Best of Belgium

Best of Belgium

The outdoors: Make your visit to Belgium more vibrant by visiting its street markets that in one way or the other represent the country,

Buzz Brussels mid-Sunday market.

It was a Sunday in Ghent, the Flemish town in Belgium famous for its university. After a leisurely breakfast, I went for a stroll near the city centre. When the sounds of a live band wafted to my ears, my legs involuntarily led me to its direction and I found myself in front of a huge rectangular open ground. At the centre of the ground the band enthralled a motley crowd. Around and in front of the bandstand were rows of stalls with plants and flowers. It was a virtual riot of colours reminding me of the annual flower show at Lal Bagh in Bengaluru. I moved forward to have a closer look.

It was a flower market with more than 100 stalls, most of which were selling a variety of fresh and exotic flowers.

Some were selling seeds, plants and saplings, fertilisers, insecticides, and even implements. A good number of shoppers had gathered. I was told that the market assembled every Sunday and its location was called Kouter.

As I walked along, appreciating the beauty of the flowers, I saw a group of senior citizens singing, dancing and socialising at a corner of the ground. They had brought hampers of food and beer.

Noticing me to be a senior citizen, one reveller invited me to join them and offered me a glass of beer. He told me that they meet every Sunday and enjoy each other’s company and disperse after lunch. He added that since public travel was free for senior citizens in Belgium, they didn’t mind coming from distant places for the same. He told me that Belgians were very fond of their street markets and urged me to visit some in nearby towns.

The very next Sunday, I happened to visit Brussels, the nation’s capital. As I got down the train at the Midi Station and came out, I saw the entire area outside it filled with colourful stalls selling a variety of goods. It was more or less similar to the weekly shandy or santhe in some of our villages.

At one corner of the market were stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, olives, fish, meat, and other foodstuff. A large number of locals were found buying their weekly stock from them. Other stalls were selling clothing, toiletries, electronic goods and what-have-you.

Quite a draw

Many vendors had brought huge trucks, a part of which had doubled as their shops. A German who was selling cotton shirts at 5 euro a piece told me that it was one of the biggest street markets in Belgium attracting sellers from all parts of Europe. He stated that the market opened at 7 am and closed at 4 pm, and said that people from far and wide came there to buy quality goods at reasonable rates. The market had a number of food stalls to cater to the hungry shoppers.

A shopper told me that he came to the market only to have his brunch. He went gaga over the variety and taste of the food available. As I sipped tea with him, he said that the best market to taste the authentic food of Europe was the street market at Antwerp on Saturdays.

The next Saturday, I was present at the Antwerp Theatre Square with a friend who lived in that city. He told me that street markets focusing on different types of buyers cropped up during weekends. There were separate markets for antiques, books, paintings, and people hunting bargains invariably visited them and mostly got what they were looking for. He said many shoppers would wait till 3 pm to buy the item that had caught their fancy, and just before the shops closed, made their ‘killing’.

As we waded through the crowded Saturday market, there was a cacophony of shopkeepers screaming about their products. I found shops selling locally produced beer, wine, French champagne, Greek olives, and dry fruits from the Mediterranean region among others.

We found Belgian croquettes, Spanish tapas, Vietnamese spring rolls, Antwerp oysters being enjoyed by shoppers, many of whom were tourists.

The ubiquitous frites (French fries) with tasty home-made sauces, hot waffles with different toppings and Belgian praline chocolates could be found everywhere. Since Antwerp had a large number of Gujarati residents, I looked for chaats but was disappointed in not finding any. I was, however, happy to sip on the divine Moroccan mint tea.

Since I was interested in buying antiques as souvenirs, I was told to seek them in the Friday market at Ghent, which I visited dutifully.

Reminders of past

A part of this market specialised in selling only second-hand goods and looked like a huge garage sale. There were a number of bric-a-bracs on offer including the old uniform of a Belgian train conductor. I bought some half-a-century-old ceramic figurines for literally a song.

It is difficult to categorise these markets. They are partly flea markets, partly farmer’s markets and partly like Chitra Santhe in Bengaluru. They are open-air supermarkets.

Many a gem is hidden in these markets, and to find them one needs luck or patience. The best bargains can definitely be had here.

These street markets are colourful, exotic, and great for hanging out. For a tourist visiting Belgium, they offer a veritable culture trip. They mirror the life in the multi-cultured, multi-lingual country, and for this reason alone, no trip to Belgium would be complete without a visit to a street market.