An insipid morning after an eight-hour flight was transformed into a delectable one with a cup of piping hot chai and soul-stirring Ahir Bhairav raga by the legend Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (courtesy: Jet Airways in-flight entertainment). The pristine nothingness outside glowed with the golden rays of dawn and a firm landing brought me to the vibrant Belgian capital, Brussels.
Half an hour by road from there is Antwerp, a treasure house of art, culture and history, with every stone reaching out to you with a tale of its own. History and modernism are Antwerp's two colours with the charm of its old buildings, cobbled streets, cathedrals and classical art, and the shine of swank boutiques, perfumeries and cafes.
A visit to the famous Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady rejuvenates your spirit. Known to house the unparalleled masterpieces of classical art—The Raising of the Cross, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, The Descent from the Cross—by Peter Paul Rubens, the cathedral is an art lover's heaven. His Italian-style villa known as Rubenshuis, with a picturesque garden, a sprawling courtyard, his personal studio and several of his other famous works like Adam and Eve and a self-portrait, is a famous tourist haunt.
Antwerp's Central Station (also called Railway Cathedral) is yet another historic marvel. A large antique clock, an ornate entrance and the Antwerpan inscriptions in gold, lead you to the trains plying to several European destinations.
Fascinating fragrances tantalise your nostrils at Antwerp's renowned In Fine perfumery. Tourists are given an array of fragrances with number tags and asked to make a choice, based on which a combination is prepared. The expert perfumer then highlights the nuances of your nature and personality based on these choices, toning down the negative ones with subtle French panache!
Diamonds are Antwerp's best friends and the Gujaratis of Palanpur and Ahmedabad rule the roost.
Another half an hour away lies the 'Venice of the North'—the tranquil fairy-tale town of Bruges. Quaint bridges and canals are Bruges' leitmotif, with guided boat cruises bringing hoards of tourists. Besides the long-winding waterways, the next best way to discovering Bruges is through horse carriage tours with old-style carriages pulled by sturdy steeds and traditionally-dressed guides.
Flee markets along canals are a photographer's treat with weird artefacts, old and out-of-tune musical instruments, cardboard swords and antique furniture.
Beer is Belgium's most sought after drink and a mind-boggling 450 varieties draw in guzzlers from all over the globe! The De Halve Maan brewery in Bruges gives you a guided tour through the various stages of beer making, culminating in a hearty binge!
Yet another short drive away is Ghent, a charming, youthful town that never sleeps. With a sizeable immigrant population, including a hundred Gujarati families, Ghent is a tiny city of myriad colours with boat rides, five-star hotels, café dining, cycling, walking tours, high-end boutiques and cosmetic shops.
Ghent is also a gourmand's getaway; a city that exhilarates the palate with exotic Flemish flavours, sea food specialities and eclectic desserts and fine dining restaurants like the Belga Queen rated Ghent's best that offer more than one can ask for. Even for vegetarians, Ghent guarantees a good time.
Fnac, the famous music store, is music lovers' paradise. I was delighted to find recordings of a young Asha Bhosle and Ravi Shankar in their heydays along with meditative west African fiddling and Flemish folk!
Policemen are often seen on bicycles in Ghent, known to be a crime-free city. “I have never felt unsafe in this city, not even at odd hours,” smiles Freya, a Flemish brunette.
Next, we come to Brussels, the vibrant and dazzling Belgian capital and also the capital of the European Union. A sharp contrast from the predominantly Flemish towns of Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent, Brussels is distinctively French.
A visit to ‘Mini Europe', a theme park with very realistic depictions of all the EU countries, is fun for both kids and adults. There are replicas of the famous landmarks of these countries.
The old Jewish Synagogue of Brussels, a formidable structure, is among the city's famous monuments. One can often find elderly Rabbis and young Jews in black hats and beautifully embroidered kippahs (skull cap) around the Synagogue heading for prayers.
Among the other magnificent monuments of Brussels are the musical instruments museum with 3,000 instruments from around the world, The Palace of Justice, The Palace of the Belgian King, The Grand Place with the town hall, the Maison du roi (king's house) and the guildhalls, each reminiscent of classical architecture.
Plush five-star hotels like the swank Sofitel Louise and The Hilton to name a few, fine dining restaurants, haute couture boutiques and cosmetic stores and ultra-modern malls are frequented by the crème of Belgian society. For the aristocratic types, hanging out at Brussels's famous classical music store La boite a Musique opens the door to some of the most magnificent works of the Flemish masters, the soul, depth and intensity of which could move even a statue to tears!
After beer comes chocolate. Belgian chocolates are an all-time favourite and the world-renowned La Maison des maitre Chocolatiers at Brussels's Grand Place is where one delves into the art of making bliss come alive on your taste buds! Workshops in chocolate making are conducted for international tourists, and esoteric varieties in dark, light and white chocolate like caramel with orange, Brazilian champagne (white chocolate), Poire William Marzipan, bitter chocolate ganache flavoured with Ceylon tea along with many having Persian and African ingredients, are the most sought-after varieties.
There is never a dearth of desi delicacies in Belgium. Sumptuous samosas, exemplary paneer preparations, crispy bhajiyas, biryanis and dals are savoured at La Porte des Indes, one of Brussel's best Indian restaurants. Overflowing with locals every evening, one would hear piped-in Bollywood hits, classical Hindustani and articulate French conversations punctuated by unavoidable slurps!
There remains more to discover in Belgium: a canvas of varied colours, every city having its distinct flavour and shades, with myriad nationalities and cultures blending into its mosaic and its history kept alive through the smiles and spirit of its people.