Before lunch, I leave the ultra-chic precincts of The Dominican, our hotel near the iconic Grand Place in Brussels, and follow my nose to the Arcadi café, fragrant with fruit tarts, chocolate and coffee. At first I think they&rsquove given me the whole raspberry pie instead of the slice I asked for, but no, it&rsquos just a typically supersized Belgian portion.
I shouldn&rsquot have my lunch degustation platter at the Belga Queen restaurant includes salmon marinated in white beer, ravioli of king crab bisque, celery and truffle and pan-fried tenderloin, capped by the best chocolate mousse dessert I&rsquove had in my life, no exaggeration. I would fall down dead of obesity and happiness except that I don&rsquot have the time we&rsquore off for a much-needed walk around town.
We pass the grand 14th-century opera house, where a subversive play set in motion the process that culminated in Belgian independence in 1830. There are many beautiful buildings in this town but no single dominating style. We wander through the golden Art Nouveau style Arcades (Les Galleries), inaugurated by King Leopold I and now a vibrant dining and upmarket shopping area, lined with cosy cafés and brasseries selling everything from Belgium&rsquos justly famous waffles and fries to fine dining, in every cuisine you can imagine.
Brussels, like all of Flanders, is stuffed with bars full of beer, many concocted by jolly Trappist monks who liked their drink. They don&rsquot do things half-heartedly either some establishments offer 1,500 kinds of beer. It&rsquos not just the beer that&rsquos old. Here and there are ruined traces of the Pentagon, a 12th- and 14th-century ring of fortified walls that surrounded the mediaeval settlement when it began at St Gery, on an island in the mesh of waterways that was then Brussels, and which is now thick with hip jazz clubs.
We visit the beautiful St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, dedicated to the patron saints of Brussels, its Gothic vaults soaring over the ruins of a Roman church. Outside, people are lounging on benches that were created in a contest to design city furniture. There&rsquos the Art Deco building known as the Bozar, an exhibition-cum-theatre-cum-concert space, most of which lies beneath street level the Art Nouveau building made of iron and glass, which is a museum of musical instruments. Crowning the hill is the 18th-century Palace, unobstructed views from which determined the height to which other buildings could aspire. The area around the Palace was rebuilt for the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, and there&rsquos a rotating sculpture called The Whirling Ear. Many buildings sport comic strips painted on their façades, of which Tintin is, of course, the most famous.
The mediaeval Grand Place is full of cafés where late summer light makes dinner at 10pm a sunset affair. If you&rsquore dying to shop, try Lombard Straat, or Hiasmarkt, on the pedestrian-only streets like the one where the city&rsquos famous mascot, the (surprisingly small) Mannekin Pis, wees endlessly into a fountain.
If you like that sort of thing, visit Mini Europe, a collection of miniature mock-ups representing the signature sights and sounds of the European Union, and press a button that topples the Berlin Wall or explodes Mt Vesuvius but if you ask me, the Atomium next door is much more interesting. This enormous silver replica of the structure of an atom was built for that famous 1958 Expo. There are lots of stairs to climb between each exhibition space, but it&rsquos worth the breathlessness.
A 45-minute drive on pristine highways brings us to Ghent, a small but fiercely proud port city made lively by immigrants and 3,000 university students. The city&rsquos symbol is a black-and-white noose, thanks to Emperor Charles V, who had the bad judgement in 1540 to humiliate its famously stroppy citizens by marching them to the prison with nooses around their necks. As a result it became necessary to build some impressive fortifications in the city to protect the authorities from the people, who to this day all wear nooses around their necks on festive occasions, just to remind everyone who&rsquos boss.
We go straight to lunch at Chez Leontine, a beautiful 18th-century house turned restaurant to sample one of the best broths I&rsquove had anywhere. Waterzooi is a rich, creamy, wine-dazzled soup chunked up with vegetables and seafood or chicken &mdash a subtly-flavoured meal unto itself, with a selection of brown or blond beers Westmelle, Augustine, Leffe or Gruut (a Ghentish brewery) in cherry, peach and apple flavours. Our guide tells us that her grandfather always encouraged his family to drink water at home out of the tap, and beer when dining out, because water is so much more expensive.
Then we hop into a low, long boat and go for a ride on the river Lys. Not only do you get a tour of beautiful old guildhouses, but also a sense of how important river networks like these were &mdash and are &mdash to the economy and infrastructure of marshy Flanders. We see a mediaeval fortress with two-metre thick walls built by a count, the Meathall with its own chapel, the poorhouse that served as social security, and a bunch of chimneys that nod to the fact that Ghent was the first industrialised town in Flanders.
Walking in the old town we see the three architectural jewels of St Nicholas&rsquos Church the Belfry, topped by a nasty-looking dragon that served as city watchman and guards the Constitution of 1180, drawn up when Ghent was a city-state and St Bavo&rsquos Cathedral, with its beautiful rococo pulpit in marble and oak, Rubens&rsquo painting, and Jan van Eyck&rsquos luminous 1432 painting of the Adoration of the Lamb. There are 55 churches in Ghent (the Protestants once threw all the Dominicans&rsquo books into the river, and it&rsquos said that that day you could walk above the water on the books) &mdash but only seven per cent of the population goes to church.
We wander into a shop called Veuve Tierenteyn-Verlant, where they make the tangiest, best mustard in large vats, from a secret recipe handed on by a French soldier in the 18th century. From a streetside vendor we try a &lsquonose&rsquo &mdash a delicious, sticky, raspberry-flavoured candy. Langemunt Straat is lined with shops the large square of the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market) is the nerve centre of leatherworkers. On Kraanlei is a red building called Hell, where, predictably, the artists hang out. Hertogstraat, with its 600-year-old paving, in the old quarter of Patershol is the restaurant centre of Ghent. Beyond, the fortress of the Castle of the Counts rises in the heart of the old city.
Don&rsquot forget to walk down Werreganrenstraatje, an alley given over to graffiti artists. Every inch is covered, often with quite beautiful art, and it changes constantly as people paint over old stuff. And then we cap it all with &mdash what else &mdash a beer and squares of cheese at Dulle Griet (Evil Woman), named after the 12,500kg cannon near the river which has never been fired and was used as a bed by drunkards before they stopped up the barrel. It&rsquos a pity it&rsquos Monday and not Thursday, because Thursday is going-out night in Ghent they&rsquore not quite sure why.
An hour&rsquos drive away is gorgeous Bruges, where the movie In Bruges was shot, and it doesn&rsquot disappoint. We arrive in a showy sunset splashed behind its great mediaeval spires, and head to dinner at a cosy restaurant called Marieke van Brugge where I sample another famous Flemish specialty Vlaamse stovery, a fantastic beef stew cooked in beer with lots of steaming spinach.
When we set off the next morning for a walk around town, the guide is careful to stress that Bruges (the 2002 Cultural Capital of Europe) isn&rsquot only about the old evidence, the blocky new red-painted concert hall which houses the Tourist Office. It&rsquos interesting, but citizens are understandably divided about it. We walk down Steen Straat, the main shopping street sprinkled with handmade lace shops and chocolatiers. (Newsflash Belgian chocolate is really all it&rsquos cracked up to be. The city&rsquos chocolate museum, Choco-Story, explains that this is because it&rsquos ground down to 15-18 microns.)
The Market Square, surrounded by stunning buildings including the 13th-century Belfry, is full of bleachers for tomorrow&rsquos Procession of the Holy Blood, which attracts 25,000 visitors. The 12th-century Chapel itself, on Burg Square, is one of the most beautiful I&rsquove ever seen, and the Basilica of which it&rsquos a part is richly painted over every inch. On the same square is the City Hall, the secretariat picked out in real gold, and the baroque Provost Hall.
Don&rsquot miss a visit to the pretty, grassy Béguinage, where nuns and women whose husbands had gone off to the Crusades found refuge and accommodation. A boat tour on the canals takes in guildhouses, churches, palaces and houses, many in the Flemish style, with stepped gables. The skyline is dominated by the Belfry, the Church of Our Lady, and St Saviour&rsquos Cathedral. It&rsquos blindingly clear why a city of 20,000 inhabitants gets 3.5 million tourists a year.
We drive an hour and a half through fields filled with buttercups and cows, to Antwerp. This city is a revelation to me. It&rsquos got the street buzz of New York, the aesthetics of Paris, and the hipness of London &mdash and the natives are way friendly. The bars stay open for as long as clients are spending money. The 16th-century is said to have been the golden age of Antwerp, when it was a hotbed of culture and innovation, but the 21st century isn&rsquot treating it too shabbily either.
Don&rsquot fail to see the Plantin-Moretus museum of printing and bookbinding, and Rubenshuis, the Italian palazzo-style dwelling where Rubens, the greatest-ever son of Antwerp, lived and thought and painted. Both are not only fascinating, but also extremely beautiful. Also peek in at the Cathedral, which was once turned into a stable by the anti-Catholic French it&rsquos filled with Rubens&rsquo work.
Gorgeous Central Station is worth walking through it&rsquos said to be only the fourth-most beautiful railway station in the world, but it&rsquos definitely the best looking I&rsquove seen. Behind the Station is Pelikaan Straat, the diamond heart of Antwerp. You have to put on your sunglasses to cut the glare. It&rsquos a largely Jewish area, but Indians do 60 percent of diamond-related business in Antwerp. It&rsquos bristling with surveillance and traffic restrictions. &ldquoForty billion dollars worth of diamonds fits in a single delivery truck,&rdquo the general manager of Diamondland tells us, &ldquoso it&rsquos a good idea to be careful. They say Brussels is the capital, but Antwerp has the capital.&rdquo In the upscale area of Zurenborg, that capital results in a collection of stunning residential properties.
Despite its commercial clout, and the fact that it&rsquos big on fashion (think the Antwerp Six, and the fact that the Madonna at St Andrew&rsquos Church was dressed by An De Meulemeester) it&rsquos also an utterly laidback city. &lsquoTerrasseren&rsquo is the big rage &mdash this is the popular pastime of lounging around your terrace or other outdoor space in minimal clothing to get some sun, drinking beer and watching the world go by (if it&rsquos freezing, they do the same but with an extra pair of socks on). I emerge from the metro into a square where an open-air Amnesty concert is raging. The band currently onstage, a local bunch called &lsquoThe Ditch&rsquo, are excellent, and I spend a happy time listening to the music, chatting with fellow concert-goers, and scarfing a chocolate waffle. It&rsquos an unbeatable aftertaste.
Getting there There are several flight options to Brussels from Delhi and Mumbai, with one stop at airports in Switzerland, Germany, Austria or France.
Where to stay You&rsquoll find a list of accommodation in various budget categories at www.brussels.info, youth hostels at www.brusselsmania.com and bed-and-breakfast guesthouses at www.bnb-brussels.be. Those looking for luxury could try The Dominican (&euro105 onwards Ph 32 02 203 0808 www.thedominican.be), while a less expensive option is the centrally located Hotel Barry (from &euro45 32 (0) 25112795 www.hotelbarry.com).
Getting around A one-day public pass costs &euro4.50, and allows you unlimited travel on buses and the subway. You can get a City Card for 24, 48 or 72 hours which offers free public transport and admission to 30 museums for &euro20, &euro28 and &euro33 respectively. You can also opt for a &euro18 pass that admits you to various attractions and museums with 10 vouchers (32 02 513 8940 www.brusselsinternational.be).
Things to do A trip to Brussels without a visit to The Grand Place, or the central market square, is incomplete. Another chief attraction is Mini Europe, the only park that allows you to see Europe&rsquos most famous sites all at once. Other must-visits include the Royal Museum of Fine Art and the Belgian Centre for Comic-Strip Art. The city is always hopping and has a full calendar. Among the highlights of the year are, in August, the Summer Festival &mdash free or low admittance to over 150 concerts, plays, and street entertainment (www.brusselssummerfestival.com). In October, there&rsquos the three-day BRXLBRAVO arts festival and an Art Nouveau Biennial.
Where to eat For a taste of fine Belgian cuisine, the upscale Belga Queen merits a visit (32 2 217 2187 www.belgaqueen.be). Don&rsquot forget to visit the bathroom &mdash it&rsquos a very cool design. If you&rsquore feeling homesick, La Porte des Indes (32 2 647 8651) with its fine-dining Indian cuisine, is the perfect antidote.
Where to stay Enjoy understated elegance at the four-star Ghent-River-Hotel (from &euro155 32 9 266 1010 www.ghent-river-hotel.be) or the Boutique Hotel Carlton (from &euro122 32 9 222 4992 www.carltongent.be). The centrally located Flandria-Centrum is easier on the wallet and offers clean, comfortable accommodation. (&euro54 Ph 32 9 223 0626 www.flandria-centrum.be)
Things to do There are 13 main museums in Ghent &mdash of fine art, contemporary art, nature, design, industrial archaeology and textile, psychiatry, weapons etc, in addition to other smaller ones. You can get a museum pass for &euro20 valid for three days. Contact the Tourist Office (near the Belfry) for details (www.visitghent.be). Also, don&rsquot miss the flower market at Kouter, open 7am to 1pm
Where to eat Enjoy excellent French/Belgian food at &lsquot Buikske Vol (09/225-18-80), and equally good seafood/Flemish cuisine at Jan Breydel (09/225-62-87).
Where to eat Vegetarians will love Salade Folle for its enormous vegetarian dishes with set and a la carte menus, while seafood lovers shouldn&rsquot miss Marieke van Brugge (32 50 34 33 66 www.mvb.be). For chocolate connoisseurs, trips to The Chocolate Line (32 50 34 1090 www.thechocolateline.be) and Choco-Story/The Chocolate Museum (32 50 61 22 37 www.choco-story.be) are essential. At the latter, look in at the demonstration centre for a taste.
Things to do The Markt, the main market square at Bruges, is the heart of the city, around which lie most of the tourist attractions. Among the many museums, the Groeninge Museum, is possibly the most prominent. At this museum of fine arts, you&rsquoll find an extensive collection of paintings from the 15th-20th centuries. Other sites worth seeing are the ancient Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is said to hold a relic of Christ, and the historic Belfry, a landmark, whose bell chimes every 15 minutes and can be heard through the city.
Where to stay There are any number of excellent, comfortable hotels in all price ranges from five star to bed-and-breakfasts to hostels. Located in the heart of town, the stylish Hotel &lsquot Sandt is within easy walking distance of historic/cultural sites and trendy restaurants and bars (from &euro150 32 3 232 9390 www.hotel-sandt.be). Rubenshof, once home to the Belgian cardinal, is now an intimate boutique hotel with tasteful, ornate interiors (from &euro40 03/237-07-89 www.rubenshof.be).
Where to eat For Michelin-starred fine-dining French cuisine head to Dome Restaurant (32 3 239 9003), while Dome-sur-Mer (32 3 281 7433 www.domeweb.be) offers more casual, but excellent, French seafood. Gran Duca (32 3 202 6887) comes recommended for great Italian food, while Flamant Dining (32 3 227 7441 www.flamant.com) is the place for some excellent creative cuisine. For Indian food, there&rsquos little to beat Saffraan (32 (0) 3 237 66 56).
Things to do Among the museums, the Plantin-Moretus museum (32 3 221 1450 www.museumplantinmoretus.be) and Rubenshuis (The Rubens House) are definitely worth checking out (32-3 201 1555 www.rubenshuis.be). Main shopping is on Meir look in at Stadsfeestzaal, an ancient, beautifully-restored mall.
The Tintin Museum
The intrepid reporter with the ginger cowlick and the little white dog is one of Belgium&rsquos most famous exports. If you&rsquore a fan of Tintin, or have never heard of him despite the fact that he&rsquos sold 230 million books around the world and been translated into 80 languages, make sure you visit the town of Louvain-la-Neuve, 30km south of Brussels. This is where the &euro17m Tintin Museum is. The building, imaginatively designed by French architect Charles Portzamparc, is dedicated to Hergé (real name George Remi), the creator of the comic strip which first appeared 80 years ago. Hergé&rsquos wife Fanny conceived of the museum after his death in 1983. It&rsquos intended as a tribute not just to Tintin, but to the genius of his creator, featuring Hergé&rsquos original sketches, creative methodology, and other non-Tintin work.