Flanders Today 2009 Gift Guide

Summary

Simple pleasures

The best shopping streets in Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Leuven and Bruges

Simple pleasures

It’s time to buy the presents. This energises some people and makes others want to go into hibernation until spring – or at least until after the holidays. These people were our guiding lights as we went into our Gift Guide this year: how do we make holiday shopping less stressful? we asked ourselves. One idea stood out among the rest: stay away from the “shopping centre”. In Flanders, that can mean a mall – like Antwerp’s Wijnegem Shopping Centre or Brussels’ City 2. But that can also mean the dreaded “shopping street”. You know what we mean. While these might be the places to go for the January sales, we like to think that holiday shopping should be…dare we say it…fun. It should be a discovery tour, where you find unique objects people will really love, and where you enjoy the process of finding them. So we looked in five cities for five very special streets. We sought side streets that are less hectic, that offer an eclectic variety and that are – even during the busiest time of the year – friendly. These are places where shopkeepers still say hello, where the gift wrapping is free of logos, where the little cafe still has a table and where cobblestones twinkle under the falling snow. (Ok, we might have gotten a little carried away with that last one.) Happy holidays and enjoy your shopping experience.

Aalmoezenierstraat, Antwerp

by Stéphanie Duval

There is one street in Antwerp people tend to overlook, and it puzzles me not only because it is right off of Nationalestraat (one of the most popular shopping streets in Flanders’ capital of shopping) but also because there are just too many great little stores to ignore. I’m talking about the Aalmoezenierstraat: a heaven for fashion addicts, foodies, gadget aficionados and fans of vintage and quirky design. In other words: the ideal place to shop for presents.

You’ll find high fashion for smaller budgets at the Labels Inc outlet (n°4) and for bigger budgets at couture boutique Sien (n°2). Right across the street, at De Spaanse Olijfboom, there’s plenty of choice between olive oils, authentic Pata Negra and even terracotta pots for kitchen freaks (n°3A). Pop into Carl Tackoen for design objects to spoil the party hostess (n°22) or find your music buff cousin a rare album at Vinyl Records (n°27).

Very few women would be unhappy to unwrap a cute purse, so make sure to drop by Bonaventura (n°38). This beautiful, tiny shop surprisingly houses the biggest collection of vintage handbags in Antwerp. If you are looking for something a little more out of the ordinary, Gizmode is the place to be. You’ll go wild discovering all of the techie gadgets and original interior objects (n°33).

My two favourite stores, however, are focused on kids. Find your little ones a cool tin toy or piece of clothing at Little Vintage (n°3) or a creative gift at Mieke Willems (n°28). The latter is filled with rare finds from Japan and elsewhere, including homemade interior decorations and vintage furniture (see photo on the previous page). So you’re bound to leave with something for yourself as well. But hey, who said you couldn’t buy yourself something this season?

Baljuwstraat, Brussels

by Katrien Lindemans

Halfway along the famous Louizalaan you’ll find a side street called Baljuwstraat, a must to visit if you’re looking for presents. There are a few obvious gift shops: chocolate shop Irsi (n°15) has a special champagne chocolate for the holidays, and in Vinothèque Velu Vins (n°106) you can taste almost everything before purchasing. Visit Le Bridgeur (n°61) if you’re looking for a wooden board game or any present related to bridge.

But a few of Baljuwstraat’s shops are different. Home Factory (n°63) sells household items with a twist. How about a humorous doormat to enter the New Year? Or give love and warmth to your beloved with a heart-shaped hot water bottle. All items have great gift potential and come in a wide price range.

For more serene gifts, have a look in Cha Yuan (n°97). Besides tea, you’ll find beautiful Chinese cups and teapots, and even CDs with Zen music. This shop also sells traditional, handmade kokeshi dolls. Although there is a lot of disagreement on the history of these wooden dolls, some people claim they were originally made by farmers from leftover wood and given as a token of love to family and friends.

Zao (n°96) must be the shop with the most gift items per square metre – from cute baby outfits and toys, to rabbit-shaped candles, elegant notebooks, perfume and cream made from olives. Finally, don’t forget to spoil yourself with a new outfit for the holidays. Outlet store DOD’s women’s shop (n°64) stocks evening dresses by Valentino and Armani and party outfits and heels by many other designers. Make sure you’ve finished your Christmas shopping before entering this shop, because the four floors of fashion will keep you very busy. 

Parijsstraat, Leuven

by Rebecca Benoot

Running parallel with the Oude Markt, Parijsstraat is an aptlynamed narrow street with elegant, towering town houses, where funky little shops have replaced the usual chain stores. Pedestrianised and eclectic, it honestly puts the joy of shopping and giving back in those few short weeks of December that have become something of a consumer-crazed nightmare.

For foodies, Il Pastaio (n°33) is excellent for Italian delicacies, and Vinipure (n°20) offers a superb selection of wines. There are plenty of gift shops in the Parijsstraat ranging from jewellery to classy knick knacks, but for something truly special, I suggest you pay a visit to Marleen Gielen (n°51). Her tiny shop carries a beautiful range of custom-made hats, an excellent gift for fashionistas.

At the other end of the spectrum, Twits, a dynamic skate/ snowboard shop offers the latest trends and best brands for adrenaline junkies (n°44). Music lovers will probably also be excited to find a cool and colourful Skullcandy headphone in their stocking, exclusively at Twits. If it’s music that you are in fact after, also check out JJ Records (n°32). This small shop has an impressive selection of alternative and old-school rock music, including plenty of underground Belgian bands. They also sell vinyl, collector’s items and concert tickets.

Graphic novels are really hot right now, so head to Het Besloten Land (n°16) where you’ll find a wide variety of commercial hits and some harder-to-find comics. Cool gadgets and figurines of beloved cartoon characters are also on hand. Finally, Smuk (n°14) is the perfect place for handmade mugs and bowls. You’ll also find rather fabulous lamps, plus clothes, and even art from the gallery upstairs.

Vlamingstraat, Bruges

by Alan Hope

You might think €159 is a fair price for a cashmere sweater, until you discover it is only 30 centimetres long. Surprise, it’s for your lapdog, the sort of lapdog, in fact, who might favour a Toile de Jouy collar costing €59, or one with dangling pompoms from Hermès for €135.

They’re all at D&V Luxury Pet (n°8), opened just a month ago by Franck Degryse and Marjorie Verbraeken, who, despite their Flemish names, are from Northern France. The shop is just off the tourist-dominated Markt, on the sedate Vlamingstraat.

“Like everyone else, we came here on a holiday, and it struck us that there was room here to bring in a French concept that didn’t exist yet in Belgium,” says Degryse. The concept is simple: luxurious clothing, accessories and equipment for dogs and cats. The top-of-the-line items are miniature couches for your pet to lounge on, in fabric for €299 or in leather for €375. There are carrying bags Mariah Carey would covet between €89 and €349. But the range also includes feeding dishes going all the way down to €7 for a chic, designer plastic model, just big enough for a spoonful of caviar, perhaps.

Up the street, where Vlamingstraat turns into Academiestraat on the way to the public library, is Bacchus Cornelius (n°17), owned by Inge Corneillie, an aficionado of beer. And not only beer, but also wine and jenever, a chocolate-flavoured version of which she makes herself (about €12.30). She’s also one of only a few women to have a diploma in jenever connoisseurship.

But it’s the beer that overwhelms. You’ve surely seen shops with many kinds of beers before, but never with a range this exotic. Everywhere you look there’s another variety you’ve never heard of and will probably never hear of again: Sint Canarus Trippel, Lam Gods, Moeder Overste and Ezel, all between €1 and €2 per bottle. There’s the very attractive Brugse Zot in a huge bottle for €9.30, and the Vuuve ale with spices, which tastes better if mulled.

There are also, for the man who has everything, glasses for every sort of beer imaginable, and unlike some shops in more touristy areas both in Bruges and in Brussels, you won’t come away feeling as if you’d been fleeced.

Serpentstraat, Ghent

by Courtney Davis

Don’t let the shortness of this narrow pedestrian street off of Vrijdagmarkt fool you. Many an innocent soul has thought that they were just going to cut straight through it and has wound up trapped for hours.

Zoot Costumiers (n°8) is where to go for the fashion hipster in your life. The clothing is by designers with a vintage bent; Belgian brands like Lovely Mariquita and Red Juliet are sold along with Zoot’s own popular label. A baby-blue sailor dress is €113.

Next door is Zsa Zsa Rouge (n°22) for all things kitsch and totally random: in other words, excellent gifts, including brightly coloured bike bags, polka-dotted flamenco shoes (for only €41) and a cut-to-order range of retro plastic table linens. Right across the street is Petit Zsa Zsa (n°5), for parents who want their kids to be cooler than they are. It’s pricey but posh: tiny Ego Mania t-shirts are €37 and soft plush toys about €20.

New age is the name of the game at Dhoogpoorte (n°1), which carries music, accessories and a large range of books, from numerology to medicinal herbs – mostly in Dutch but a few in English. A good selection of high-quality incense is found here, including the perennial hippie favourite nag champa.

Skazou (n°20), a women’s fashion boutique, is the new kid on the block, having been open for only three months. But it’s a welcome addition: a distinct style that attracts art teacher or yoga instructor types, with flowing dresses, long necklaces and a lot of linen. The prices are surprisingly low: a simple, comfy sweater is €42; a scarf you can wear six different ways is €30.

Ruth’s Place (n°9) is a Mecca of pottery and, oddly, plastic flowers. It’s full of unique hand-crafted items from all over Europe, including Belgium, and it’s hard to tell who is friendlier, Ruth or the Labrador parked at the door.

You’d be remiss to not stop in the 25-year-old Popville (n°26b), home of not just hundreds of records but posters, graphic novels and vintage furniture and accessories. Musty and cluttered, you can dig for treasures, like the Las Vegas Grind vol 4 for €15.

If you plan ahead, make a reservation to relax at the always-packed Marco Polo (n°11), an intimate, rustic Italian restaurant on Serpentstraat that features local ingredients and adheres to the Slow Food movement.

Holiday markets and other icy diversions

Antwerp

Christmas Market on Groenplaats until 27 Dec

Ice skating rinks on Grote Markt until 3 Jan

Winter Barbecue on Grote Markt on 27 Dec from 13.00

www.antwerpen.be/winter

Bruges

Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival on Stationsplein until 10 Jan (theme: Ice Age 3)

Christmas Market on the Markt and Simon Stevinplein and Walplein until 3 Jan

Ice skating rink on the Markt until 3 Jan

Flanders Today tip: the best waffles in Flanders are sold on the Simon Stevinplein during Bruges’ annual Christmas market. Do yourself a favour and ask for the chocolate sauce

www.winterinbrugge.be

Brussels

Christmas Market around the Beurs, on Vismarkt and on Sint-Katelijneplein until 3 Jan

Ice skating rink on the Vismarkt until 3 Jan

Guest country on Sint-Katelijneplein: Mongolia

The ooze of Reblochon cheese over the potatoes in the steaming plate of Tartiflette at the Brussels Christmas Market is hardly manageable with a plastic fork in gloved hands. But this indulgence, along with deep fried bananas, mulled wine and the quiet exhilaration of the big wheel ride that follows has become a ritual to welcome the arrival of winter.

www.winterpret.be

Ghent

Christmas Markt on Sint-Baafsplein until 30 Dec

Ice-skating rink on Emile Braunplein until 10 Jan

East Flanders products holiday market, 20 Dec, Het Groot Vleeshuis, Groetenmarkt

Don’t let the horror of our cover story this week keep you out of Ghent for the annual Christmas Market. Sint-Baafsplein is one of the squares spared by construction, and the ice rink will go right over the archaeological dig on Emile Braunplein. Ghent’s market is small but chic – less of the silly trinkets, more of the hand-crafted scarves. Live musicians and dancing elderly couples defy the chill in the air.

www.visitgent.be

Mechelen

Christmas Market on Grote Market, 18-20 December

Short but sweet is the Mechelen holiday market, with a host of live entertainment and horse-drawn carriage rides. If you don’t live there, it’s worth a day trip

www.kerstmarktmechelen.be

Ostend

Christmas Market and Ice Skating rink on Wapenplein with special theme weekends until 3 Jan

Magic Lights in the Park in Leopoldpark until 3 January

www.eindejaarinoostende.be

Hasselt

Christmas Market and Ice Skating Rink on Kolonel Dusartplein until 3 Jan

Christmas Concert (Handel, Piazzolla) at Music Conservatory, Kunstlaan 12, on 13 Dec, 11.00

Children and the Christmas Story, with Margoda Choir, at St Lambertus Church, Vijversstraat, on 17 Dec, 20.00

www.winterland.be

Flanders Today 2009 Gift Guide

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