The tragedy of terrorism in Brussels is what comes to mind, unfortunately, when we now think of the Belgian capital. Recently, about 35 people were killed and more than 311 were injured by bombs set off at the Brussels airport and one of its subway stations.
I have a different recollection of that city and its surrounding area. And it’s a fondness for the character of Brussels and an urge to continue supporting it in tourism, fighting hard against the kind of fear that ISIL and its dreadful minions hope to instill within us. About 30 years ago, I spent a continuous six months in Brussels and other Belgian cities, researching a book that I later titled “A Masterpiece Called Belgium.” I have been an unpaid and unofficial ambassador for all things Belgian ever since.
Belgium then, and probably Belgium now, is not high up on the list of destinations favored by the American public. Its incoming tourism does not reach giant levels, and the touristic attractions of Belgium are not inundated with visiting crowds in the way that London, Paris and Rome often are.
And yet, to me, the attractions of Belgium often are second to none. The reason they often are disregarded is because they mainly relate to an era of history – the Middle Ages – that most Americans fail to appreciate. The cities of Belgium – Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Liege and Brussels – contain large areas where scarcely a brick has been moved for over 500 years. The stunning Grand-Place of Brussels – a giant square surrounded entirely by the well-preserved guild halls of medieval times – is a prime example. It is one of the great sights of the world.
Bruges is even more of an overwhelming masterpiece. Here, a city that literally “died” 500 years ago when its river silted up and became impassable for arriving ships has been left virtually unchanged and is an astonishing reflection of how medieval people once lived. Seeing it, you often become aware that these ancient folk might have had a greater aesthetic sense than we now possess, and certainly a stronger sense of community.
But apart from an insight into an important era of history, what else does Belgium offer to the visitor? Art, first and foremost. Its museums may be smaller than the Louvre or the Uffizzi, but they are replete with astonishing masterworks by Breugel and Rubens, the Brothers van Eyck and the modern Magritte, by the many so-called Flemish primitives of the 1400s. On a single visit to nearby Ghent, your viewing of the city’s 24-panel altarpiece, the“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” in the 15th-century Cathedral of St. Bavo, will introduce you to a painting that is ranked with Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” as among the greatest paintings of all time.
And on a more prosaic level, there’s Belgian food, which a great many connoisseurs of cooking rank above that of the French. Unlike the great restaurants of Paris and Lyon, whose waiters often treat a foreign visitor with only slightly disguised contempt, the restaurants of Belgium welcome the tourist, treat you with respect and show none of the haughty attitudes so often found in its larger neighbor. Belgians do not regard themselves or their society to be superior to others; generally speaking, they have a sense of proportion and modesty that often greatly contrasts with the people of other nations.
Finally, the nation of Belgium is so compact in size that a visitor to Brussels easily is able to sample several other Belgian cities from a single hotel stay in the capital city. From Brussels to Ghent is only a half-hour by train; from Brussels to Bruges is an hour at most. You can leave Brussels in the morning, take in the remarkable sights of another Belgian city, and still return to Brussels in time for evening dinner.
I hope you’ll join me in visiting Belgium on your next trip to Europe. By doing so, you’ll have a memorable European stay. And you’ll show those monsters of ISIL that we won’t knuckle under to their grotesque actions.
Note to the reader: Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip. The information in this column was accurate when it was released, but prices are competitive, sometimes limited and can always change without notice.
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.