Lunch at Comics Cafe Brussels

The website of Comics Cafe says, “Comics and fine dining, two pillars of Belgian culture, join forces here!” Indeed.

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If Brussels is comics city (see my photoessay on wall art in Brussels), then Comics Cafe is its crowning glory. This comics-themed cafe welcomes you with a life-size bronze statue of Tintin, Belgium’s favourite son. And then the ride begins, with posters and paintings covering every stairway, wall, every niche. Look out in particular for original signed sketches from the grandmasters of the comics world, from Hergé to Uderzo to Jacobs to Geluck.

Tintin
(source: Examiner.com)

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If you can manage it, head to the room devoted to Tintin – it is housed in a 17th century chapel. How can you not love, love this city?

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Try local specialities like the Flemish beef stew. Tuck into a healthy Popeye burger or skip breakfast for a hearty XXL Obelix burger here. Or like me, go all veggie.

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There is, of course, a comics shop attached to the cafe with countless Tintin comics (in dozens of languages), artefacts and memorabilia…

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Definitely my recommendation for a lunch or a beer when you visit Brussels – preferably at the end of a comics trail.

Comics Cafe
Place du Grand Sablon 8, 1000 Brussels

Graffiti art in Ghent

If Flanders (a region within Belgium) itself is an overlooked destination within Western Europe, then think of Ghent as the neglected step-sister. Tourists stop to gawk at the grandeur of Brussels and moon over the picture postcard prettiness of Bruges – and who can blame them – but skip this University town altogether in their rush to get to the next big thing.

Lonely Planet, in writing of Ghent as one of its top destinations of 2011 — Here’s a secret within a secret: Ghent might just be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting, in a country that continues to be criminally overlooked.

Ghent has many delights; among my favourites is the absolutely stunning Graffiti Lane, whose original name is quite a mouthful – Werregarenstraat. Some time in the 1990s, the local government declared it legal to paint graffiti inside this lane, in a bid to keep the rest of the town free of vandalism and to promote good quality street art. And from the looks of it, they have succeeded.

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There are all kinds of themes to be found on the walls, from absolute abstract art, to messages of love and peace…

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On a gloomy day as the one I was there on, it may seem a slightly dark and edgy place, but locals use the lane all day without any hesitation. Once the sun came out, graffiti lane was just like any of the narrow lanes scattered across the town connecting two main streets.

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The character of graffiti lane changes everyday. If you stop there for a few minutes, possible to see artists at work with a spray can in hand.

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Also read about graffiti lanes elsewhere: Prague, Melbourne

Antwerpian Extravagance

Temple to chocolates, diamonds and high fashion (Published in the July issue of Jet Wings International…)

Antwerp has been positioned by Flanders Tourism as the “so cool it’s hot” city. And rightly so. Visitors to Belgium largely ignore this town, which is overshadowed by the more picturesque Bruges and Ghent. The next time though, be sure to make a pit stop at Antwerp, to take in its wealth of heritage, art and most importantly, shopping options.

Unlike some other European cities like Paris and Rome, Antwerp is understated and reveals its charms rather slowly. However it is definitely a city for the lover of all things sensuous. So make up your own chocolates, diamonds and fashion tour and get going. Your best bet would be to stroll along Meir, Antwerp’s main shopping street and follow it up with a splash at the diamond district. End your exploration at Antwerpen Centraal, regularly counted among the most beautiful railway stations in the world.

Meir

Here is our guide to the best shopping in Antwerp.

Chocolate

In Antwerp, as in the rest of Flanders, they cleverly programme their desserts to wink at you from shop windows. Really. Here you are, walking innocently on a cobble-stoned street or a leafy boulevard and the next minute, you are drawn into the vortex of the Bermuda triangle of a chocolate shop. It is futile to resist.

Chocolate lovers (and that means all of us) will be spoilt for choice in this elegant European city that offers some of the best-loved brands in the world. Pick up some “chocolate diamonds” from the true artist, chocolatier Burie, and if you are in the city around Easter, Christmas or Valentine’s Day, drop by the store just to stare at his stunning chocolate sculptures displayed on the windows.

Find something quirky to take away at self-styled shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone’s The Chocolate Line. Whether it is chocolate with a hint of cola or bacon, chocolate flavoured lipstick or a unique sniffer that sends some fine and heady chocolate powder up your nose, Persoone has it all in the renovated Royal Palace in the Meir shopping district.

ChocolateShooter ChocolateLine

And definitely don’t leave Antwerp without buying some of the famous Antwerpse Handje – chocolates in the shape of hands – from Elisa Pralines. Recognized by the European Union as a ‘guaranteed traditional specialty,’ these chocolates celebrate the myth of an evil giant defeated by a local hero.

Diamonds

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Although Antwerp is known for its high quality diamonds, it is best to look for certification from the Diamond High Council before you splurge on these sparklers. Take a walk along the ‘diamond square mile’ at Appelmansstraat and Vestingstraat close to the train station for your pick of shops with their glittering window arrays.

diamonds1 Diamond Land is Antwerp’s largest jewellery store and known for its reliable quality and reasonable prices. The store offers short guided tours of the workshop where visitors (and potential shoppers) can watch artisans at work.

Another recommended seller is J. Katz, who has been around for a few decades and is a founding member of the Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association. For antique jewellery, the best source is Adelin owned by Salomon Wijnberg, whose vintage diamonds are praised as poetry in stone.

Also pay a visit to the Diamond Pavilion at the MAS museum, set up by the Diamond Museum Province Antwerp and the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. This exhibition explains the journey of the diamond from its original rough state to the smooth and gleaming precious stone. There is also a small shopping area here for last minute diamond souvenir hunters.

Fashion

Fashion Antwerp’s fashion scene is dominated by the celebrated Antwerp Six, a group of avant-garde designers who took the world by storm after their display at the London fashion fair in 1988. Graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (which shot to fame on their success), the designers now have their own labels.

For elegant minimalistic styles in shades of white and black, head to Ann Demeulemeester’s shop, striking in its stark white spaces. Others from this band of six include Dries Van Noten who comes from a family of tailors, and Walter Van Beirendonck whose work is known for its unusual colour combinations. Also visit the Coccodrillo, exclusive shoe boutique of Geert Bruloot, acknowledged as the mastermind behind the promotion of the Antwerp Six.

MOMU

And to get a true sense of Antwerp’s dedication to fashion and design, make your way to the ModeNatie building – literal meaning Fashion Nation. Along with the Flanders Fashion Institute and the MOMU (Museum of Fashion), it also houses the boutique of the popular Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, said to look more like a museum than a store.

In Antwerp, also shop for:

– Olive oils (Tuscany herbs and Virgin oil with white truffle come highly recommended) and exotic vinegars (try the asparagus and tomato flavours) at the fabulous Oil and Vinegar shop with branches in several countries.

– Tintin memorabilia at Mekanik Strip comics store at Sint-Jacobsmarkt, or indulge your inner child with a set of Tintin covered packs of chocolate from NeuHaus.

Footloose in Flanders

If Eat, Pray, Love was a town, it would be Bruges. So pretty, so picture postcard that some guidebooks have described it as touristy and a tad fake. Our guide in Bruges splutters indignantly about the American who thought of it as a medieval Disneyland, asking him, “Is Bruges shut for winter?”

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Bruges is an all weather destination, but to me, spring is the perfect time to be there. The tourist groups have just begun to trickle in, daffodils are in full bloom at the charming Beguinage where Benedictine nuns are in residence and the weather makes you hum a happy tune all the time. As I walk on the cobble-stoned lanes, I keep an ear open for the clip clop of horses ferrying tourists across the UNESCO heritage town, the horseman (or in many cases, woman) doubling up as guide. Then there are the beguiling window displays on the chocolate shops lining the narrow shopping streets and the heady smell of Belgian frites (fries) in the air; together they erase all thoughts of calories and cholesterol from my mind. Remember, Eat is one of the leitmotifs for this town.

To Pray, I head to the Church of Our Lady, to see Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child, in white Carrara marble. There is something so peaceful, so gentle about it that I find myself alone – in a very nice way – in the crowd. And Love? The entire town is about romance; the winding canals, the gabled buildings, the arched stone bridges, the elegant swans on Minne Water (meaning Lake of Love) and the vibrant town squares.

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Just an hour away, Ghent is another enchanting package. After the sunshine of Bruges, the grey skies at Ghent are a dampener. My guide is not too perturbed and says proudly that Ghent sees four seasons in a day; a sentiment I hear expressed in Antwerp too later. Most of the town is undergoing renovation but the inherent charm of all that is old and beautiful manages to peek through the cranes and scaffolds everywhere.

If the exterior of the magnificent Saint Bavo cathedral is Gothic, inside it is a mish-mash of architecture styles, from the baroque altar to the rococo pulpit. Among many works of art, an original Rubens painting hangs in a quiet corner. And inside a small room is one of the most famous paintings in the world, ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,’ from the early 15th century – a massive triptych by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. After duly adoring the lamb and all the rest of it, I head to the belfry right opposite the cathedral and take a rickety lift to the top. There are stunning views of the town from all sides, much of it in grey and brick red and dating back a few centuries.

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Ghent is however, not all about the past. It is one of the region’s biggest university towns, which translates into a large population of the young and restless. I see many of them outside later that evening, sitting along the Lys, beer mugs in hand. I am on a river cruise, seeing the city from the water that made it one of the most prosperous European towns in the 14th – 15th century. The towns’ youthful spirit is also reflected in its graffiti alley (Werregaren Straat), where the city council actively encourages people to practice wall art. Once a deserted and perhaps unsafe alley, today it is a tourist attraction in itself. Dinner is at PakHuis, a converted warehouse close to St. Michael’s bridge but I am stuffed with nibbles from the cruise (not to forget the champagne) and enjoy the buzzing vibe more than the food.

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And then to Antwerp, where the diamonds are not the only things to sparkle. The city itself throbs with an energy absent in smaller Bruges and Ghent. I start the day with a visit to RubensHius, Peter Paul Ruben’s house, now a museum with several of his significant paintings. A couple of hours later, I see two more at the Cathedral of Our Lady and it reminds me again of why I love Europe so much. All this art so easily accessible to any visitor.

Antwerp1I don’t have time for the highly recommended MAS Museum that is a repository of Antwerp’s history but I do zip in and out of the Fashion Museum, known locally as MoMu. After all, Antwerp is known to be one of the fashion capitals of Europe, a reputation cemented by the group of avant-garde fashion designers known as the Antwerp Six. At the Meir shopping district, there is a cornucopia of shopping options, from large global chains to small edgy boutiques.

Towards the end of this shopping mile, the main façade of Antwerp Central Station is visible. Built in 1905 to commemorate 75 years of the creation of Belgium, this building is architecturally stunning and is rightly counted among the greatest railway stations of the world. Close to it is the diamond district; if the streets of London are paved in gold, then those of Antwerp are paved in diamonds. I walk past rows and rows of shops, steadfastly ignoring the siren song of the glittering stones. My best friends, these are not, says my wallet.

Compared to these Flemish towns – of the north Belgium region of Flanders – Brussels seems like just any large city. That is not to say that it is without its share of imposing art and architecture; the buildings around the Grand Place alone are enough to remind you that Brussels is more than just the headquarters of the EU. Grand Place began life as a local market in the 13th century, but today, it is not just the heart of the city but also a fabulous venue for concerts and festivals.

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Brussels3Just as I am slightly overwhelmed by the cold grandeur of the buildings in Brussels, I reach Manneken Pis. This 17th century statue of the little boy peeing is utterly delightful, if only for being the ultimate thumb-your-nose symbol.

I walk around the area, looking at the comic murals on the walls of private residences and public buildings.

Lunch, fittingly, is at the Comics Café, where I dig into a veggie burger (passing up the meat-laden Obelix and Popeye burgers). My inner child – never too far from the surface – is thrilled by the large framed posters of Tintin’s adventures on earth and on the moon. As their website says, “Comics and fine dining, two pillars of Belgian culture, join forces here!”

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And I have nothing but deep respect for any culture that acknowledges comics as one of its mainstays and a peeing boy as an official icon. This country is sadly neglected on most travellers’ itineraries, squeezed as it is between the more alluring destinations of France and Holland. Walk around aimlessly or hire a cycle for the day. Gawk at the opulence of the art and architecture all over. Shop till you drop. Eat endless quantities of chocolate and quaff on a huge variety of Belgian beers. Find yourself footloose in Flanders and discover one of the prettiest regions of Europe in the process.

Death by dessert

Eat it. Breathe it. Or snort it. Visit a museum that is a paean to the pleasures of chocolate – the Choco Story in Bruges. For, if there is one thing you cannot escape in Belgium, it is chocolate. Belgians discovered chocolate in the 17th century when cocoa was first shipped from South America by their Spanish masters. Two centuries later, when they colonised Congo themselves, their access to cocoa was unlimited, and there began a great story.

Bermuda triangle

Today, some of the world’s most loved chocolate brands come from Belgium – Godiva, Neuhaus, Côte d’Or, Leonidas, Guylian – and have outlets in all major towns. At Antwerp, step into the Tintin memorabilia shop right opposite the Cathedral of Our Lady for some Cachet chocolates with unique flavor combinations like Lemon and Pepper, Blackberry and Ginger, Orange and Almonds. Now, what do they say about sugar and spice and all things nice?

The snorterAmong the other shops to definitely visit is The Chocolate Line, present in Bruges and Antwerp. Apart from a range of chocolates with interesting flavours like Cola, chilli, mint, olives, bacon and cannabis (acquired tastes, you will agree), chocolatier (or shock-a-latier, as he likes to call himself) Dominique Persoone is famous for inventing the ‘chocolate shooter.’ Enjoy the not unpleasant sensation of cocoa powder with raspberry or the stronger ginger flavour going straight up through your nose straight to your brain. Persoone is said to have created this specially for The Rolling Stones during their visit to Brussels a few years ago.

The snortee

Exotic fillings

And if you are an incurable chocoholic, then buy some to apply on your lips and body. The Chocolate Line also sells cosmetic chocolate products including an edible chocolate massage cream and lipstick – no fear of lead here, only all the wholesome flavonoids.

Noses and hands to chomp on

Speaking of body parts, do not miss the local specialties: Ghent’s rode neuzen (red noses) and Antwerp’s handjes (hands).

Red noses

The neuzen are small, conical (at a stretch, nose-shaped) soft sweets with a fruit jelly core and are the pride of Ghent. Pick them up from street carts whose friendly vendors will offer you a taste if you ask nicely. Or buy them at Temmerman’s candy shop (Kraanlei 79) where they are known by their official name, cuberdons.

The legend behind the handjes has to do with an evil giant who was vanquished by a local hero and had his hand chopped off and thrown into the river Scheldt. Don’t let this gory story deter you from trying these delightful hand-shaped chocolates and thin almond cookies. Some stretch the legend further to say that the name Antwerp (locally Antwerpen) comes from “hand-werpen” or hand-throwing.

A way with Waffles

Waffle with whipped creamOther than chocolate, the aroma of fresh waffles is in the air in Flanders. There are two main types – the Brussels version, the standard everywhere in the world for Belgian waffles, and the lesser known Liège version. The former is served with a variety of toppings, from dusted sugar to whipped cream to chocolate syrup and rum. Try one – or three – at the Max at Ghent; they call themselves the inventors of the Belgian waffle. Liège waffles are comparatively denser, sweeter and chewier, with a caramelised crust and without toppings. And the best are to be found at Belgaufra at several locations in Brussels, Antwerp and Liège or Vitalgaufre at 23-29 rue Neuve in Brussels.

At Max

Spicy Specculaas

Different from all other cookies you have known, specculaas (also known as specculoos) are spicy, with subtle flavours of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and brown sugar. It is so popular in Belgium that it is now available as a spread (Nutella, be gone!) and in ice-creams. La Maison Dandoy at the Grand Place in Brussels has the freshest specculaas, in various shapes and forms.

Then, there are the thin and crunchy Florentines, said to originate from Florence. The Belgian version comes coated with nuts and chocolate (no surprise there) and just melt in the mouth. Be sure to pick up a box of Jules Destrooper Florentines on your way out at the airport duty-free shop. The brand is also known for their other thin cookies, including almond, apple and chocolate flavours.

So, while in Belgium, push away all thoughts of a healthy diet and give in to temptation. And anyway, who says chocolate is not healthy?

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A slightly edited version of this was published in Mumbai Mirror, May 05, 2013.

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