Beer and Chocolates – Must be Flanders!
For a country much smaller than its European neighbours, Belgium (Flanders) is on a par with its big brothers when it comes to culture, history – and political clout. But, as features editor, John Newton, discovered, it's the amber liquid and chocolates that lure hordes of beer guzzlers and sweet-toothed tourists. And, of course, classic Flemish cuisine.
Europe’s most beautiful city square, arguably, is in Brussels - and you don’t have to wander far down a side street or opulent shopping arcades before coming across windows full of mouth-watering chocolates or a hip bar selling more beer varieties than an Aussie cricket team could handle.
There are breweries in all the main cities. Lots of them. Big and small. From farmhouse breweries to legendary Trappist beer.
And Flanders boasts more than 100 Michelin-starred restaurants and is recognised as having one of the world’s highest densities of top-class venues.
You can even enjoy a six or seven-course meal aboard a tram fully decked out as a modern gourmet restaurant.
But eating and drinking aside, Flanders and its thriving cities is rich in culture, some seriously quirky, such as Manneken Pis (little pee man, in Flemish). It’s a small bronze fountain statue from the 17th century.
Located two blocks behind the Brussels town hall, the 61-centimetre 24-inch) tall statue.
There are occasions when the cheeky Manneken Pis is hooked up in different flavours of Belgian beer, which is poured from the fountain tip and given out to the public. Little wonder the most famous inhabitant of Brussels is a popular figure – yet, despite many legendary stories, no-one has yet identified his true origin.
On most days, Brussels’ magnificent Grand Place and town hall square – a mixture of styles and periods - is a heaving mass of both locals and tourists. Begun in the 15th century, it was destroyed in the 17th century and renovated in the 19th and 20th centuries it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site 20 years ago.
A tour of the Royal Palace, along with visits to the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula, countless art galleries and museums will keep you busy for at least three days – and that should be the minimum stay in the ‘Capital of Europe’.
Just 26 kilometres by train from Brussels, Leuven is a bustling university city, where there’s a heavy focus on beer consumption – after all, it is the home to the world’s largest brewing company – AB inbev Brewery - producers of Stella Artois, Leffe and Hoegaarden. It produces more than 40 million litres worldwide and has a bigger turnover than Coca Cola – 56.4 billion US dollars in 2017.
Another top drop is Old Leuven blond, inspired by a classic beer whose 18th century popularity led to it being hailed as ‘the king of all drinks’.
Leuven is a survival city. After being raised by the Germans in the First World War when most of the city centre was burnt to the ground.
In the aftermath, its huge library became an American legacy. It was rebuilt following efforts led by Herbert Hoover, when he was the president of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium – an organisation set up to provide emergency supplies, medicine and food. Hoover later became America’s 31st president.
The library was also bombed in the Second World War. Again restored, it now contains four billion books.
Not to be missed in Leuven are the 15th century town hall, interior of St Pieter’s Catholic Church – one of the best examples of late Gothic style - and the Old Market Square, known as the ‘longest bar’ in Europe.
Flanders is renowned for its rich tradition of tapestry. Although the making of tapestries in Flanders stopped in the 18 century, its art still lives on in places like the De Wit Royal Tapestry Manufacturers in Mechelen. It’s open every Saturday and gives an insight into what makes Flemish tapestries unique.
Mechelen has been called one of Flanders’ most under-rated cities - and also lays claim to having some of Belgium’s famous beers, such as Het Anker’s Maneblusser, a pale ale that dates back to 1687 when the moon projected its reddish glow on the city’s St.Rumbold tower, which was covered in a dense fog.
A drunken man was heard shouting “Fire, fire, the tower is on fire” – but before firefighters could reach the so-called blaze, the moon slowly moved through the fog. Since then, Mechelenanians have been called the Maneblussers or ‘Moonextinguishers’.
Don’t leave Mechelen without climbing up the 538 steps of St. Rumbold’s tower from where there are draw-dropping views of the city from its sky walk; the city’s cathedral, regarded as Belgium’s foremost; and Kazerne Dossin museum, which tells the story of the persecution of Jews and gypsies in Belgium.
For more details on Flanders, go to www.visitflanders.com
Where to stay:
I’ve bedded down in many high-class hotels around the world, but one in Brussels that is not only elegant and offering ‘indulgent hospitality’ – but the wonderful staff really cared for me when I suddenly became unwell and had to seek medical help, resulting in an extra two days stay.
The Dominican Brussels - centrally located among the city’s distinguished guild houses of the splendid Grand Place – is in a class of its own when it comes to style and service – even at the front entrance, where a dapper doorman greets guests wearing checkered pants, with a white button-up shirt, black wool waistcoat, a red tie and a black bowler hat.
The hotel’s 150 rooms and suites are highlighted by bespoke carpets, which feature an ecclesiastical pattern inspired by the Dominican Abbey Order that once resided in the location- one which boasts a rich history and was a source of inspiration in the design of the hotel.
It was also once home to famous French painter – Jacques-Louis David - in the 19th century. One of the five suites is named after him, while his paintings are referenced in contemporary design details throughout the hotel.
It also has a fine dining restaurant with a classic range of cuisine.
*See more on The Dominican at: www.thedominican.carlton.be
*After sampling the Dominican’s restaurant, the award-winning Belga Queen – just a few hundred metres from the hotel – is another Brussels gem. Try lobster baked on a hot plate, bird’s beak peppers, jus of lemon and lobster oil.
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Flanders and The Dominican
Words and images: John Newton
Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au
Images from top
Galeries St Hubert (one of the first shopping arcades in Europe).
Brussels Grand Place
Spoiled for choice
Shop selling just beers
Leuven Town Hall 15th Century
The Dominican Guest Lounge (supplied)
The Dominican Art in the boudoir (supplied)