of it, I head to the bel­fry right op­po­site the cathe­dral and take a rick­ety lift to the top. There are stun­ning views of the town from all sides, much of it in grey and brick red and dat­ing back a few cen­turies.

Ghent is, how­ever, not all about the past. It is one of the re­gion’s biggest univer­sity towns, which trans­lates into a large pop­u­la­tion of the young and rest­less. I see many of them out­side later that even­ing, sit­ting along the Lys river. I am on a river cruise, see­ing the city from the wa­ter that made it one of the most pros­per­ous Euro­pean towns in the 14th- 15th cen­tury.

The town’s youth­ful spirit is also re­flected in its graf­fiti lane ( Wer­re­garen Straat), where the city coun­cil ac­tively en­cour­ages peo­ple to prac­tise wall art. Once a de­serted and per­haps un­safe al­ley, to­day it is a tourist at­trac­tion in it­self. Din­ner is at Pakhuis, a con­verted ware­house close to St Michael’s bridge but I am stuffed with nib­bles from the cruise and en­joy the buzzing vibe more than the food.

And then to An­twerp, where the di­a­monds are not the only things to sparkle. The city it­self throbs with an en­ergy ab­sent in smaller Bruges and Ghent. I start the day with a visit to Ruben­shius, Pe­ter Paul Ruben’s house, now a mu­seum with sev­eral of his sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings. A cou­ple of hours later, I see two more at the Cathe­dral of Our Lady and it re­minds me again of why I love Europe so much; all this art so eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to any vis­i­tor.

There is no time for the highly rec­om­mended MAS Mu­seum that is a repos­i­tory of An­twerp’s his­tory but I do zip in and out of the Fash­ion Mu­seum, known lo­cally as Momu.

Af­ter all, An­twerp is known to be one of the fash­ion cap­i­tals of Europe, a rep­u­ta­tion ce­mented by the group of avant- garde fash­ion de­sign­ers known as the An­twerp Six. At the Meir shopping district, there is a cor­nu­copia of shopping op­tions, from large global chains to small edgy bou­tiques.

To­wards the end of this shopping mile, the main façade of An­twerp Cen­tral Sta­tion is vis­i­ble. Built in 1905 to com­mem­o­rate 75 years of the cre­ation of Bel­gium, this build­ing is ar­chi­tec­turally stun­ning and is rightly counted among the great­est rail­way sta­tions of the world. Close to it is the di­a­mond district; if the streets of Lon­don are paved in gold, then those of An­twerp are paved in di­a­monds. I walk past rows and rows of shops, stead­fastly ig­nor­ing the siren song of the glit­ter­ing stones. My best friends, th­ese are not, says my wallet.

Com­pared to th­ese Flem­ish towns — of the north Bel­gium re­gion of Flanders — Brus­sels seems like just any large city. That is not to say that it is with­out its share of im­pos­ing art and ar­chi­tec­ture. The build­ings around the Grand Place ( pro­nounced Plahs) alone are enough re­minders that Brus­sels is more than just the head­quar­ters of the EU. Grand Place be­gan life as a lo­cal mar­ket in the 13th cen­tury, but to­day, it is not just the heart of the city but also a fab­u­lous venue for con­certs and fes­ti­vals.

Just as I am slightly over­whelmed by the cold gran­deur of the build­ings in Brus­sels, I reach Man­neken Pis. This 17th cen­tury statue of the lit­tle boy peeing is ut­terly de­light­ful, if only for be­ing the ul­ti­mate thumb- your- nose sym­bol. I spend most of the morn­ing walk­ing around the area, en­joy­ing at the comic mu­rals on the walls of pri­vate res­i­dences and pub­lic build­ings.

Lunch, fit­tingly, is at the Comics Café, where I dig into a veg­gie burger ( pass­ing up the meat- laden Obe­lix and Pop­eye burg­ers). My in­ner child is thrilled by the large framed posters of Tintin’s ad­ven­tures on earth and on the moon. As the café’s web­site says, “Comics and fine din­ing, two pil­lars of Bel­gian cul­ture, join forces here!”

And I have noth­ing but deep re­spect for any cul­ture that ac­knowl­edges comics as one of its main­stays and a peeing boy as an of­fi­cial icon. I can only say that I am ex­tremely glad to find my­self foot­loose in Flanders, dis­cov­er­ing one of the pret­ti­est re­gions of Europe in the process.

[email protected] khalee­j­times. com

SIGHTS FOR SORE EYES: 1 A view of Ghent from top of the bel­fry 2 Ghent is filled with such stately build­ings 3 Brus­sels is the quin­tes­sen­tial comics city 4 A buggy tour is a great way to see Bruges 5 An­twerp's Cen­tral Sta­tion 6 A street per­former in...

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