Belgium celebrates its artsy side

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NEW YORK -- Think of European museum capitals and heavy hitters Madrid, with its Prado, and Paris, home to the legendary Louvre, might first leap to mind.

But Antwerp, Bruges and Brussels? You bet, say Belgians, with a degree of pride.

"Belgium has always been known as museum country," said Frederique Raeymaekers, director of the Belgian Tourist Office in New York, noting that France's renowned Michelin guide has awarded the tiny country -- about the size of Maryland -- the highest concentration of three-star monuments and attractions per square mile in Europe.

While capital city Brussels is the arts epicenter, with some 70 institutions, there are developments on the museum front all across Belgium this year.

The capital, as well as the country's Flemish northern half, also are gearing up to celebrate their arts heritage with free museum admissions and extended viewing hours.

In late September, the new ModeMuseum (or "MoMu," in fashionista shorthand) will open its doors in the port city of Antwerp, fast becoming a hotbed of fashion design.

"Antwerp is well known for avant-garde fashion design," said Raeymaekers. "This is the first time fashion and the handicrafts around it will be formally exhibited in the city."

Accordingly, the MoMu will stage exhibitions that will highlight both contemporary clothing designs and historical costume and lace collections.

Also in Antwerp -- long a world center for the trade of precious stones -- the Diamond Museum underwent a revamp and address change, reopening on the Koningin Astridplein next to the city zoo and near the main train station.

Multimedia displays illustrate the diamond production process from mining to setting, with a 19th century workshop re-created on site.

This year's exhibitions include "1001 Nights Twice," which features jewelry inspired by "The Tales of 1001 Nights," running through Sept. 29, and "Flora and Fauna," which will showcase diamond pieces inspired by the plant and animal kingdoms from Oct. 10 to Nov. 11.

Over in Brussels, a relatively new showstopper is the Musical Instrument Museum. Housed in a former, art nouveau-style department store, the museum not only displays rare and ancient instruments, but functions as an education center in unique ways.

"If you're standing in front of five violins, you hear violins," said Raeymaekers. "It's very educational; if you've never heard an oboe, you can familiarize yourself with its sound."

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels is Belgium's top museum attraction. The city's Royal Museums of Fine Arts -- where an exhibit of works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is said to rival the renowned collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna -- could be the top museum draw in the country, said Raeymaekers.

Meanwhile, practically the entire medieval town of Bruges -- a favorite Belgian stop for tour operators -- serves as a museum for the city's yearlong stint as a European Union cultural capital.

Scores of exhibits will fill traditional showcases and public and private spaces For details, visit www.brugge2002.be on line or see Bruges looks to 'capitalize' on cultural status.

While museum entrance fees in Europe rarely break the bank, institutions both across the Flanders region -- home to Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent -- and in Brussels celebrate the Flemish "national" holiday July 11 with a "Night of the Museums," which offers free admission and extended opening hours from 6 p.m. until midnight or, in some cases, 2 a.m.

The event kicks off the second annual Museum Evenings program, launched last year as "Nocturnes," set to run through Dec. 26, during which at least one museum per evening can be visited from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. for a reduced fee of about $1.80 per adult and 90 cents for those under the age of 26. For specifics, visit either www.vlaanderenfeest.be or www.musweb.be on the Web.

Several tour operators sell independent or tour itineraries that permit clients the time and flexibility to take in as many museums as they'd like. For example, a seven-night, FIT program from Rail Europe's E-Vacations.com division pays agents 10%.

Priced from $743 per person, double, the package includes roundtrip air, hotel accommodations, transfers and breakfast daily.

Recommended stops on the From Cuisine to Painting -- the Finest Arts of Belgium itinerary include the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among Brussels sites, as well as the Diamond Museum and Royal Museum in Antwerp, and the Memling and Groeninge museums in Bruges.

E-vacations.com also offers Medieval Cradles of Mind and Soul: Bruges and Ghent, an air-inclusive, three-night exploration of art treasures priced from $683 per person, double.

The Best of Europe eight-night escorted tour of the Netherlands, Belgium and Paris from Sunny Land Tours features three nights and two full days in Antwerp, with optional excursions to Bruges, Ghent, Namur and Waterloo. Rates start at $699 per person; commission is 10%.

Europe Express offers a seven-night Belgium and Holland Self-Drive to Brussels, Ghent and Bruges, including accommodations, daily breakfast, car rental, maps and fees.

It also operates a two-night Bruges Stay, which includes accommodations in Bruges or Antwerp; daily breakfast; and roundtrip, second class rail transportation from Brussels. Commission is 10%.

For more information on Belgian museums, contact the Belgian National Tourist Office at (212) 758-8130 or go to www.visitbelgium.com.

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