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Rail travel is often associated with the hateful commuter necessity that we experience daily or the iconic luxury experiences that we only read about; but is there anything in between? Those were my thoughts as I boarded the Eurostar for a nine day trip that would weave me across Benelux – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – for a Benelux culinary journey.
My Benelux Culinary Tour
The Eurostar from London took me into Brussels but my first stop was in fact Luxembourg, which was reachable via a direct train that went into the heart of the city. I was curious about the sparkling wines of Luxembourg having tried a refreshing glass or two back in the UK. The rows of vines were easy to spot at the foot of the old city’s fortress walls but it seemed that most of the real wine regions were outside of the realms of the city walls.
Instead, I discovered the city’s knack for pastry. Oberweis , I was told, was one of the best. At the café above its tiny shop, which stocked rows upon rows of art-worthy cakes and patisserie, I had one of the best hot chocolates in the world.
My next stop was the city of Antwerp, whose breathtaking station will wow the most seasoned of travellers. Better known for its diamonds, the city also boasts a thriving culinary scene. It was in Antwerp that I discovered the Flemish Foodies, which shaped the rest of my journey. But more on that later.
First and foremost, it was time for beer. At Grand Café de Rooden Hoed, I sat down to a cheese and beer matching session led by Duvel’s beer sommelier. Perhaps unusually, Belgium is one of the few places in the world where cheeses are actually produced to match the beer, rather than the other way round.
It’s also worth stopping in one of the city’s many pubs for a pint of Seef beer – a distinctive brew created in the historic Antwerpen-style that will take you into the past at first sip.
All too soon, it was on to The Hague. Den Haag; what a great name. I still find myself saying it at odd moments. Odd was the operative word as the city was full of quirky eccentricities. Cycling was very popular and it seems to be the most important mode of transport in the oldest parts of the city; perhaps even more than walking! It also happens to be the perfect way to get to Scheveningen for a seaside picnic.
Within the city itself, Van Kleef is not to be missed. This museum is the oldest distillery in Den Haag, where you can try endless flavours of jenever, the predecessor to gin.
From The Hague I headed back to Flanders for the port city of Ghent. I should have gone to Ghent straight from Antwerp but the train journey wasn’t too hazardous and took just over two hours.
Ghent was once one of the most powerful cities in Europe. These days it’s home to three Flemish Foodies, a group of avant garde chefs from Flanders who are pushing boundaries with their food. It’s not necessarily that they’re Michelin-starred, and often they’re far from the traditional Michelin mould, but that they are taking traditional Flemish fare and turning it into a gastronomic experience. And I in turn, dined out heavily on their refined fare.
With three days to spare in Ghent, I took the opportunity to visit nearby Bruges. It’s well worth it since the journey is a mere 30 minutes via train and costs less than €10. In comparison to Ghent, Bruges was all about the traditional. Two of Belgium’s three Michelin-starred restaurants were based there. My lunch spot, De Vlaamsche Pot, was just the sort of place where you’d expect to find those hearty Flemish stews – made with beer of course. The attractions are equally food-centric. Aside from the chocolate museum, don’t miss the Frietmuseum, where you can learn all about those Belgian fries; be sure to try some too.
Nine days later and more than a little well-fed, I got back on the Eurostar at Brussels. Benelux’s culinary landscape has been seriously impressive and hopping between the different countries was as easy as journeying between different cities.