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DISTINCT DESTINATION

Nothing French about the fries

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CREAMY LAYER: Sitting by the riverside while munching on French fries dipped in mayonnaise is a must-do in Bruges

With its art and diamonds, canals and castles, Flanders is a romantic destination but it is also a foodie paradise. Feast on everything from handcrafted pralines and beer to the best 'moules frites' in the world.

The rain is never a distant prospect in Flanders, that charming Dutch-speaking area of Belgium known as much for its castles and bridges as for chocolates, beer and, well, Tintin and Audrey Hepburn. But today is a bright, temperate day;the kind of summer morning everyone looks forward to so that they can get away to the sea. In the train that I take from Brussels to Bruges, a quaint medieval town, crisscrossed by canals and routinely rated as almost as romantic a getaway as Paris or Venice, everyone seems headed out to the shore. Our coupe has the makings of a comfortable ladies' compartment;the camaraderie reminiscent of what you'd find, off peak hours at least, in a Mumbai local or the Delhi metro. Amy, a young American girl who has shifted continents because of her Belgian boyfriend and works as a nanny here, is chattering on, filling me in on the mustdos in this part of the world. "Bruges is so scenic, " she tells me, "and all the buildings so much like a historical film that American tourists think this is like a Disney park. They want to know when the city closes for the night!" We laugh at the foibles of travelers before Amy offers me some more prophetic words, "But Ghent, you'll really love, " she says of the student-town, "... also because it has the best French fries in the world. "

Armed with these nuggets, I get off at Bruges and immediately realise why American tourists mistake this for a period movie set. Everything is so obviously heritage - not just the churches (the city's arty treasure includes Michelangelo's marble 'Madonna And Child' in the Church of Our Lady, the only one of the master's works to leave Italy in his lifetime), the touristy Markt with its shops and cafes, and the bridges reminiscent of Venice. Even the breweries, hotels and homes have facades dating as far back as the 16th century.

Bruges, like other Flemish towns, was a powerful centre for trade in the medieval times;its wealth built on the cloth spun from English wool and, of course, lace. The term "bourse", as we still call the stock market today, originated here. But today, the preferred commodity is different. This is very much a chocolate town and you could spend an entire afternoon on a cocoa high, hopping from one choco atelier to the next, sampling different pralines - that is if you manage to abstain from waffles, topped with cream, strawberry and, what else, chocolate!

For a small town, it has an astounding 50-plus chocolate shops (plus a chocolate museum) dotting the city. Most of the boutiques still handcraft their pralines (that bite-sized chocolate with a surprise filling in the centre that Belgium is famous for) and the choice of fillings can be truly startling. At the much-recommended boutique 'The Chocolate Line' there are gourmet chocolates filled with everything from bacon to oyster juice and even curry powder and saffron;the last one is a tribute to Bollywood. India's soft power is clearly on the rise.

Dominique Persoone, owner and chocolatier-chef here, is the current chocolate deity in this world of luxury super-smooth cocoa. With a chocolate bar (and his wife's name) tattooed on a forearm, Persoone goes about creating surprising flavours that often dot the tables at Michelin Star restaurants. He is at the forefront of a new wave in Belgian chocolate, where experimentation with unique flavours and ingredients is prized: You can even try yuzu chocolate (with tart Japanese citrus flavours) and more. But what still abides is the practice of making chocolate with pure cocoa butter (not vegetable fat) that accounts for the distinct taste.

Secretly though I am much more of a fried-savoury foodie than a choco-fanatic. So, as we drive to Ghent, past green fields topped with clear azure skies, I gleefully looking forward to the next treat. Pommes frites (potato fries) is very much a Belgian tradition: Nothing French about these, and no, you don't eat them with mustard and ketchup either like the Americans do. The real way to enjoy the best French fries in the world is to dip each bite in creamy mayonnaise. You can eat these as a snack with or without beer, as a side with your Flemish meal (the classic dish is Gentse Waterzooi, a creamy chicken and vegetable stew), or even as you go wandering about in this pedestrian-friendly city. We have a casual lunch at Groot Vleeshuis at Groentenmarkt, a vast 15th century butcher's hall, that now houses a deli and a dining hall and retire sated.

Ghent was one of Europe's biggest cities, bigger than London, back in the 14th century. Once again, trading in textiles and a port contributed to its rise. The old architecture and the city's medieval core surrounded by the river Leie bears testimony to those days. But the museums, churches and houses (an independent community of single women resided in some of these, away from the diktats of men), paintings by Flemish masters aside, today, this is an energetic student town with enough cafes and bars to keep you entertained. Patershol in the north of the town has many of Ghent's best restaurants; to the south is the Kunstenkwartier, the cultural and student quarter near the university. And you can spend an eventful evening just sitting by the waterside, watching the world go by and, yes, nibbling on the fries.

Antwerp, just under an hour by car from Ghent, is by far the flashiest of the Flemish towns. And not just because of the diamonds. This one is a bustling city;a big cruise liner has docked just as we check into our hotel and everyone is out shopping, it seems. We, however, decide to head out to the diamond district in the city centre, and promptly run into more Indians than we have seen so far in this part of Europe.

The Gujarati-Jain community is well-entrenched in the business here, controlling more than 70 per cent of the business in a city that sees almost 8 out of 10 rough diamonds the world over change hands. The power has clearly shifted from the Orthodox jews who traditionally ruled the trade to the savvy desis. Yet, long frock coats and black hats of our imaginations come alive here. The Jewish community, survivors not just of the holocaust but much earlier persecution, still thrives here, having first started settling in Antwerp freely around the time of the French revolution. Many of their rituals and customs remain intact despite the growing cosmopolitanism of younger generations.

You can go diamond shopping if you have the appetite. But the best way to experience a bit of this vanishing culture is to stop by at a Jewish bakery or perhaps a kosher restaurant. Challah bread, bagels, honey cakes, jelly-filled doughnuts - you can pick your temptation. I stop at one of the family-run bakeries where a tiny baby sits in a pram patiently as its mother packs our pastry and a slice of cheesecake that is denser and sweeter than what we are used to. It reminds me of the khoya "milk cake" we have at home. Perhaps food, like culture and travel, links the world in more ways than we know.

AT A GLANCE


HOW TO GET THERE |
Flanders is the Dutchspeaking area of Belgium with its distinct culture and with a history of independent strong civic towns. The big three destinations here are Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. You can take a train to any of these from Brussels - Bruges is just an hour away - or drive down and then hop around other towns.

Food |

Chocolate, crafted beer, waffles, French fries, Flemish delicacies that could range from delicately steamed white asparagus with butter in summer to fish such as trout and chicken stew, make this a foodie haven. In Antwerp, do not miss the Jewish bakeries.

Do |

Walk around the medieval towns, sit by the waterways, take a boat ride or visit museums to see everything from chocolate and beer-making to old printing press and masterpieces by Flemish artists. Shop for diamonds in Antwerp, lace, clothes, also tulips.

Stay |

A wide range of accommodation options, including budget, business and leisure chains is available. But there are charming and historic boutique hotels too.

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