MY ROUGH GUIDE By Philip Lee
Best Discovery

Tucked away in a quiet, wooded dell a few miles south of Brussels, the ruined Cistercian abbey of Villers-La-Ville is quite delightful. There's nothing fussy about the restoration work here, but rather the site has been left wild and overgrown with the soft yellows of the abbey pushing up amongst the surrounding greenery. The best preserved part of the abbey is the church, whose pure lines and elegant proportions illustrate the change from Romanesque to Gothic - and you're likely to enjoy all this without sight or sound of any other visitor.

Best Hotels

Belgium has scores of magnificent hotels - so much so that it seems almost churlish to select a couple above all others. That said, I found the Erasmus in Ghent hard to beat for all round cosiness. This family- run hotel occupies a thoughtfully restored old town house, and each of the rooms comes complete with tasteful antique furniture. In Bruges, I stayed in one of the finest of the city's upmarket hotels, De Tuilerieen, an elegant renovated mansion where breakfast is taken in a lovely neo- Baroque salon.

Biggest Let-Down

I thought that Bruges in the middle of August was hopelessly over-crowded with enormous queues for everything from boat trips to drinks at the bar - so much so that I skipped over to Ghent where things were less frantic.

Best Meal

You can go mad trying to choose somewhere to eat: Belgium has scores of wonderful restaurants and it's hard to eat badly. In Brussels, I opted for the bistro-style Chez Leon, which is justifiably famous for its mussels, and also for the more formal La Belle Maraichere, on place Ste Catherine - the waiters hover; snails are de rigueur; and the seafood was mouth- watering.

Favourite Souvenir

Right in the centre of Ghent, Tierenteyn-Verlent is an old-fashioned store that sells splendid home-made mustards. I surprised my step-daughter with a pot of the stuff, though this was a blunder (she was expecting chocolates).

Favourite Paintings

When I visit Ghent, I always make a beeline for the cathedral, which possesses one of the artistic wonders of the Medieval world, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck, who is often credited with the invention of oil painting itself.

Best Bargain

One of Belgium's best flea markets is in Brussels on the Place du Jeu de Balle. Here, an eccentric muddle of colonial spoils, quirky odds and ends and domestic and ecclesiastical bric-a-brac - from plastic sandals to Virgin Marys - spills over the square and the surrounding streets. The best time to go is on the weekend, which was when I picked up an Austro-Hungarian pearl pendant for just pounds 5.

Favourite Drink

Sampling local beers is one of the real treats of a visit to Belgium. A personal favourite is Ghent's Stropken (literally "noose"), a delicious tangy brew named after the time in 1453 when Philip the Good compelled the rebellious city burghers to parade outside the town walls with ropes around their necks. Another tasty brew to look out for is Krick, a wheat beer with cherries (or cherry juice) added during the final fermentation.

Biggest Mistake

I found driving in Belgium a tad difficult; the country is so crowded - and the distance between places is often so small - that navigation often required lightning reflexes and a homing pigeon's sense of direction. But, these were trifling problems in comparison with the Belgian diversion: on several occasions, roads, even motorways, were simply closed for repairs and I was dispatched deep into the countryside for an endless and often signless tour. It's best, I'm sure, to surrender and see where you end up - there's precious little point in actually trying to plan your escape, as I did.

Philip Lee is co-author of `The Rough Guide to Belgium'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter `Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to: Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

Villers-La-Ville is just off the N93 and 35km south of Brussels. To get here by rail from the capital, take the Namur train and change at Ottignies; the abbey is 1.6km from the train station.

The Erasmus is in the centre of Ghent at Poel 25 (tel 0032/9 224 2195; fax 0032/9 233 4241) and a double room costs in the region of pounds 75. In Bruges, the hotel De Tuilerieen is also in the city centre at Dijver 7 (tel 0032/50 34 36 91; fax 0032/50 34 04 00) and a double room here will cost about pounds 170.

In Brussels, Chez Leon is at rue des Bouchers 19, footsteps from the Grand-Place; La Belle Maraichere, at Place Ste Catherine 11 is a five- to ten-minute walk west of the Grand Place.

In Ghent, Tierenteyn-Verlent is at Groentenmarkt 3.

Eurostar (0345 881881) is the most pleasant way to Belgium, with pre- booked mid-week prices starting from pounds 65 return (pounds 80 at weekends).

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