Special: A tour across the land of the Flemish Painters
A trip across the land of the of the Flemish artists, the cradle of exquisite painting that influenced the Italian Renaissance. The Flanders are teeming with precious gothic towns, magical thanks to the elegance of their buildings and the wealth of their cultural heritage, preserved in museums. A journey through the golden triangle of the Flemish art cities (Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp without skipping Mechelen), among some of the most memorable centers of Northern Europe, is a trip back past the centuries to discover intact medieval beauties, still barely scratched by tourism, that go hand in hand with a thriving economy, a young population (many are university towns) and a strong vocation for fabrics and design, in all its forms.
One of the lesser known gems of the Flanders, the university town of Gent (or Gand) – that Lonely Planet defines as "one of Europe's greatest discoveries" – is small enough to retain the charm of small city but big enough to shine of its own light, thanks to a jaunty and vibrant atmosphere. The city boasts an Opera House, 18 museums, 100 churches and more than 400 historic buildings. Its canals, less flabbergasting than those of Bruges, are a diverse and eclectic urban collage, flanked by gothic buildings and lush gardens, ornate façades next to redeveloped industrial buildings.
An important textile center in the middle ages that then handed the scepter to Antwerp, in the early nineteenth century Ghent was the first Flemish city to catch up with the industrial revolution, earning the nickname of "the Manchester of the continent.
Today Gent welcomes the largest university population in the region and the city's lifeblood is its docks and trade. Don't miss the St. Baafskathedraal which houses the adoration of the Mystic Lamb of Van Eyck, the 14th century civic Tower under Unesco protection, perfect for a well-rounded view of the city, the 12th century Gravensteen castle, the Design Museum that traces the history of furniture from the Baroque era to 90s and the boat tour of the canals. Venture inside the fairy-like neighborhood of Patershol, dense network of narrow cobbled streets where once lived the leather traders and the Carmelite fathers (called Paters, hence the name of the district) that today is teeming with Bohemian cafes, restaurants, pastry and craft shops. Strolling through the beautiful streets of the Center, take a look at the elaborate façade of the Town Hall, the Stadhuis, and stop on the Grasburg bridge for a romantic view of the town.
From Ghent to Bruges (to which we have dedicated an entire article here) it’s a 20-minute train ride. The city is - for architectural beauty, fabulous views and urban fabric - the crown jewel of the Flanders and probably the only one to be affected by tourism, especially in spring and summer. For this it is best to visit Bruges during autumn, when the crowds don’t besiege its magical medieval streets and you can enjoy its charm very often in peace. The entire historic center of medieval Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site completely closed off to cars, making it easily accessible on foot or by bike.
Beautiful and culturally active, Bruges deserves to be discovered by boat along its silent canals or in the traditional horse-drawn carriage along its cobbled streets. And although Bruges is a small town, it is full of architectural and artistic treasures, folklore, chocolate shops, boutiques and restaurants.
In the city center, do not miss the Beguinage (UNESCO World Heritage), the Groeningemusem which houses masterpieces by the Flemish primitives and the adjacent Arentshuis, the Basilica of the Holy Blood and the Church of our Lady (inside is a Madonna and child by Michelangelo), the district of Sant'Anna and the Lace Museum, the family-run Halve Maan Brewery, makers of the famous beer Brugse Zot, the St-Janshospitaal to admire the works of Memling, the Grote Martk and the civic Tower, closing the tour on the scenic Minnerwater, the Lake of lovers.
In the north and northeast part of the city, off the tourist streets, you'll find an authentic and lived Bruges - paved side streets, rows of crimson and pink houses with burgundy and dark green doors, taken care with dedication by the owners.
Sleeping: Just a few meters away from the city’s main square and within a beautifully restored building dating back to 1869, is the Heritage Hotel (Relais and Chateaux). Lavish and warm as a luxurious private home, the harmonious mix of fabrics, stucco and antique furnishings so characteristic of the Flanders, make the common areas such as the hall in front of the crackling fireplace and the magnificent rooms, sublime corners out of time.
Just over an hour by train from Bruges and half an hour from Brussels, you’ll find Antwerp. Birthplace of Peter Paul Rubens and the largest diamond trade center in the world, Antwerp is living a golden age and has established itself in the collective imagination, especially among young people, for its exuberant nightlife, a diverse dining scene and numerous festivals.
The Royal Academy produced a group of avant-garde designers, including Dries Van Noten, who burst into the fashion world in the '80s and became known as "The Antwerp Six". Nowadays the Academy continues to draw new talents and has thus become a pole of attraction for the best creative minds of Belgium and the world. The country’s second largest city for size and a flemish gem of tall towers, baroque buildings and large squares, Antwerp is an ancient port city (formerly the richest port in Northern Europe) that has managed to elegantly sway into the future thanks to design, innovation and eclecticism.
Don’t miss the beautiful train station, Antwerp Centraal, one of the most impressive in Europe, the historic city center that develops from and around the Grote Markt (the town square) where the gorgeous baroque Brabo fountain and the intricately beautiful Town Hall (Stadhuis) of flemish-italian Renaissance style stand; the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal is, according to many, the most spectacular gothic Cathedral of Belgium and holds four early works by Rubens.
Well worth a visit is also the Rubenshuis (Rubens House) and the Museum Plantin-Moretus, protected by Unesco, which possesses the world's oldest printing press, as well as many works by Rubens, commissioned by the wealthy family.
Don't miss the retrained harbor quarter, home to the Mas Museum, co-founded by Antwerp’s port authority in 2011; the building is now a city landmark, a storehouse of history and art, built on the site of the historical Hansa House (the Hanseatic League) that was already there in 1564. Climb to the top for a breathtaking view of the city.
Like many small towns in the Flanders, Mechelen (located halfway between Antwerp and Brussels) was badly damaged during World War I but, thankfully, has an intact old city center as well as one of the region's most beautiful Beguinages, and is considered one of the Flemish art cities.
Small and picturesque, full of lovely shops and bakeries, Mechelen was once the capital of present-day Belgium and the Netherlands. Today it is best known for its Carillon School that attracts students from all over the world, who come to learn how to ring the bells of the Cathedral (one of the most important in the country) and as the religious capital of the Belgium, home to the Catholic Primate.
It has more than 300 buildings and monuments, including eight between gothic and baroque churches and a toy museum. The city is also home to the Het Anker, one of the oldest Breweries in the Country. Its superb central square is adorned on one side by the flamboyant City Hall and on the other by the St-Romboutskathedraal (the Cathedral), consecrated in 1312, which dominates the Grote Markt with its grandeur and boasts a crucifixion by Van Dyck, plus a huge Bell Tower which reaches 97 meters in height and is under UNESCO protection. Do not miss the Beguinage with its silent streets and houses embellished with verdant plants and flowers.
Sleeping: More than a hotel, Martin’s Paterhof is an experience worth doing at least once in your lifetime, to sleep inside a former Church of the 18th century. When the Friars Minor - driven out of town by French revolutionaries – were allowed to return to Mechelen, they decided to build a new neo-gothic cloister and the church was constructed under the watchful eye of Antwerp architect Paul Stoop.
During the second world war the Church was temporarily commandeered by the Germans and in later years, after various restorations and reconstructions it was, at the end of the 90s, sold and deconsecrated. Today it is a 4 star hotel in the heart of the city whose rooms have been beautifully incorporated into the original structure, with intact stained glass, columns and rosettes. Imagine then to open the door to your room and see the sunlight filter through a three-light multicolored glass window and illuminate the bed where the headboard is the profile of a gothic church. Attentive and friendly service and a rich international breakfast served in the apse, adorned by the altar and stained glass windows.
Arm yourself of the Lonely Planet guide to Belgium and Luxembourg, an excellent traveling companion that will ensure you experience the off beaten tourist tracks, with an eye on trends and the country's best kept secrets, to discover the territories as a traveler and not as a simple tourist.