Belgium is a fascinating country with loads of adventures to offer. Hence I decided to explore it close and personal – by bike. This way, I find, I have more time to know the country, its people and all those unique things that can push us to travel and discover.
Belgian countryside is full of exciting discoveries. Like for example, this bike road going straight through the lake – it was quite an unusual feeling when we drove through it.
Considering that farming is still a very big activity outside the cities, it was nice to get close and personal to the views, smells and interactions with the animals.
Beer making is a craft, and are around five hundred beer names here; hence it is not surprising to come across beer breweries too. And how lucky that one of them was of the famous Delirium, mostly recognised for its pink elephant.
The brewery had a fascinating fountain in front of it – a guy (partially sculptured) thirstily drinking water from the elephant's trunk.
If you can only drink as much beer, then I would suggest focusing on Trappist beers. There are six Trappist breweries in Belgium run by actual monks, who perfected their own unique recipes over centuries. I added a picture of Orval brewery – which can be visited, if you like ancient buildings with tasty history.
As part of my journey in discovering European makers, I spent a fair amount of time researching what consumer products are still made in Belgium. Despite its widely shared rustic image (above is an example), it's a an advanced country with huge industrial complexes in petrochemicals, medicine, food and even metals. But let's discover what is closer to our homes – things we, as consumers, can buy and use.
DC Carpets is a reminder of the days when Belgium was the main maker and supplier of carpets globally. Today only a few factories remain, mainly working for the European markets.
I found it fascinating that they had a vast range of carpets from Eastern European patterns, through contemporary designs, all the way to impressive vintage and Persian themes – all made in Belgium.
Four brothers started this company in 1963, and it is still a family-run business today. Its owner and SEO Koen showed us around and warmed us up with coffee after we arrived by bike on a rainy day.
It is here that I learned about the new trend in the industry – there is a new and growing demand for outdoor carpets. Now being stuck in the garden, can also mean enjoying a trendy carpet on your terrace.
Decca sportswear started off as a family atelier in 1930 and shifted its focus to cycling apparel in the 1970s. Since then, it has become a well-known cycle wear maker known for its handmade quality and supplying various European cycling teams. Several cyclists who won Tour de Flanders wore Decca gear too.
Today the company is a relatively small player globally but provides high-level personal service and tools in Europe. For example, amateur cycling teams get their personalised page where they can order their apparel individually.
When I visited their workshop in Gavere, they also introduced me to the team and showed impressive jerseys they designed for the previous corporate partnerships and customisation projects.
Gent is an exciting city with charming canals and traditional architecture. It is a vibrant city with its large student population, and you can feel it in the evenings along the various canals. The old town is, of course, a favourite meeting place for socialising and shopping.
There is a huge cycling culture which is very prominent with wide dedicated cycling lanes, cyclists and an impressive number of bicycles parked by the central station.
I reached out to Jaegher Bikes before coming to town, and they invited me over to see their shop and an assembly workshop. And I was glad to find a contemporary bike shop with a coffee section and outdoor seating.
In the same place, they also assemble the bikes in plain view of everyone. Jaeger makes frames according to the customer size and riding style. It takes around two days for an experienced welder to make one custom bike frame. And they are really impressive – made out of light and surprisingly thin stainless steel, featuring internal cabling routing and elegant welding joints.
I like that these guys build the bike for you instead of matching the bike in stock to what you might want. Also, it is a different shopping and maintenance experience when you deal with a boutique bike brand with high standards.
Gent is a fascinating city for many reasons, and the fashion industry is one of them. There are many fashion designers based here and quite a few boutique shops dotted around town.
I visited the PAARL boutique shop, located in the beautiful old town, as I was very keen to meet its owner and creator, Pearl Du Buck. She opened this atelier that designs, and hand makes customised handbags.
Here, customers can choose their preferred type of leather, unique marble covers and all that in a relaxing environment with a cup of coffee or even a glass of wine.
I feel that such interaction with the artisan and the designer when creating your bag, to see it being made and adjusted to your ideas, is the best way to buy something that you will appreciate for a very long time.
Prices start from €400, and you can visit it in Onderbergen 74, Gent.
Antwerp is a fascinating name, especially if you consider that its name comes from "the man throwing a hand" (in Dutch) – as depicted in this statue in the city's main square.
It is an interesting city with a mix of traditional buildings from the Middle Ages and contemporary architecture, windmills and huge sports parks. I especially liked getting lost in the narrow streets in the old town and discovering little cafes and restaurants in a leafy shadow.
An extra level of charm comes from its canals. We had a fantastic picnic lunch on the concrete bank of one of the canals, and the locals seem to do the same a lot. To cross one of these, there is a frequent Waterbus service that takes on passengers and bikes along and across the city's canals.
This city is also famous for its diamond. 84% of the world's mined diamonds pass by its Diamonds Quarter. Here diamonds are traded, processed and shipped to other parts of the world.
Koba never planned to own a business or be an artisan; she has always been a busy mom of three and worked as an air hostess for 23 years. However, when Covid struck, she decided to take her cotton basket making hobby to a new level.
She hand sews these unique cotton baskets from environmentally friendly recycled cotton thread, which she buys from a local Belgian supplier. And it is her conscious decision to go with more natural, undyed colours, to further reduce potential pollution.
These cotton baskets, bowls and planters feel and look different, a functional design touch that can be used in many homes. And it is clearly popular as the orders are growing from all around Europe.
Rombach is more than just a glassmaker. It is a public workshop, a gallery, a social gathering place and a community support centre – all based in one rustic former factory in the sleepy suburbs of Antwerp.
Frederik Rombach has been making glass for six years and now uses these skills to run classes, individual courses, making prototypes and creating sculptural work. I visited him during a showcase when he was making a glass penguin for the public, with blues vinyl playing in the background.
For me, his and his students' products listed on the website are more than just glass vases, sculptures or lamps with made in Belgium tag– it is a piece of a community and contemporary artisanship.
Wallonia is region mostly south of Brussels and it is very different from the Belgium we saw in the north. You can still see a lot of farms, but we found ourselves surrounded by forests more and more. The scenery has also changed to the rolling countryside with small villages each showcasing a church poking above the roofs from far away.
Those nice views came at a price though – to enjoy it we had to cycle up the hills, with various levels of steepness. Most of them were ok for our fitness level, but be aware of the massive mountains surrounding Liege with 12% gradient riding into the city and out.
Almost every village we passed had a memorial with American and Belgian flags – commemorating American soldiers who were defending or liberating them at the end of WWII. It contains the details of the regiment involved, casualties and what type of battle took place in that location.
We found Noble Cycles in a small town of Habay, Wallonia, just next to a border with Luxembourg. A long ride from Brussels, but it was worth it.
Nicolas has been making bikes from scratch for over ten years now, but it all started when he decided to quit his demanding IT job and start a lifestyle that would allow him to spend more time with his kids.
Being a small workshop Noble Bikes are proud of their customisation options, including the most important one – building your own custom frame based on your body measurements and riding style.
It was fascinating to learn how the body is measured – Nick took five measurements, and I discovered that one of my hands is 2 cm longer – explaining how custom built bikes help prevent injuries and strains.
It is impossible to talk about Belgium and not to mention mysterious Brugge. Also known as a "Venice of the North" thanks to its picturesque canals and occasional boats.
Historically it was a trade city focusing on the wool and textile industry in the 15th century. These days it is more known as a vacation destination thanks to its historical vibe. I could not meet any makers, when passing by but was lucky to wander around and discover these cute boutique shops stocking hand-selected wares.
It is another way to discover new artisans, small fashion designers and get yourself a truly unique piece from Europe. Just walking around and admiring small, ancient shop fronts is quite magical.
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