With a moving World War One heritage and a culture spanning Rubens to Tintin, and of course, chocolate, Belgium is a diverse and cosmopolitan location with lots to offer group visitors - and with warm summers and mild winters, it’s an excellent all year-round destination.
BRUSSELS Brussels has many attractions to visit, including the Musée d’Art Ancient et Moderne and the Musée des Instruments de Musique, Musée Horta for Art Nouveau and Autoworld - a museum for vintage car lovers where groups can book themed guided tours. Another transport related museum, situated just outside Brussels, is Train World at Schaarbeek, which contains unusual displays of clocks, letters and containers, as well as trains and train history.
Educational and group visits can be tailored to specific interests, as well as the provision of general guided tours. www.brusselsmuseums.be www.trainworld.be At the Parlamentarium Visitor Centre in the centre of Brussels, groups can explore the work of the European Parliament. School groups can undertake a role-play game allowing participants to experience a day in the life of a Member of the European Parliament. Booking in advance is essential. Entry and activities at the Armamentarium are free. www.europarl.europa.eu/visiting/en/ visits/parlamentarium Groups interested in brewing and distilling will find a visit to the Cantillon Brewery with its Brussels Museum de la Geuze irresistible.
This is a traditional lambic brewery (lambic beer is brewed with local airborne yeast) using methods that have remained unchanged for more than a hundred years. Group guided tours can be provided on request. www.cantillon.be Brussels is well known for its extensive selection of antique shops and markets. The weekend antique market in the Place du Grand Sablon has been described as one of the best in Europe, while the Sunday Marché aux Puces (flea market) at the Place du Jeu de Balle offers an eclectic mix of vintage, retro and furniture. www.marcheauxpuces.be Spring 2017 sees the start of the new annual Brussels Art Nouveau & Art Deco Festival, which will be unique in Europe. Held in March, it will replace the former Biennial Art Nouveau and Art Deco Event. The Festival’s programme will be extended to include concerts, films, exhibitions and cultural events, together with interior guided tours of buildings not usually open to the public including schools, private houses and office buildings. www.voiretdirebruxelles.be/en/ events/banad-festival.
For the craft lovers among the group, a visit to Bruge’s Lace Centre (Kantcentrum) is a must. The story of Bruges lace is told in the lace museum on the ground floor and there are daily live demonstrations of the intricate bobbin lace to watch - also interactive displays which show just how fascinating lacemaking is. https://bezoekers.brugge.be/en/ kantcentrum-lace-centre ANTWERP Within Antwerp, the Rubenshuis is a major attraction. This house is where the brilliant painter Rubens lived with his family, and where he created many of his greatest paintings. There are now fascinating displays showing how he lived and worked, as well as containing many of his works of art. Special activities for groups include a city walk in which three great painters - Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens - guide you round the Baroque architectural highlights of the city, as well as a guided tour of the museum.www.rubenshuis.be/en
Other key attractions in Antwerp are Het Steen, the oldest building in the city, which has in turn been a fortress, sawmill, fish warehouse and prison; and the fascinating Antwerp Port Tours by coach. The guided tours take groups around the Scheldt quays, fruit wharf, church ship, Berendrecht Lock and the new Kieldrecht Lock, which is the largest lock in the world. Visitors may be able to glimpse artwork by the graffiti artist Cazn who spent ten weeks working on a 300-metre long mural - but much depends on the tide as it’s regularly submerged.
The Red Star Line Museum tells the story of 19th century emigrants to North America, providing groups with special walking tours around the city, and the Eugeen Van Mieghem Museum, devoted to the Belgian artist. www. antwerpporttours.com www.redstarline.be
Just 12 miles outside Brussels is the village of Waterloo, the scene of Wellington’s famous victory over Napoleon in 1815. Visitors can climb the Lion Mound overlooking the battlefield, and explore the Wellington Museum based in the building that was the Duke’s headquarters. There is a visitor centre outlining the course of the battle, while next door is the circular Panorama housing a huge wall painting which gives the impression you’re standing in the middle of the battle. Battlefield tours are available, as well as visits to Napoleon’s HQ at the Ferme du Caillou.
Re-enactments of the battle take place every five years, with the next due in 2020. Tour leaders and coach drivers have free access. www.waterloo1815.be Groups wanting to explore several locations may find cruising is the ideal answer. CrosiEurope operates WWI commemorative cruises visiting battlefields and war memorials, including In Flanders Fields Museum, Passchendaele, Diksmuide and the Trench of Death, together with cultural experiences at Bruges and Kortrijk. LeBoat provides self-drive cruises for small groups of up to six people wanting to explore areas such as Nieuwpoort, Bruges, Ghent and Deinze. www.croisieurope.co.uk www.leboat.co.uk Better known as Ypres, the town of Ieper is inextricably linked with the First World War. During the battles for Ypres, the town was virtually demolished. When peace came, it was decided to rebuild the town just as it had been for hundreds of years.
Among the historical gems are the beautiful market square, the Guild Houses, the wooden house and the ramparts. A cat festival and parade is held in Ieper every three years - the next due in May 2017. www.toerismeieper.be The In Flanders Fields Museum enables visitors to begin to appreciate the terrible death toll of the First World War, and the battles that were fought here. Close by are vivid reminders in the shape of the Yorkshire Trench & Dugout, the War Graves cemeteries and the Menin Gate where every evening the poignant moving sound of the Last Post is sounded at 8pm precisely. www.inflandersfields.be/en GREAT SNAKES – IT’S TINTIN! Since the 1930s Belgium has been a centre for the creation of comic art and books. By far the most well known of these artists is cartoonist Hergé, creator of Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy. At Louvain-la-Neuve, near Brussels there is a museum dedicated to his work, while in Brussels there is the Centre Belge de la Bande Desiné focusing on Belgian comics and comic art, in print format as well as animation. The Centre can arrange guided tours exploring different facets of comic art, as well as special walking tours such as a two hour walking tour exploring the work of Hergé and Tintin in Brussels, visiting places mentioned in the stories or those which were important to Hergé. www.museeherge.com www.cbbd.be ■
Other key festivals include the Iris Festival Brussels involving music, art, drama and street food, and the Grand Marché aux Fleurs in Tournai which is the largest flower market in Belgium. The prestigious Salon du Chocolat exhibition, involving 60 companies, returns to Brussels on February 10-12. www.irisfestival.brussels/iris-festival www.salon-du-chocolat.com BRUGES With 80 bridges and numerous canals, Bruges is often described as the ‘Venice of the North’.
This is a beautifully picturesque town that has retained much of its original medieval architecture as well as the city fortifications. It attracts thousands of visitors every year drawn by its pretty buildings, canal tours and horse-drawn carriage rides. Among the most popular buildings are the Beginhof and the Belfry which offer spectacular views across the city. Art lovers are drawn to the Groeninge Museum and the Memling Museum containing large displays of Flemish art from the 15th century onwards. www.visitbruges.be (select EN) Equally popular is Choco Story outlining the history of chocolate - a speciality of Belgium. Groups can book hands-on workshops to make pralines and truffles, as well as special team building or educational workshops.