Andrew Greaves had never thought his annual trips to Belgium were particularly unusual, until the Belgians told him otherwise.
I never really considered the decision to take summer holidays in Belgium to be that out of the ordinary… until the Belgians admitted they found it strange.
It was a couple of years ago in the seaside resort of Ostend that it started to dawn on me.
“Are you just visiting for the day?” the waitress at our bar of choice on the promenade inquired with a smile.
“Actually, we’re here on holiday,” I replied.
“Really? Wow. Why?” she enquired back.
It was at that moment that I realised I couldn’t think of a reason.
Sure, Ostend was once the coastal retreat of choice for the Belgian Royal Family. It had also been the place that Marvin Gaye sought solace after a difficult few years battling his demons.
Heck, my grandmother even talked up the attraction of the place pre-visit before revealing, on our return of course, that it had been ‘on its way out’ when her and my grandfather had last visited. To give you a sense of how long ago that was, my grandfather died in 1988…!
It’s fair to say that while Ostend still holds some kind of charm – in a kind of faded glamour sort of way, akin to the English coastal town of Morecambe – it’s perhaps not the first place you’d think of for a holiday.
For us, it served a purpose – one of several stops on a mini tour of the country’s Flanders region. Admittedly two nights was a bit of a stretch – one walk down the seafront and you’ve pretty much taken in all it has to offer.
But aside from Ostend, Belgium is a country which offers up plenty of surprises and delights in equal measures.
Affordable with plenty of beer
It’s relatively cheap to get to from most areas of the UK and western/northern Europe – flights to the smaller Charleroi Brussels South can be as cheap as €50 return – and with a wealth of history, attractions, cycling-based culture and (most importantly) breweries to get through, we’ve returned again and again.
And that’s just the Dutch-speaking Flemish half of the country.
Our plan for the last few summers has always been the same: collect a car from the airport, another bargain at around €120 for the week, and follow a pre-planned and regimented tour around as many places as we can.
Of all the many towns and cities we’ve either stayed in or visited over the years, I struggle to recall any which let the side down. Ostend aside perhaps (sorry Oostenders!).
Like beer, chocolate and gothic architecture? Look no further than Bruges. Looking for a lively student-y vibe? Ghent is the place for you. Shopping for something sparkly? Try Antwerp’s Diamantkwartier, the diamond capital of Europe.
But that’s just the major cities.
History, bikes…and more beer
A trip to Ypres – a town in the heart of the First World War battlefields – serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made in the fight against fascism a century ago while nearby Kortrijk is close to the site of the Battle of the Golden Spurs, a military confrontation between the royal army of France and rebellious forces of the County of Flanders way back in the 1300s.
Cycling is a way of life in Belgium and the likes of Eddy Merckx – arguably the greatest cyclist of all time – Roger De Vlaeminck, Tom Boonen et al are revered in the same way as over-priced, over-paid Premier League footballers are in the UK.
The pretty town of Oudenaarde hosts the finale of the biggest race of the year, the Tour of Flanders, and houses a museum charting its history which is a must-visit for any fan of the sport.
If you’re inspired to emulate the stars of two wheels, bikes can be hired in most towns and cities and the region’s extensive network of traffic-light routes, many of which take in the famous cobbled climbs of the cycling calendar’s gruelling spring Classics, provide the perfect challenge for all abilities.
And after a day in the saddle, what better way to unwind than with a glass of Belgium’s most famous produce, beer.
There’s something for all tastes, from the Trappist and abbey ales brewed by monks to Flemish red ales and even the sour lambics and gueuzes, sometimes referred to as Brussels champagne!
Every town or city you visit will have a plethora of drinking options with traditional ‘brown cafes’ sitting next to more modern haunts fit for the travelling craft brew hipster.
Where to eat and where to stay
They say you should always eat where the locals eat but in Belgium the same is true of where the locals drink.
Taking the time to ask for recommendations will definitely pay dividends; I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve pointed in the direction of the nearest drinking hole only to emerge hours later slightly discombobulated after working our way through only a small selection of the often-extensive beer menu!
De Garre in Bruges is one such gem.
Tucked down a blink-and-you’ll-miss it alleyway, the bar is renowned for it’s last orders ritual of playing Ravel’s Bolero, giving patrons the 12 minutes of the song’s duration to finish up before the lights go up and the brooms come up to sweep away more than just the dust.
There’s a huge range of accommodation and most of it reasonably priced. Part of the fun we have when planning our jaunts to Belgium is seeking out quirky pads.
Highlights over the last couple of years include a stay at the St Bernardus Brewery in Watou, a pod extension on a roof in Kortrijk and an apartment in Antwerp where the main focal point was a ridiculously grand dining room (and an ultra-modern shower room on a mezzanine above the bed!).
If you must stay in a hotel then the luxurious La Butte aux Bois in Lanaken, just a 15-minute drive from Maastricht, is the perfect bolthole.
The hotel, situated at the entrance to the Hoge Kempen National Park, has a stunning two Michelin-starred restaurant, La Source, and a relaxing spa, which guests also have access to all day on departure.
Ryanair fly into Brussels South Charleroi Airport (46km south of Brussels) while Brussels Airlines fly into Brussels Zaventem (12km north of the city).
St Bernardus Brewery Guesthouse, Watou - doubles €123/night
Homey, Kortrijk - studios from €88/night
**Apartment in Antwerp via Airbnb **-from €130/night (two night stay minimum)
Domain La Butte aux Bois, Lanaken - doubles from €150/night