An Alternative Belgium

Brussels and Bruges may be more obvious destinations, but Ghent and Antwerp are more fun  

On most travelers' mental maps Belgium is a place to find the world's best chocolates and classic French food as it hardly exists in France anymore, served at Michelin-starred restaurants full of Brussels-based Eurocrats. Or travelers think of Bruges, a storybook city of perfectly preserved medieval brick buildings with triangular stepped roofs overlooking narrow canals, like a Flemish Venice. To many Americans, Belgium itself has a fuzzy identity, with its confusing division into French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. The country is easy to regard as an extension of its neighbors—Bruges a stop on the way to Amsterdam, and Brussels a cut-rate Paris, the landing point for bargain transatlantic flights, where one might pass a few hours admiring the world-class Art Nouveau architecture and eating a good meal before catching a southbound train.

Beer first took me to Belgium. Any member of the American craft-beer movement that took hold in the 1980s knows that Belgium's great beers have the nuance of wine and the power of whiskey. Buildings took me back—and the excitement of having discovered Ghent and Antwerp, cities that bring the country into sharper focus than their better-known fellows.

Ghent, like Bruges or Venice itself, has an otherworldly enchantment: I constantly crossed bridges to get one more stunning view of the fairy-tale buildings on the city's canals. It also has a real life as a port city (Belgium's largest after Antwerp) with an important university and relatively few tourists—all attributes that Bruges lacks. Antwerp, like Brussels, is worldly and clearly significant: it is Europe's second largest port and Belgium's second largest city. But it is far livelier than the capital, and is just now building on the reputation of the "Antwerp six," fashion designers who are attracting worldwide attention. The streets are vibrant with a new cosmopolitanism and also with a jumble of architectural styles that range from quaint Flemish medieval to minimalist modern, by way of a gloriously peculiar Art Nouveau.

Great art, good food, city centers densely packed with neighborhoods that invite street-by-street inspection, shops full of desirable things you can afford (the dollar seems especially strong in Belgium), clean public transport that gets you from the capital (or its airport) to either city in less than an hour and around each city easily, boutique hotels in nicely restored buildings of architectural interest, bars and cafés where it's easy to start conversations with the universally English-speaking natives: I've come to think of Ghent and Antwerp as a kind of crash course in Europe, suitable for all ages. This is an excellent time to enroll.

Ghent is candle-crazy. On two visits I made last year, it seemed as if every restaurant, bar, and shop was lit by dozens of candles. Their warm light fills the permanently festive Tap & Tepel, a wine bar and modest restaurant in a Baroque palace off one of the central canals. The first evening I went, to meet a group of friends, I thought I had wandered into a party until I spotted my group at a long communal table by the mullioned front windows.

The room holds floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves taken from a nineteenth-century shop and filled with books, wine bottles, old games, and curios, including Communist memorabilia and portraits of Lenin. It all reflects the sensibility of the shambling, white-haired and -bearded owner, Hendrik Keuleers, who that evening made the rounds a few steps behind a band of strolling violinists (some of them young Eastern European immigrants). Keuleers spent his youth as an active Communist and is now, he told me recently, "disillusioned"—passively misanthropic and actively zoophilic, as demonstrated by the zoofilia painted in gold on a window and by the dogs underfoot. His leftist ideals seem to match those of most of his customers: probably because of the university, bohemia is thriving in Ghent, even though the city, along with Antwerp, gave victories to far-right parties in recent elections.

Certainly Keuleers has created one of the most seductive restaurants I know. Its strong suits are the list of French wines and the selection of farmhouse cheeses, including many of the French greats. Just a few hot soups and entrées are offered, all vegetarian, and everything is served with fantastically good bread that Keuleers buys from a nearby farm and waiters cut on a hand-cranked slicer. One morning I happened to walk by the Tap & Tepel on my way to the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, whose extensive collection is handsomely installed in an opulent, airy Rococo palace. I found Keuleers outside, unloading scrap wood, which he gathers from local construction sites for the restaurant's two big fireplaces. Behind the windows three of his five dogs sat atop the long table, symmetrical between the candelabra, happily barking at us.

Most of the streets and canal fronts and bridges in Ghent's compact center are pedestrian-only, which adds to the Venetian echoes. Ten minutes from the center by foot are two remarkable buildings constructed for the socialist workers' movement, which remains strong here: the 1912 Art Nouveau Vooruit, with two theaters accommodating a resident dance company and visiting orchestras and drama groups; and the 1934 Bauhaus headquarters of the socialist newspaper Dagblad Vooruit (Daily Forward), now a student arts center with a lively café on the ground floor. At night the eight-story glass-block façade is fully illuminated, as if in some Flash Gordon metropolis. A block away is another, purer Bauhaus vision: the 1933 university library, in streamlined Rationalist style (aptly called Fascist in Italy), designed by Henry van de Velde.

Art lovers will of course stop first at the history-changing early-fifteenth-century cathedral altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, who in one work defined the northern Renaissance and perfected the technique of oil painting. Ghent has numerous museums that are worthwhile not only for what they house but also for the inventive use they make of historic buildings. A folk-art museum, for instance, occupies a fourteenth-century almshouse and a row of eighteenth-century storefronts; the Museum of Industrial Archaeology and Textiles occupies a light-filled nineteenth-century cotton mill with panoramic views. (Cotton restored the city's fortunes, which had been built on textiles in medieval times; in the 1600s the city went into a long decline after the Spanish conquest drove away Protestant textile merchants.)

In one corner of the industry museum are the nineteenth-century shop front and furnishings of Tierenteyn, a store that still produces Ghent's must-take-home souvenir—wonderfully potent yet subtle mustard made from white-wine vinegar and aged in oak barrels. Tierenteyn has a downtown shop, which looks much like the one in the museum; its clerks fill glass jars to order by dipping a wooden ladle into a big barrel.

Two hotels put you in the city center and into architectural history as well: the Gravensteen, with pleasant standard rooms in a restored nineteenth-century mansion and in several adjacent buildings around a courtyard; and the very small and personal La Maison de Claudine, with just two large suites and one room in a seventeenth-century building that was once a cloister. Claudine Bovyn, La Maison's owner, is a singer, as the sheet music on the piano in the breakfast room attests, and frequently guests are visiting artists working on operas or plays. The extremely reasonable prices help to explain the months-long waiting list for weekends.

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