Old England in Flanders

Northern Belgium plays its part perfectly in the BBC's new series, says Gerard Gilbert

The profitable link between television drama and tourism is well-documented, with one report estimating that in 2011, an astounding 22 million British day-trips were made to sites associated with shows such as Downton Abbey. But any windfall from BBC1's big new War of the Roses saga The White Queen won't be dropping at the feet of our native tourist industry, but benefiting the Flemish-speaking northern half of Belgium. Because that's where they filmed it.

Flanders, with its Unesco World-Heritage medieval béguinages, belfries and town centres, and its unblemished canals, lanes and bridges, beat off international competition to play the part of 15th-century England. There are no satellite dishes or double yellow lines in the centres of Bruges or Ghent, and that – along with generous tax breaks – makes life easier for filmmakers.

The four Flemish towns on my itinerary fan out directly on the local rail network from the Eurostar terminal at Bruxelles Midi. And by train, rather than by car, is the best way to travel around these parts, as anyone who's been traumatised by a city-centre one-way system or tail-gated on a Belgian motorway will tell you.

My first two stops – Leuven and Mechelen – don't feature in The White Queen, but their potted history gives a good idea why these conurbations retain such homogeneous medieval centres. In short, the money ran out in the mid-16th century – the collapse of the cloth-making industry leaving its cities in a state of suspended architectural animation, without the layers of later development that disguise the centre of so many British cities. "It's just the astounding variety of medieval buildings that exist in one spot," says The White Queen's producer Gina Cronk. "If we'd shot in the UK you'd have to go a bit to Chester here, a bit to York there and maybe a manor house in the West Country".

This Rip van Winkle sleep was rudely broken by the First World War – which wreaked havoc in Leuven, albeit sparing St Peter's Church, which is utterly austere except for a hilarious rococo wooden pulpit. Either this gothic colossus or Mechelen's St Rumbold's Cathedral might easily stand in for any interior shots of Westminster Abbey, but the film crew slipped over the Dutch border to Utrecht – to St Martin's Cathedral – to recreate the coronation scene in this coming Sunday's episode. You can just imagine the logistical and financial impossibility of being able to film in the real Westminster Abbey.

Most of the locations for The White Queen are in Bruges and Ghent. For me the real charm of Bruges, the better-known Flemish beauty, lies away from its glorious medieval churches and civic buildings, down sleepy towpaths and deserted lanes. Along one of these can be found a bed and breakfast owned by local artists, Nuit Blanche (0032 494 400447; www.nuit-blanche.be) that doubles for the interiors of Grafton Manor, the family home of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen of the title. Meanwhile Blinde Ezelstraat (Blind Donkey Street) was used for several street scenes, including one where the newly crowned queen, Elizabeth, is showered with petals. The film crew dubbed it "Coronation Street".

The town centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site whose main market place, surrounded on all sides by brasseries, is dominated by the belfry from which Brendan Gleeson's character threw himself in the 2008 gangster-flick In Bruges. The White Queen too uses the belfry, which stands in for Westminster Palace Court, as well as the stadhuis, one of the oldest town halls in the Low Countries, whose interiors double for Westminster Palace and the Tower of London.

While visiting the BBC set in Bruges, several cast and crew said words to the effect that "Bruges is lovely, but wait till you see Ghent". So while I can't say Ghent's delightfulness was entirely unexpected, I still didn't know quite what I'd find. Unlike Bruges, which feels dominated by tourism, Ghent is a proper city with a buzzy workaday feel and a go-ahead council that has instigated a jazz festival in July, a film festival in October and vegetarian cuisine every Thursday – a so-called Veggie Dag that is aimed at helping combat climate change through eating less meat. But what really grabs you about Ghent is its gothic centre.

A fine panorama is provided by climbing the turrets of Ghent castle, which in The White Queen doubles as both Pembroke and Warwick Castle as well as the Tower of London. Built in 1180 and modelled on the Crusader fortresses that its patron, Philip of Alsace, encountered in the Holy Land, it was carefully restored in the 1880s. Several of the beheading scenes in the series take place here and the castle houses a permanent exhibition of medieval torture devices.

If you still have any energy you can clamber up the 91m-high belfry, which adjoins the Cloth Hall (which doubles as Warwick Castle in The White Queen), while the highlight of any visit to St Bavo's Cathedral (which stands in for York Cathedral and Weymouth Abbey) is the extraordinary altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers.

Not all the Flemish locations in The White Queen amounted to complete artifice. An old abbey in Ghent was used for various locations, including a scene where Richard (later Richard III) asked for Anne Neville's hand in marriage. During the filming, a local said Richard and Anne's children were born in the abbey, and, after a bit of research, it was discovered that Richard, while in exile, did indeed spend some time in the area.

'The White Queen' is on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1

Getting there

You can fly from Heathrow to Brussels on BA (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com) or Brussels Airlines (0905 60 95 609; brusselsairlines.com). Ryanair flies to Brussels-Charleroi from Manchester and Edinburgh (0871 246 0000; Ryanair.com). Eurostar goes to Brussels-Midi (08448 224 777; eurostar.com), with onward connections.

More information visitflanders.co.uk

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