It was a return journey to an old favourite destination — Flanders — but with a new perspective.
I’ve been before to Bruges, Ghent and several times to Antwerp.
But I had never visited the WWI heritage sites of Flanders Fields, nor previously witnessed the moving Last Post ceremony [pictured above] at the Menin Gate in Ypres.
It was also my first river cruise assignment after several previous ocean-cruising commissions.
The story is for Telegraph Cruise and will appear in the spring of 2017, timed with the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele.
But here’s a preview:
What struck me most about the surrounding countryside was the dramatic juxtaposition of historical sites and regular suburban houses, where people lived everyday lives untouched by war. Amongst the shrines, monuments and memorials, I sometimes spotted little commemorative crosses, marked with red poppies. One read simply: “Harry. In Loving memory.”
In the Day-Glo Kid’s World soft play area, there’s a Flemish version of Black Lace’s Superman bouncing off the speakers on a Sunday morning.
The parents watching their somersaulting offspring are, I can’t help but notice, failing to keep up with the actions.
The previous evening I’d watched a man, the wrong side of 50 and dressed as a pirate, leading the kids through a rousing repertoire of Europop nursery rhymes. He topped the bravura performance with a balloon-modelling masterclass.
I never imagined myself here when – before fatherhood – I was trekking to Machu Picchu at dawn, or diving in the Red Sea. But, right now, a summer escape to family holiday resort Sunparks, located just outside De Haan on the Flanders coast, made perfect sense.
Why? My two daughters, Maya (eight) and Olivia (four) [pictured above] had smiles smeared across the faces for the whole weekend.
Sunparks is Flanders’ take on Center Parcs and, for Brits within easy access of Channel ports, offers a good-value alternative to the former’s newly opened Woburn Forest site.
The self-contained village, based around a central plaza, is geared towards primary-school-age children with a slew of playgrounds and activities, such as mini golf and bowling.
Our accommodation, a comfy if simple four-bed chalet with its own kitchen and private patio, looked a little tired but smarter lakeside chalets are also available at a premium.
Some families hire bikes on site and head off to explore the sandy beaches around the nearby resort town of Belle Époque De Han, others drive out to attractions along the 42-mile shoreline, such as the Explorado family science museum in Ostend, or Blankenberge’s Sea Life aquarium.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could be shopping in Bruges in under an hour.
But my girls were happy to stay on site, running the gauntlet of the wave machine and the waterslides in the Aquafun swimming centre each afternoon.
Each evening, rather than self catering, we bought tickets for the buffet and refueled on salads, steaks and apple pie, plus a selection of kids’ meals. A selection of local wheat beers kept dad in holiday mode.
Back at Kid’s World, Olivia had mobilised the toddlers to topple a Berlin Wall of play blocks, my tearaway toddler leading the French, Flemish and Dutch under-fives to forge a playgroup United Nations around soft-play furnishings.
While Euroscepticism rages in Brussels, the Superman-jiving toddlers of seaside Sunparks were finding a new family Entente Cordiale.
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It’s a wintry night in Antwerp as I arrive off a late flight with a growling stomach.
Wandering the cobblestone streets of the old town in search of a snack, my eye is drawn to the Art Deco-style sign for Frituur No 1 [pictured above], a small fast-food restaurant just off one of the main squares, Grote Markt.
The aesthetics may be simple and the cutlery plastic, but my first taste of genuine Belgian fries comes as a revelation.
A glorious juxtaposition of crispy exterior and a buttery-soft inside, the fried potato strips are hearty, comforting and deliciously tangy, served with a dizzying array of dipping sauces. I am instantly hooked.
While the British may be savouring a fish-and-chip supper to mark the forthcoming National Chip Week in the UK, the Belgians celebrate their fries, or ‘frieten’ in Flemish, the entire year round.
The Dutch-speaking Flanders region of northern Belgium is home to the very finest frituur, a simple, informal eatery and a Belgian institution, where master friars prepare superior fries and serve them in a paper cone.
The best fries are prepared from Belgian Bintje potatoes, cut to a length of 11mm and fried twice for extra crispiness.
Antwerp alone boasts over 200 frituurs and they are seen as a place where people from walks of life can come together amongst Formica tables and plastic sauce dispensers to chew the fat.
Every town in Belgium has a frituur and many Belgians will still eat a take-away supper from the frituur at least once a week, with Thursday night and Sunday lunchtimes the most popular times to visit.
Belgium may be divided along linguistic and political divides, but all people are equal when it comes to standing in line at their local frituur.
Paul Ilegems, an art historian, who has devoted 25 years of his life to collecting images of the fried potato throughout history, explains:
“As a country with no obvious symbols of nationalism, the humble and improvised frituur is our only symbol. It reflects the ad-hoc nature of the Belgian personality, our indifference to aesthetics.”
We meet in his dark Antwerp study, where old paintings are stacked against the wall and a selection of dusty books scattered across the coffee table.
“There were already street kiosks selling fries as food for the poor when Belgium was founded in 1820. But all the kiosks (frietkot) have since been replaced by small cafes (frituur),” he explains, handing me copies of his books to browse, amongst them Frietgeheimen (Secrets of the Fries) and Het Volkomen Frietboek (The Complete Fries Book).
He adds: “Fries are originally Belgian with the term ‘French fries’ a corruption of the word.”
“The American slang term ‘to French’, meaning to cut into thin strips, was only brought to Europe by American troops after World War I.”
To learn the secret of cooking the perfect Belgian fries, I head for De Twee Vuistjes (The Two Fists), a name whispered in reverential, hushed tones amongst Antwerp’s chip-eating cognoscenti.
Here, against the garish backdrop of posters advertising such exotic delights as the berepoot, a meat kebab, vlampijpen, a spicy beef sausage resembling a small dumb bell and bitterballen, meat-filled fried balls, Kosovo-born Uka Gashi is busy heating the oil for the first batch of chips of the day.
The frying process hinges, he insists, on the fact that the fries are cooked twice, the first time for eight minutes at 130 degrees C, then for four minutes at 160 degrees C. He says:
“When the fries are singing, that is when the oil is sizzling, the fries are ready.”
After a second dip in the hot oil, Uka sets me loose on the fries for the final, crucial stage: tossing.
Under his watchful eye, I flip the fries in a stainless-steel cullender to drain off the excess fat and leave a perfect batch of crispy fries ready to be devoured.
They are accompanied by a meaty snack and dipped into one of 15 available sauces, ranging from mayonnaise to tartar via a selection of Belgian pickles.
After a snack lunch of fries and bitterballen with Uka, my tour of Antwerp’s frites-frying hotspots continues with a visit to Frietkot Max on Groenplaats.
It’s the oldest frituur in town, dating from 1842.
Here the tiny, upstairs dining room is devoted to artworks celebrating the history of fries with the current exhibition featuring a cheeky update of Antwerp-born Rubens’ 1597 painting of Adam and Eve.
The modern-day take on the Baroque painting features Adam seeking to tempt Eve with a cone-shaped bag of chips.
The last stop is Hauta Frituur on in the fashionable Het Zuid district. A new breed of frituur, this eatery aims for a higher-end clientele with Arne Jacobsen-style chairs, funky plastic tables and modernist artworks on the walls.
“We have a culture of uniformity with globalisation sweeping across Europe, hence I love the frituur for its aesthetics and its sense of individual freedom,” says Paul Ilegems, as we sit with cones of piping-hot fries in a neighbourhood frituur, watching the world go by.
“But then, I guess,” he smiles, “I’m just a fries-loving free thinker.”
* My Rubens story was published at the weekend but took an edit to get into print, so here’s my full version of the feature.
The art world owes Rubens a debt.
The Flemish grand master not only bequeathed us his famously fleshy nudes but also a masterclass in colour, vibrancy and work ethic.
He also inspired future generations of artists from Van Gogh to Klimt as a new exhibition opening this weekend demonstrates.
“Rubens is about sensuality and colour,” says Nico Van Hout of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
“Without him, British art would not have the landscapes of Gainsborough or Constable.”
Peter Paul Rubens was born in Germany but moved to Antwerp as a child in 1589. Today, the Flanders capital of style, art and fashion boats more tangible traces of Rubens than any other European city.
From intricate alter pieces in drafty churches to the lavish carvings and statues at the house where he lived at the height of his creative powers, Antwerp is a living-canvas showcase for Rubens’ impact on European art.
A new self-guided walking tour of the elegant, medieval town centre reveals the locations that inspired and influenced his work.
Tracing a day-long route around 14 locations, some tucked away in cobblestone squares, others hidden behind majestic facades, it enables visitors to follow in his footsteps, discover his work and feel his presence.
I set out from under the shadow of the bonze statue of Rubens, towering weather worn but proud in a fetching doublet and hose, over the bustling cafes and winter-warmer eateries of central square Groenplaats.
I was heading for the Rockox House, the stately townhouse where Nicolaas Rockox, one of Rubens’ wealthy patrons, lived in the 17th century with his wife.
The house, all creaking floorboards, low ceilings and built around an oasis-of-calm courtyard, is currently home to the Golden Cabinet, a pop-up exhibition featuring Rubens’ The Prodigal Son among other classical works.
The artworks, heavy with religious images, complement the dark interior to reflect the strict moral codes of the times.
Weaving through the cobbled backstreets, I skirted the designer boutiques and café terraces along the majestic main shopping thoroughfare, Meir.
Beyond is the Rubens House, which hosts a new exhibition, Rubens in Private, to showcase Rubens’ lesser-known and intimate family portraits. It opens on March 28.
Rubens bought the property in 1610 and redesigned it as a vision of his own artistic ideals, blending Roman Antiquity with the folly of the Italian Renaissance.
The house reflected the artists’ high status in Antwerp society and his grand gestures, such as the statue gallery, triumphal arch and manicured garden pavilion, remain to this day.
Most evocative of all, however, is the bustling, wood-panelled workshop, where he created his masterpieces while visitors sought a brief audience with the grand master as he worked from the gallery overhead.
Two of his best-known works, Adam and Eve and The Annunciation, today find their own audience with a constant stream of devotees.
By contrast, the Museum Plantin-Moretus, included on the World Heritage List by Unesco in 2005 for its cultural heritage, is a less grandiose affair but nonetheless crucial to the Rubens story.
The home of the Plantin and Moretus families also housed the world’s oldest printing presses and publishing house.
The philosophical and theological tomes attracted the intelligentsia of European society in the 17th century and Rubens designed the title pages for many of the most popular works, which were distributed across the Catholic world.
Today the historic printing presses still appear ready to roll despite the advances of time in a gloomy, dark wood studio, while a copy of Rubens’ painting, The Four Philosophers, remains on display, the artists painting himself into the scene alongside the Moretus brothers.
In between visiting the locations, I took regular detours off the trail to explore interesting boutiques or galleries that caught my eye.
In the Latin Quarter, the area around the Rubens House, for example, Graanmarkt 13 combines a funky upstairs fashion and home goods store with a chic downstairs restaurant by local chief Seppe Nobels.
Cool boutiques by local designers line the sidestreets heading west towards the River Scheldt while Het Modepaleis [pictured above], the flagship store of Antwerp Six designer Dries van Noten, remains the shrine for local fashionistas with its Art Nouveau gold façade and sales assistant gliding around the shopfloor in designer garb.
For a coffee stop between museums, Gunter Watté is an artisan chocolate shop with a little cafe tucked away at the back. I sat back on the black-velour chairs for a sweet-toothed sanctuary on a wintery day while the immaculately coiffeured owner prepared delicate chocolate creations at the counter.
But the final stop on the tour brought me face to face to Rubens at his most visceral.
In early 16th century he was commissioned to design a series of triptychs for the Cathedral of Our Lady, which stands at the heart of the medieval city.
These lurid, colour-saturated works are still to be found within the hushed-reverence walls of the stained-glass interior to this day and include The Descent from the Cross.
The image, depicting the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion of Christ, perfectly captures Rubens’ skill as an artist to represent the anguish in Mary’s face and the rippling muscles of the guards holding Jesus’ lifeless body.
For devotees of his art across the generations, it’s the Holy Grail of Rubens’ artworks.
I stood and marveled at the brushstrokes, the emotion contained within, to finish the tour with a moment of silent communion.
Today Antwerp may be better known for its cutting-edge culture, rather than classical art, but the tentacles of Rubens’ influence are ever present and his legacy is boldly daubed across the cityscape.
Rubens died at home in Antwerp in 1640 and is buried in St James’ Church but, on the stylish streets of Antwerp, his spirit lives on.
Great Rail Journeys Independent offers packages, including return rail travel from London St Pancras to Antwerp, via Brussels, and two nights at the Hotel Julien with breakfast from £499pp, based on two people sharing.