We didn’t know much about Flanders before we visited a few weeks ago. In fact we weren’t sure exactly where it was (it’s the northern part of Belgium including the cities of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp). We certainly didn’t realise how much it had to offer as a destination.
We went there to experience Flanders is a Festival – an initiative to promote the vibrant festival scene in the region. This summer there are over 280 festivals at 13,500km² of festival ground with more than 1000 bands playing. The range of festivals on offer is vast – rock, indie, jazz, latin, reggae, blues, metal, pop, dance and folk – and there are some major acts performing. It’s not just about music either as there are all kinds of foodie, art and theatre things happening all over Flanders.
On our short trip to Bruges and Ghent we experienced two very different festivals.
Cactus Festival in Bruges
We used to be regular festival goers but it has been far too long since we’ve been to one. Stepping into the muddy field at the Cactus Festival we felt instantly at home, and it was good to be back on the festival circuit.
It’s a smaller festival than we are used to but we liked the intimate feel and relaxed, friendly atmosphere. It also helped that the festival site was only a 20 minute walk from the centre of Bruges so we could retreat to a hotel at the end of the night rather than camp in the cold and wet.
Cactus has just one stage but there was enough happening around the festival site to keep us occupied between bands. We were happy with the diverse range of world food stalls to choose from (with plenty of vegetarian options), and we loved the cool animal art sculptures scattered around the site. The horse was the most impressive.
Simon got caught up in the Granny Turismo act that surprised us as we browsed the food stalls—you don’t quite expect to see hip-hop grannies racing around a festival site on their shopping trollies, music booming!
The music was mostly indie rock and although we weren’t familiar with any of the acts before the event (we are hopelessly out of date) we discovered some new favourites.
The Zita Swoon Group are one of Belgium’s best-known bands; their heavy African influences taking them in new directions from the rock roots so that, instead of guitar solos, we get marimba solos.
Grant Lee Buffalo were engaging enough to keep us standing out in the rain with their REM-like pop-rock tunes. We were based at the side of the stage and, at one point, the lead singer had us peering around the stage edge looking for a second guitarist before we realised that, nope, it was him playing that solo on his 12-string acoustic.
The next band sound a lot bigger than they look. Belgium’s Black Box Revelation are soaring to success with a recent appearance on Letterman. There are only two of them but they rocked harder and louder than any of the other acts; their ferocious energy filling the festival site and keeping the crowd dancing enthusiastically despite the rain. Our new favourite Belgian band.
Gent Jazz Festival
Moving on to Ghent (only a 25 minute train ride from Bruges – Flanders is wonderfully compact) we exchanged partying in a muddy field for the much more civilised Gent Jazz Festival. After getting far too wet the previous day we were relieved to see that the jazz festival was under cover. This was definitely a more sedate event—it even had seats!
Beer was served in real glasses too, unlike any festival we’ve ever been too. As we chatted with some locals about their beer recommendations we were struck by how different the beer culture here is than in England. The range on offer was far more interesting and everyone was a connoisseur.
Although the Gent Jazz Festival is pretty flexible in its definition of jazz and includes a diverse range of fusion acts, the first part of the day was very much of the traditional variety.
Ninety Miles featured a diverse range of musicians from around the world, and their music was heavily Cuban influenced. The more usual line up of piano, tenor sax, trumpet and double bass were joined by vibraphone and marimba, congas and a range of percussion, creating some interesting underlying textures for the soloist to work with (more marimba solos!)
But it was headliner Melody Gardot that really captured our imagination. After her dramatic entrance—alone on the dark stage, singing a cappella accompanied only by the shake of a bell and the tap of her high heels—she had the packed out tent under her spell.
The music’s roots are clearly jazz but she has embraced influences from all around the world including tango, African and latin and are brought to life by her intensely emotional but very controlled vocals.
Melody was effortlessly charismatic, witty, with an incredible voice and impressive piano skills. Although she was undoubtedly the star, her band were masterful too—at one point, the saxophonist took centre stage to harmonise with himself by playing two saxes at once.
Even more impressive, Melody managed to get the audience up and dancing after a day sitting contemplatively—an unexpectedly explosive and dramatic end to the day.
A big thank you to Tourism Flanders-Brussels for arranging our trip. See Visit Flanders for much more information about what is on offer in the region and follow the #fiaf12 hashtag on Twitter for updates on Flanders is a Festival.
Are you planning your travels for 2019? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip.