A wealth of attractions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 November, 2009, 12:00am

From the bustle that is Brussels to the medieval masterpiece of Bruges, each of Belgium's cities has a markedly different character and a wealth of attractions for visitors.

In the west of the country near the Ardennes forest, Spa is best known - apart from its annual grand prix - as a health resort that came into vogue in the 17th century and has been a popular watering hole ever since. A gracious and relaxing air still characterises the city, while new facilities, such as the state-of-the-art Thermes de Spa, have given pampering here a definite fillip. Spa also boasts the world's oldest casino, which opened its doors in 1763.

Antwerp is Belgium's second largest city, and claims to be at the cutting edge of fashion. One of the principal streets, Nationalestraat, is crammed with boutiques, many stocked by the city's own designers. Antwerp is also the world's diamond capital - moving 40 per cent of the Earth's industrial diamonds, half the cut diamonds and 85 per cent of its rough diamonds. Thirdly, Antwerp has the best nightlife, not just in Belgium but in this part of Europe. Clubbers from Holland actually take the train to party here at weekends.

Rather off the beaten track, Hasselt is a thriving community centred around the Grote Markt, the city's main market. However the main attraction lies outside town in the shape of the Bokrijk Openluchtmuseum. Spread over 60 hectares, this is one of the largest open air museums in Europe and it showcases Flemish history with more than 100 original old buildings - churches, farmhouses, pubs and windmills - drawn from all around in the region in the past 40 years.

The city of Bruges - which formed the background and title of Martin McDonagh's 2008 black comedy thriller In Bruges - is simply a museum in itself. Also known as Brugge, it's filled with quaint market squares, peaceful canals, churches, almshouses, fortified gates and towers that somehow managed to avoid the devastation of two world wars. While Bruges is squarely on the tourist trail, it's a simple matter to duck into the sidestreets and wander through history well away from the crowds who tend to stick to the main attractions.

Ghent is sometimes overshadowed by neighbouring Bruges and Antwerp, however it is home to some 900 listed buildings, of which the awesome St Baaf's Cathedral is the most prominent. While Ghent's place in history is assured, it's got its fair share of modern hang-outs as well. The bicycle museum cum bar called 't Velootje is part of local folklore, with bikes festooned from the walls and ceiling and beer dispensed with alacrity by the welcoming landlord, thus enshrining three of Belgium's hallmarks - drinking, cycling and hospitality - in a single venue.

Bastogne, close to the border with Luxembourg, is chiefly notable for the role it played in the second world war when it was defended against enormous odds by the American 101st Airborne Division in one of the last major battles in Europe. The enormous star-shaped American Memorial is the main attraction here, and a full account of the Battle of the Bulge is provided at the Bastogne Historical Centre.

Durbuy - founded in the 11th century - claims to be the smallest city in the world. In size, it's really a village but it does come with a host of attractions. There's a neat selection of hotels, restaurants and bars, a topiary garden, a mini brewery, a shop that makes its own jam on the premises, and - in winter - a skating rink. The castle isn't open to visitors, but does form a good backdrop for souvenir photos. So all in all, Durbuy has pretty much everything a day-tripper in search of the picturesque could ask for.

Finally, Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is sometimes more readily identified as the EU headquarters.

However, the bureaucrats fade into the background when compared with the sights and sounds of the Grand Place, the city's central square which dates from the 12th century, and the intriguing maze of pretty streets and alleyways that surrounds it. There are galleries and museums in abundance, not to mention hordes of chocolate shops.