Flanders, which historically included parts of present-day Belgium, France and the Netherlands, is now a lively region of modern-day Belgium of which Brussels is the capital. The Flanders Festival is actually a series of festivals throughout the summer months and beyond. Between June and December there are over 550 concerts in more than 80 cities and towns. After half a century of existence, the Flanders Festival has become a prominent event on the cultural calendar.
Steeped in history, Flanders boasts many fine cathedrals and abbeys which make an ideal setting for early music especially, but there are also open-air events which have become increasingly popular during recent years with a Woodstock-like atmosphere: tents and lots of Belgian beer.
Laus Polyphoniae is perhaps one of the most famous of the festivals which draws thousands of early music fans to Antwerp during August. For almost 20 years Laus Polyphoniae has been offering a rich feast of 15th- and 16th-century music. The magical city of Bruges has also become well-known for the Musica Antiqua competitions.
The festival turns its gaze toward Ghent during September. This utterly charming city with its canals and magnificent cathedrals and churches provides an obvious setting more more early music, above all St. Baafs Cathedral, which houses the extraordinary Van Eyck altarpiece. Its glorious opera house also attracts some of the biggest names from the opera stage, and this year there were recitals by Jessye Norman and Andreas Scholl.
Flanders Festival also visits Mechelen, a small city close to Brussels which has an almost entirely pedestrianised centre. This focuses once again on early and Baroque music, but also on the works of little-known Flemish composers. The programming here also arrives fully into the Classical and later periods.
One of the best reasons to visit, after the concerts themselves, is for the atmosphere these cities offer. They are not impersonal, but made very user-friendly by the human-scale and warmth and helpfulness of the Flemish people. Their rigorously is reflected in everything from public transport to service in shops and restaurants. You’ll never get lost because there’s always someone offering to accompany you on your way, indicate where you are on the map, and give suggestions as to where to go.
For this writer, the music almost faded into the background as discovering Flanders become evermore fascinating and rewarding.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.