An Alternative Belgium

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

The Tap & Tepel is just one of several restaurants that reflect both the history and the bohemian side of Ghent. Max, a posh tearoom decorated with Art Nouveau woodwork and glass from the kiosks the company long put up at Belgian fairs, serves the only waffles I've ever liked in Belgium—yeasty, slightly sour, and very light, unlike the usual Liège-style buttery ingots. At De Geschoeide Karmelied, a serene restaurant around a bamboo garden (planted by the previous owners, who had a Japanese restaurant), an ambitious twenty-five-year-old chef named Eli De Heem offers local "grandmother's" specialties, many of them beer-based stews.

Kitsch seems to be a deliberate decorative theme in Belgium—just one expression of the subversive humor that is a national trait. This is particularly overt at Pink Flamingo, a bar with a multi-tiered chandelier made entirely of Barbie dolls and walls covered with 1960s record-album sleeves and movie posters; unbelievably, it isn't a gay bar. The Koningshuis is perhaps as popular for its campy décor on the theme of the crowned heads of Europe, especially those of Belgium, as for its nice food (I had clear wild-mushroom soup full of sweet, thumbnail-sized cold-water shrimp).

The Dulle Griet tavern, on one of the city's largest squares, has all the beer-related paraphernalia any fanatic could want. More important, it serves all five of the authentic, dark and powerful Trappist beers (as opposed to the dozens of "abbey-style" imitators) that are still made in Belgium. Try Westmalle, from a beautiful working abbey ten miles away, on tap—a rare treat even in Belgium. In the back of the low-lit tavern is a brightly lit atrium with a second-floor tableau of an eighteenth-century dandy looking out a window while an elegantly dressed woman slumps in exhaustion over a sewing machine behind him. What does it mean? Ghenters seem to expect a bit of surrealism in their daily life, along with superb beer.

First impressions of Antwerp can be disappointing, especially if a tour bus drops you at the huge Gothic cathedral, whose beautifully restored and always illuminated white spire dominates the city: the streets around it are touristy and seedy, like much of downtown Brussels. But walk just a few minutes and you will encounter the Left Bank chic of the Wilde Zee (Wild Sea) neighborhood, home to the grand house where Rubens lived and worked and to designer shops featuring the Antwerp six; a large Beaux Arts flatiron building in the neighborhood will soon house a museum of fashion. Or you'll find the tranquil Baroque splendor of the small Hendrik Conscienceplein, one of the loveliest squares I know, in an area filled with art galleries, antiques shops, and imposing Baroque and Rococo mansions; nearby is the lively Stadswaag square, where teenage visitors can hang out with students from many countries. Or you'll come upon the foursquare Renaissance warehouses of the old port district, with their striped-brick façades and corbeled roofs. The working port that accounts for the city's prosperity has been moved a few miles north; the panoramic riverfront and charming open warehouses that line the old port, with their Art Nouveau perforated cast-iron roofs, have been preserved and are the centerpiece of an ambitious residential-and-commercial development scheme.

If you arrive by train, you'll alight in the breathtaking Central Station, a monumental combination of Renaissance Revival and Art Nouveau with a café that looks like a hall out of Versailles. The streets around the station have the brassy feel of a big city; they hide the 1,500 workshops of the diamond-cutting industry, which is largely invisible save for a new museum and a central showroom with tours and, not incidentally, diamonds for sale. The industrial-age magnificence of the station and the flamboyant Art Nouveau variations on past styles in the buildings that line the main shopping street, which runs from the station to the cathedral, are but preparation for an architectural riot that few visitors learn of:the outlying Zurenborg neighborhood, which all by itself merits a trip to the city.

I devote less space here to Antwerp than to Ghent, because the city has produced an exemplary forty-page color brochure with walking itineraries which introduces every neighborhood and answers all the questions I had while exploring: Do people still live in the tiny stucco houses in an alley near the Museum of Fine Arts, and do they use the outdoor tap? (Yes and yes; and the city looks after the elderly residents, who have lived there all their lives.) Why is there a ship's prow sticking out of that amazing Art Nouveau house behind the museum? (The house was commissioned by a shipbuilder.) Following the suggestions of this booklet ("Twelve Adventures in Antwerp," available for less than $3.00 at the tourist office at Grote Markt) can easily fill three days.

I failed to get a sense of Antwerp cuisine from the two restaurants that were recommended to me. Both Kleine Zavel, in a former seamen's society and boardinghouse in the old port, and Kleine Bourla, in the chic shopping district, revealed more about the sartorial and conversational behavior of the city's cutting-edge crowd than about local specialties. I did, however, enjoy superb smoked salmon and extremely fresh, firm-fleshed whitefish of varieties that seldom cross the Atlantic. And I was completely satisfied with the advice I received about which of the city's many chocolate shops is the best (you can't leave Belgium without bonbon-filled gift boxes): Burie, behind the cathedral.

While exploring, it's hard not to think of where you'd most like to live in Antwerp, which is reminiscent of Boston or San Francisco in its sense of a forward-looking intellectual and commercial life going on inside neat old houses. It would be tempting to move into one of the gorgeously decorated rooms in De Witte Lelie (The White Lily), Antwerp's grandest hotel, in sumptuous sixteenth-century houses near Hendrik Conscienceplein. I stayed first at 'T Sandt, a boutique hotel with smallish but prettily decorated rooms in a former soap factory on the riverfront, and later at the Firean, a splendidly restored 1929 small hotel with Art Deco glass and wrought-iron fittings. The rooms are reasonably priced, but the hotel is in a remote area.

Remote the Firean may be, but it is near the extraordinary Zurenborg neighborhood, which was built in just a few decades at the height of late-nineteenth-century prosperity and confidence. Its animating spirit seems directly descended from the showy, house-proud burgerlijk prosperity of the seventeenth century. The houses take every style, from Roman to Tudor to Loire Valley Renaissance to Rococo, to the maximal degree of individualism—a mind-bending degree, which makes it seem only natural that restoration of the houses began in the 1970s. Each façade, each window frame, each stoop, is different from its neighbors—and odd. I found myself wondering, as I went up and down the streets, peering into every window I could: If a room in a good, quirky hotel costs so little, what about a house?

For more information about visiting Ghent and Antwerp, including contact information for most of the hotels mentioned above, call the Belgium Tourist Office in New York at 212-758-8130 or visit the tourist office's Web site, at www.visitbelgium.com. For information about La Maison de Claudine, in Ghent, e-mail the hotel at maison.claudine@newmail.net.

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