Simon Calder: Why Go Now?
'Widescreen skies provide constantly changing aerial scenery'
Saturday 27 September 2008
From a distance, the wedge of territory that sits prettily across the North Sea from South-east England may look strictly two-dimensional. Look more closely, though, and you discover Flanders has many more facets to it. Widescreen skies provide constantly changing aerial scenery, as clouds ripple high above the meadows, woods and waterways that make up Flanders' tranquil landscapes. The horizon is punctuated by church steeples: continuity with a past when the region provided economic and cultural dynamism for much of Europe.
The Belgian coast, at first glance, appears to be the Continent's longest unbroken stretch of sand – yet slowly reveals itself to be much more than a beguiling beach. From picturesque fishing ports to spectacular modern architecture, the shore is embroidered with intrigue. In summer, it is a well-provisioned playground; while winter visitors find the Flanders shore exquisitely moody.
For further elation, just head for the nearest metropolis. Flanders is endowed with half-a-dozen very different cities, each rewarding exploration.
Ostend is the gateway to urban Flanders, and offers everything you would expect from a bustling port: excellent seafood, historic ships and a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Bruges is just 20 minutes inland, yet the city could be a world away, thanks to its miraculously preserved character. This compact compendium of medieval architecture feels intensely human – and is a strong contender as the most rewarding destination on the planet for the beer lover. Ghent, the third link in the chain as you head inland, shares a similar alluring network of canals and cobbled streets, but is firmly focused on the future. This is epitomised at SMAK, the city's modern art museum, startling and stimulating in equal measure.
Eastern Flanders has its own trio of cities. Leuven benefits from a large student population, which ensures constant cultural replenishment – and plenty of good, cheap places to eat. Delicious diversity continues in Mechelen, where historic properties have had makeovers to turn them into cutting-edge places to eat, drink and sleep.
The brilliant finale for the urban explorer is, of course, Antwerp. Recent upgrades to the city's magnificent railway station have placed it firmly astride one of Europe's transportation arteries – but Antwerp has long been a hub for style and sparkle. Energy and imagination provide the power for the young designers who place the city at the forefront of fashion; and it remains the diamond capital of Europe.
Mountaineers and skiers may have to seek their thrills elsewhere. But for the rest of us – Flanders fulfils.
For the Sound of Flanders, listen to The Independent's new audio podcast: 3 x 3 x 3, a nine-minute programme free to download: www.independent.co.uk/flanderspod
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