UDAY K. CHKARABORTY explores widely diverse topography and cultures of Europe’s small, but prosperous country
In Brussels, all street signs are in minimum three languages – French, German and English, and occasionally Flemish. Later I found that Belgium comprises three communities – French, Flemish and Germanic – and three regions – Brussels, Flanders and Wallonie.
The French speaking Walloons occupy just over half of Belgium around the valley of the Sambre and the Meuse. The Flemish (and Germanic) Flanders are concentrated in the Northern area around the river Escaut. Each community fiercely guards its cultural identity in their own economically autonomous region. Indeed, exploring this country’s diversity was an interesting pursuit.
Flanders, in northern Belgium, holds on to a rare respect for the past and local identity. In Antwerp, Mechelen, Ghent and Bruges, much of the past is still standing and very much part of daily life, where 1,000-year-old church and ancient buildings are still very much in normal use.
Flemish Antwerp boils with the activity of world’s third biggest port and diamond trading district. But, it’s the City Square with magnificently decorated Burghers’ mansion attracted us the most. This area teems with bistros, a medley of cafes and taverns where sociable locals rub shoulders with tourists and the inevitable beer is swigged. Antwerp, cultural profile is boosted by Royal Museum of Fine Arts with its staggering collection of rubens, besides original residence of the great painter. The Cathedral of Our Lady is the largest Church in Belgium and Antwerp’s major landmark, containing some of the world’s greatest paintings.
Continuing southwest we reach Ghent, the gracious and prosperous capital of East Flanders. The centre of Ghent is its medieval port,with more historic buildings than any other Belgian city. The most dramatic introduction to the Ghent is by way of Gravensteen, the formidable castle of the counts of Flanders. Built in the 12th century over a 10th century dungeon, it is a no-nonsense fortress, with walls six-feet thick. It has a small museum displaying
instrument of torture.
The most important medieval building in town is the Cathedral of St. Bavo’s, a hybrid of gothic, romanesque and baroque styles. Next door is the belfry and one can get a fine view of the countryside from the tower. Needless to say, town’s old square is another precious gem where you can spend some time just watching the world go by.
Halfway between Antwerp and Brussels, on the Dilje River, lies Mechelen. It’s small picturesque city that is big on charm and history. Once the capital of present-day Belgium and Holland, today it is a city thriving with quaint shops, car-free areas and amazingly pleasant little squares. It’s also known for its carillon school where student from all over the world come to learn to play church bells. You can also take a boat trip to visit and stroll in many beautiful parks of the city.
The road southwest from the Ghent brought us to Bruges – a longtime rival of Ghent – as far as charming beauty is concerned. Bruges is perhaps the purest medieval town of northern Europe. With many quaint waterways, this city is virtually a moated museum of the Middle Ages, with stiff-gabled houses perched over cobbled streets and long-necked swans gliding along misty canals.
Bruges can be seen and enjoyed on foot or by taking a canal cruise. Most places are within a few minutes of each other. The main square has the beautiful belfry and in the neighbouring square lays the famous Basilica of the Holy Blood, said to contain a phial of blood stained water of Christ.
Nearby is the Church of Our Lady with its priceless white marble sculpture of Madonna and Child of Michelangelo. From here one can visit the quite Beguinage, which belonged at one time to sister and widows of knights killed in the Crusades, and is now inhabited by nuns who still wear black robes and white linen – dresses depicted by Memling – another great Belgian painter. Then walk over an aged bridge to the Minnewater – Lake of Love.
Wonders of Walloon
South of Brussels is a world so different from Flanders that it is hard to believe they are part of the same country. This is the Ardennes – stretching across the south of Belgium. It is gentle, green and somehow a bit mysterious compared to the North, countryside of legend, spirits, abbeys and castles. The countryside is dotted with churches, belfries and museums – receptacles of mystic treasures. It is also the place to go if you want to spend your vacations skiing, hunting, hunting, hiking and camping. Walloon Belgium is marked by its francophone attachment to French culture.
Walloon’s main city Liege is surrounded by forest and set on seven hills, Liege is the leading city of Wallonie. With its skyline showing over 100 church spires, this city is locally called ‘fervent city’.
The River Meuse winds its way through every quarter, which mean you will often find yourself going over one nice little bridges or another. On Mont St. Martin are some particularly fine houses, with winding outdoor stairways and hidden gardens. Before leaving, be sure to visit Citadel, you can climb the 407 steps to the top, to get a splendid view of the city. It also houses one of Europe’s finest armour museums.
If one has time and inclination, one should discover Belgium’s hidden mysterious and charming facets by visiting places beyond its vibrant capital.