Beguiling Belgium

Beguiling Belgium

Scenic journey

Beguiling Belgium

Exploring Belgium is like time-travelling and getting transported to an era of Gothic architecture and opulence. Tanushree Podder gives a glimpse into the breathtaking sites in one of Europe’s richest countries.

My niece sat surrounded by travel brochures, trying to choose a place for her forthcoming honeymoon. “I am so confused. Since you are the family’s globe trotter, why don’t you help me select the right place?” she asked me. “If I were you, I would hop into a flight that would take me to Belgium,” I said. It was the perfect place for a romantic sojourn, according to me.

Three weeks later, she was back from her honeymoon, raving over the choice. Not surprising, since Belgium is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Most travellers agree on that. Its cities, especially Bruges, have often been called Europe’s medieval treasures. The beautiful architecture of Belgium’s towns has drawn artists and writers to the country, through the ages.

The capital city, Brussels, is a stunning place and Antwerp, the city of diamonds, is known to have been one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Europe. In the 16th century, it had been considered on the same footing as Paris or London. The magnificent port at Antwerp brought in its wealth and artisans, who built its magnificent Gothic cathedral.

Building Brussels

My journey began from Brussels and everyone who visits the place quickly rushes to the town square, which was described by Victor Hugo as ‘the most beautiful square in Europe’. Known as the Grote Markt, the town square is flanked by the magnificent guild houses and a quaint belfry. This charming square has been the heart of Brussels for centuries and it still retains its medieval charm.

My guide informed me that the Guild Houses I was staring at were the only structures that were constructed of stones, while most of the adjoining houses were made of wood in the medieval times. Those were the times when only the rich and the powerful could afford homes made of stone, and since the Guild Houses were owned by the rich and powerful, it was essential that they be constructed differently. The richer the Guild became, their homes became larger and grander, and the town square grew more flamboyant.

The King’s House, called the Het Broodhuis by locals, is a neo-gothic structure studded with stunning sculptures. It is said that a wooden structure, a baker’s shop, stood here in the 13th century. It was only in 1405 that a stone building replaced the original wooden bread hall. According to my guide, in the early 15th century, the bakers began delivering their products from door to door, and the ancient bread hall was taken over by the Duke of Brabant. During the reign of Emperor Charles V, the entire structure was rebuilt in flamboyant Gothic style and was renamed as the King’s House.
The Royal Palace in Brussels is one of Europe’s best kept secrets because it barely gets a mention in the guide books. With its enormous bronze and crystal chandeliers, the throne room is breathtaking — a clear evidence of an age when Belgium was still the fourth largest trading power in the world.

Walking into Petit Sablon, I realised that I was standing amidst one of the prettiest gardens in Brussels. Built in 1890, it is an attractive tree-lined park with a fountain and wrought iron gates. The place is encircled by 48 neo-gothic columns, each with a bronze statuette representing a guild from the 16th century. Just across was the imposing Our Lady of the Sablon Church, with its magnificent stained glass windows. Till the 12th century, the place was almost deserted because it stood outside the city walls. It was in 1304 that the Guild of Archers constructed a modest chapel here, which was later transformed into one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in the country.

The next day, I took a short train ride to another beautiful city that turned out to be a wonderfully preserved town with numerous picturesque canals, quaint narrow streets, lace boutiques, heavenly chocolate and waffles, and a museum full of Flemish Renaissance paintings.

Bruges on boat

Bruges, known as the ‘Venice of the North’, is a town that has stopped in the time capsule, its medieval charm preserved intact. The heart of Bruges is surrounded by a charming ring of canals that makes it seem like Venice. The Gothic town of Bruges had a flourishing textile trade, which brought immense wealth to the residents in the 11th and 12th centuries. However, fortunes reversed when the silting up of Bruges’s port halted all trade, and turned it into one of the poorest towns of Belgium in the 1800s. Later, with another port opening up, prosperity returned to Bruges once again.
That evening, lured by the call of the canal, I floated under the arched bridges, in a boat, watching the beauties of the town pass by. The hourly chime of the belfry, which is a part of World Heritage Site, rang in its quaint manner, dispelling all thoughts of calling it a day.

My last stop at Belgium was Antwerp. The charms of the place were unmistakable even as I landed at the railway terminal, which was more like a piece of architectural wonder than a railway station. In fact, Antwerp’s architecture is one of the loveliest amongst all the old Hanseatic towns. Replete with Baroque Guild mansions, palaces and castles, it is an architect’s paradise.

The Grote Markt with its 16th century Stadhuis and Guild houses is one of the most popular spots in the city. The Stadhuis is a Renaissance building that beautifully blends Italian and Flemish architecture. The fountain in front of the Stadhuis has a lovely statue of Silvius Brabo, a Roman soldier, about to lob a severed hand into the nearby river. According to legends, a very long time ago, a giant controlled the Scheldt river. He extorted heavy tax from the sea farers. He cut off the hands of those who couldn’t pay the tax. A young man called Brabo defeated the giant, cut off its hand, and threw it into the river. It is said that the name of the city, Antwerp, comes from the word handwerpen, which means ‘thrown hand’.

The Cathedral turns out to be a lovely Gothic-style structure with beautiful stained glass work and an admirable collection of old paintings.There is art all around Antwerp. A visit to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which has the world’s largest collection of masterpieces of Rubens, Roger van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, the Bruegels and Rembrandt, left me dazzled. A visit to the diamond district cannot be avoided when one is at Antwerp, and to this area I made my way after I had appreciated the architecture and the art of the city. With its ‘Hassidic’ Jewish culture and kosher restaurants, orthodox Jews clad in long black overcoats and hats, their flowing beards contrasted against the black apparel, the place looked decidedly Victorian.

Beauty, romantic ambience, good food, chocolates and diamonds — Belgium has it all. What more could a honeymooning couple want?

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