Explore the Beauty of Belgium

Explore the Beauty of Belgium

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

With its rugged, mountainous wilderness, unspoiled coastal towns, quaint medieval architecture, cutting-edge fashion sense and arguably the world’s best beer, it’s a wonder Belgium doesn’t rank higher on the list of outbound destination countries for U.S. residents, falling short of perennial traveler favorites Britain, France, Italy and Spain.

Those with the savvy to set their sights on a country smaller than the state of Maryland might be taken aback to discover that no single national Belgian tourist authority exists. For Belgium is a country divided.

Three separate authorities tout Belgium’s touristic pull: the Tourist Office for Flanders - Brussels promotes the Dutch-dialect speaking Flemish community; Wallonia Belgium Tourism extolls the wonders of French-speaking Wallonia, and the Brussels Tourist Agency keeps visitors informed about the capital’s hopping cultural agenda.

While tourists need not ponder the reasons behind this political and cultural divide extensively (language and economics), it’s helpful to know of its existence. Following in the model set by the official tourist agencies, we propose three separate itineraries, taking in the best sights of each region:

Wallonia

Our tour of Wallonia begins in Bastogne. The place where the Battle of the Bulge was fought and won is an essential stop for U.S. military history buffs. Retrace the steps of the heroic American soldiers who stopped the Nazi advance, but at great cost: By the time the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army ended on Jan. 25, 1945, 10,276 Americans were killed, 47,493 wounded and 23,218 missing. Pay tribute to the lives lost at the Bastogne War Museum and Mardasson Memorial.

Heading northwest, we stop in La-Roche-en-Ardenne. One of the most popular destinations within the mountainous and heavily forested Ardennes region, this city perched prettily by a bend in the River Ourthe is overlooked by a feudal castle.

Next stop is Wallonia’s capital city Namur, where a hulking fortress keeps watch over the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers. The large golden statue of a man riding a turtle is the work of high-profile contemporary artist Jan Fabre. Fans of striking architecture shouldn’t miss the beautiful 17th century Baroque Saint-Loup Church with its vaulted ceiling of carved sandstone.

We continue west to our last stop of Mons, described as “charming” by Victor Hugo back in 1837 and no less lovely today. The beauty of its belfry, collegiate church and Grand Place landed it a spot on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Before leaving, pat the head of the Monkey of the Grand Garde with your left hand, which, according to local folklore, assures you of good luck.

Flanders

We begin the exploration of Flanders in Antwerp, Europe’s second-largest seaport. The don’t-miss sights here include the lively Grote Markt, a square of gabled houses that once belonged to powerful guilds. It’s dominated by a majestic Town Hall, and nearby stands the Cathedral of Our Lady, Belgium’s largest Gothic church. Visits to Antwerp must include a stroll through the diamond district to browse shop windows brimming with bling.

We head west to Ghent, an exquisitely preserved gem of the Middle Ages. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral houses the Van Eyck brothers’ masterpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a painting that’s stirred much buzz on social media due to a restoration of a lamb’s face some describe as alarmingly human. Other architectural highlights include the Gravensteen Castle and the facades of the houses along the gentle River Leie. Overnight visitors should try to catch a concert in what UNESCO has deemed a “City of Music” — just one of five worldwide.

A short jaunt further west, Bruges delights with a fairy-tale perfect medieval core lined with cobblestone streets and handsome stone edifices, overlooked by the Belfort bell tower. The jewel in Bruges’ crown is its network of canals spanned by arched bridges. If the weather is inclement, head inside to shop for exquisite lace designs or decadent chocolate pralines.

Our tour of Flanders concludes on the North Sea coast, not in the bustling seaside town of Ostend but slightly further north, in Knokke-Heist. This resort town is definitely high-end, with designer clothes shops and art galleries attracting well-heeled vacationers. Rent a bike and cycle past sweeping expanses of sand to your left and the Zoute district’s extravagant villas to your right. Keep pedaling northward and soon you’ll hit a nature preserve and the Dutch border.

Brussels

Don’t be dismayed if your first impression of Brussels is one of urban sprawl – like many large cities of international stature, it has its share of bland infrastructure and grit. Strolling through Brussels’ diverse neighborhoods reveals a more beguiling nature. The Sablon is an old and elegant quarter known for antiques markets and chocolatiers. The Mont des Arts area heaves with museums and historical monuments. Sainte-Catherine is known for hipster cafes and trendy restaurants. In Marolles, where the “real people” live, you’ll find secondhand stores and traditional eating establishments.

Our tour of Belgium concludes, fittingly, in the Grand-Place. One of the world’s prettiest central squares is surrounded by opulent guild houses, the soaring Gothic City Hall, and the Maison du Roi, home to the Brussels City Museum. If you’re feeling too overwhelmed to enter this treasure trove of paintings, tapestries and priceless artifacts including the original Manneken Pis statue, just take a seat at the Le Roy d’Espagne brasserie and contemplate the square’s beauty over another of the country’s greatest treasures: its beer.

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