THOSE OTHER FLEMISH CITIES
Sunday 02 March 1997
The Flemish people have long proud traditions, not only of not being French, but also of having built up wealthy, mercantile centres on the back of the cloth trade during the Middle Ages. Despite a general economic decline which lasted from the 16th to the 20th centuries, these pockets of history and fine architecture have survived remarkably intact. And none of them are more than an hour apart
In the early 16th century Antwerp may well have been the richest city in Europe. And although it has now sunk to the status of Belgium's second city behind Brussels, it is still well worth a visit, with plenty of its own turreted gables, spires and uneven rooftops.
Unlike Brussels or Bruges however, Antwerp is also a huge international port which means that it has fishy, seedy quarters as well, the trappings of an authentic city. It also boasts several large museums and an excellent cafe and bar scene.
In common with many other Belgian towns, its heart is marked by a square - the Grote Markt - lined with attractive old Guild Houses. Just off the square is Belgium's largest and finest Gothic Cathedral, the 15th century Onze Lieve Vrouwe, now embellished by various Baroque additions, most notably Rubens' Descent from the Cross. Rubens, who is Antwerp's most famous former resident, has left a number of relics in the city for tourists to visit, including his own home.
This incidentally is not the only former home worth visiting around here; there is also the Plantin-Moretus Museum on Vrijdagmarkt, the former home and workshop of a fabulously wealthy printing family.
For nightlife along the cobbled streets of central Antwerp, you'll have more than 2,000 bars and cafes to choose from, many packed with students, and often serving Flemish and French inspired dishes.
Antwerp is 70 minutes by train from Bruges and 35 minutes from Brussels.
While not as perfect as Bruges, Ghent is still a pretty stunning place. In fact city-break connoisseurs often prefer it: as Belgium's second port, after Antwerp, it has an authentic, lived-in quality which Bruges sometimes lacks.
Ghent in medieval times was a huge city full of businesses and industry. Its major export was cloth made from wool imported from England; the industry employed thousands of people.
As in other Belgian cities, the burghers of Ghent, entrepreneurial types, made a name for themselves by fighting off control from central authorities, and the mishmash of styles of cobbles, gables and canals in the town centre testify to this individualism.
The centre of the city is still dominated by the three massive towers of St Nicholas Church, the Belfry and the Cathedral, from which the merchants could keep an eye on their shipping on the rivers.
The city's most famous single relic from the past however is the Mystic Lamb, which occupies a side-chapel in the cathedral. This altarpiece, painted by the brothers Van Eyck, is so fantastically detailed that one needs a magnifying glass to uncover items such as the many species of wild flower in the background.
Ghent is just 20 minutes by train from Bruges and about 30 minutes from Brussels.
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