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Travel & Holidays in later life


Centuries'-old buildings, bridges and canals in medieval BrugesIn Belgium, half the population speak French as their mother tongue, and the other half speak Flemish, which doubles as Dutch. Brussels is half-and-half, a totally bilingual capital.

For short breaks, Flanders is the most interesting part of Belgium - the coastal resorts, and Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. Distances are small. By train from Brussels, a half-hour ride brings you to Ghent or Antwerp; or another half-hour from Ghent to Bruges.

Further along from Bruges, a 14-minute train ride delivers you to Ostend, centre of the Belgian coastline that stretches for over 40 miles of sandy beaches.

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Getting there:

By car: take Le Shuttle from Folkestone or ferry from Dover to Calais, and then an easy motorway drive into Flanders.

By Eurostar, St Pancras to Brussels Midi in 2 hours. 20 mins.

By coach tour with local departure - ask your travel agent.

Shops and banks are generally open 9-12 hrs and 14-18 hrs. Tourist shops are open Sundays. Museums close mostly on Mondays.

What to buy: Chocolates, Belgian beer, pipe and roll-your-own tobacco, hand-made Belgian lace (but cheaper lace probably comes from Far East).

More information: Tourism Flanders-Brussels, 1a Cavendish Square, London W1G OLD. Tel: live operator 0207 307 7738.  Brochure line: 0800 954 5245.  

or Belgian Tourist Office Brussels & Wallonia, 217 Marsh Wall, London E14 9FJ. Tel:live operator 0207 537 1132 Brochure line: 0800 9545 245.   

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So, with excellent road and rail connections, you can use any of these cities as your base for exploring northern Belgium. If you want to mix sightseeing with Casino gambling, stay at Ostend or Blankenberghe. If you want to relax in a totally medieval setting, Bruges is top choice.

Brussels is worth at least a day in a tourist itinerary. One of the most beautiful medieval squares in Europe is the Grand'Place, where ancient guild-houses and civic buildings are ranged along all four sides. 
A converted guild house in Gran'Place, Brussels
Gold-leaf decorations sparkle in the sunshine or add a warm glow to the evening floodlighting. 

Flower stalls give still more vivid colour to the square, which is also the venue for a Sunday-morning pet and bird market.

Similar squares are a regular feature of Flemish towns - a medieval city hall, a watch-tower belfry, a stately church and tea-rooms and pastry-shops where prosperous citizens gossip. Restaurants glow in panelled-wall atmosphere.

Bruges is the supreme art city. Built on a network of canals, the town is little changed since the 15th and 16th centuries when great painters of the Bruges School settled here - Jan van Eyck, Van der Goes, Hans Memlinc and Gerard David. The Groeninge Museum displays some of their finest masterpieces.

In a world where progress is multi-storey living in a cage of steel, glass and concrete, Bruges has turned its face firmly towards the Middle Ages. Nothing is built unless it totally harmonises with the medieval surroundings.

The result is Europe's most perfectly-preserved medieval city, rivalled only by Venice.

The white building on the left is now an up-market Bruges resturantBruges has a dream-like character. A network of canals is crossed by hump-backed bridges, linking cobbled streets and gingerbread houses. Hundreds of swans float peacefully on the Minnewater, the Lake of Love. 

Through courtyards you pass into medieval sanctuaries such as the Begijnhof, where lace-coiffed sisters form a self- supporting community. Whenever the sun shines, old ladies sit outdoors to make the delicate lace that is a traditional local industry.

Trips by motor-launch take you on a half-hour cruise along the canals, lined with mellow 15th-century walls.

Feeling energetic? At the Groote Markt, climb the 402 steps up the Belfry that towers above a 13th-century market building. Check times for the 400-years' old carillon, when you can watch (and hear in deafening close-up) the mechanical operation of 28 tons of bells - 49 of them altogether.

Unlike Bruges, Ghent has grown and modernised. But there are still entire sectors where the 13th to 16th centuries are supreme, with richly decorated gabled-fronted patrician mansions. Dominating the inner city is the massive 12th-century Castle of the Counts of Flanders. A detailed exploration of spiral staircases, ramparts, crypt and dungeons can occupy an hour or two.

In Antwerp, the highlight is Rubens. For a quarter-century the great Flemish artist and his pupils worked in his mansion in Rubenstraat. This town house has been reconstructed, decorated and furnished in 17th-century style to harmonise with the Rubens museumpiece treasures.

Several churches exhibit the master's works, but the principal collection of Rubens and other Flemish and Dutch painters is located in the Museum of Fine Arts.

In contrast to the art-city culture circuit, the port of Ostend is Belgium's liveliest seaside resort. Owing to proximity to Britain, it offers special catering for English-speaking visitors. Cafes stay open till past midnight. There's dancing, variety shows, night clubs, bingo.

Along Ostend's promenade is a modern, glittering Casino. It has the lot: a concert hall seating 2500, nightclub with international stars, swimming, a fine restaurant, and gaming rooms for roulette and baccarat. Further along is a racecourse.

Finally, a warning: weight-watchers must take care! Typical Belgian meals feature "frites with everything". In fact, if you want to irritate a Belgian, call him a "patate frite" - a fried potato. Steak and chips is a national dish and chip stalls are everywhere. Other wayside stalls sell waffles; or apple fritters coated wiThe Ostend Casino includes a high-grade restaurantth sugar; or seasonal mussels; or pancakes with varied fillings.

Work your way through a couple of main meals, stop off for mid-afternoon pastries, sample a few litres of the famous Belgian beer, and keep up your strength in the pavement snack department. You'll then understand why Rubens had no difficulty in finding the well-padded models whom he preferred for his masterpieces.

Read what else to see in Belgium

ANTWERP for Rubens and rocks

BRUGES - fast track to the Middle Ages

BRUSSELS - visiting a Grande Place 

FLANDERS - Visit Ypres for Flanders Fields

GHENT - A central base for Belgium's art cities

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp -- Covers all the main sights in these four art cities.

The Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg  - Useful if you are also travelling to French-speaking Belgium, and not just Flanders. 

Insight Pocket Guide - Bruges - An ideal choice if you have time only for Bruges. It features a dozen itineraries and route maps.

Flemish Cities Explored: Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven and Ostend (Pallas for Pleasure)  by Anthony Blunt - Excellent choice for anyone who wants to stay longer in Belgium, and explore the highlights in detail on foot.

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