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?”

Bruges1

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.

Bruges2

Bruges3

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.

Ghent1

Ghent2

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.

Ghent3

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.

Brussels1

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!”

Brussels2

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.

Down Underdog

Riverside walks? Check. Masterchef quality dining? Check. Charming downtown area? Check. Cosmopolitan vibe? Check. Friendly people? Check.

Melbourne today seems to effortlessly tick all the right boxes. It wasn’t always this way. Founded nearly a century after Sydney, Melbourne thrived on the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s and ‘60s. When the gold fever abated by the early 1890s, the city stopped being ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and found itself back in the shadows of Sydney’s gleaming beauty. From there to being consistently voted among the “world’s most livable cities” is a testament to the power of the underdog. Recollect the iconic 1960s advertising campaign of Avis car rentals – “We’re No. 2, so we try harder” – that is what Melbourne did too.

And what it lacked in spectacular landmarks that have graced a million postcards out of Sydney – the man-made Opera House and the natural Great Barrier Reef – it has made up for with a buzzing food, arts, and culture scene. The magnificent Great Ocean Drive. And that temple to sport, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, or the G, as Melburnians call it.

For me, Melbourne’s charm is entirely in its easygoing European feel – cobblestoned lanes, alfresco cafés, and large green spaces in the middle of the city. Friends tell me that the “inner city” – the Central Business District – is the best place to begin my exploration of Melbourne.

So one morning, I find myself at the open space in front of Federation Square, that sits between two old and elegant buildings: the Flinders Street train station and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The former is a brick red and muted yellow Edwardian structure from the early 1900s and the latter also a dull red, with tall spires; both of them are in stark contrast to the sharp lines and angles of Federation Square. I remember reading that the Federation Square building has 16 restaurants and pubs and several cultural spaces including the Ian Potter gallery and Australian Center for Moving Images. So it is no surprise that all of Melbourne heads there to hang out whenever possible.

Flinder's Street

Federation Square

I am waiting for my guide for the ‘Lanes and Arcades’ tour organized by a local walking tours company. The walk begins from the Square, and takes me through narrow alleys filled with shops and cafés spilling on to the road. Speaking of which, wherever I turn, I see cafés crowded with people chatting over coffee and cupcakes: happy couples, young men and women in business suits, mothers with their babies on strollers parked close to them and of course, dozens of tourists with their cameras.

The tour itself is superb, offering glimpses into the history of the city and leading me through some of the truly hidden secrets that I would never have found on my own. We wander among tiny shops selling everything from dozens of flavours of locally produced honey and beautiful handmade stationery, to varieties of coloured buttons and witchcraft paraphernalia. Most of these little shops are managed by the owners themselves, all friendly and chatty. And did I mention the chocolates and cupcakes? I haven’t seen so much of these being consumed without a thought to those pesky things called calories anywhere other than in Vienna.

Macaroons

Curiosity shops

Matryoshka dolls

Sean, my guide for this walk, shares with us so much trivia about Melbourne that it gets difficult to follow him after a while. It is obvious that he really loves his city and expects all visitors to. When we walk through the arcade now known as Howey’s Place, he narrates the delightful life story of Edward William Cole. This eccentric entrepreneur started a small book business in 1865 and in eight years, grew it enough to open a large store near Little Collins Street. Cole was a pioneer in marketing and found himself not just new customers but also a wife “neat in dress and not extravagant or absurd” through a newspaper advertisement.

His seemed to have been the kind of bookstore I love; people were encouraged to walk in, browse and even read there. The more I hear about Cole, the more I find myself liking him (I already think of him as good old Ed). Apart from stocking a huge collection of books, he authored many for children, called ‘Funny Picture Books.’ Another name: Instructor to Delight the Children and Make Home Happier.

My absolute favourite in this walk though, is the old GPO, with its high ceilings and large atrium dating back to 1859. After a major fire accident in 2001, the GPO was converted into a shopping mall for swanky brands, with more cafés in the cheerful atrium area. Sean says that Melburnians treasure this as a heritage spot and that road distances to and from the city are still measured from here.

GPO

Graffiti

Another unique aspect of Melbourne’s inner city circle is how its once unsightly graffiti has been curbed and turned into attractive street art. Really, how many cities do you know of that have state managed graffiti monitoring and mentoring systems in place? So once dirty and unsafe side alleys are now famous for their graffiti and the city now attracts artists like Banksy.

I can see where Sean’s joy and pride in his city come from. And I know for sure that for me too, Melbourne is one of the world’s most livable cities.

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For more information on the Lanes and Arcades Tour, visit the Hidden Secrets Tour website.

This article was originally published in Atelier Diva as Southern Sojourn.