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Conveniently and, in times past, strategically located near neighbours France, Germany, The Netherlands and Luxembourg, and only just over the English Channel from the UK, one might almost call Belgium the centre of Western Europe.
A Little Bit of History and Politics
Belgium has variously been in the hands of the Romans, the Franks, the Spanish, the Austrians, the French, and the Dutch. Then finally in 1830 the Belgians revolted against The Netherlands1 and declared their independence. Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief, then in 1914 Germany invaded Belgium and the First World War began. In 1939, Belgium was supposedly neutral, but they still got invaded again. Some of the fiercest fighting of the Second World War took place during the Battle of the Bulge, in the Belgian Ardennes.
All this being invaded is perhaps one of the factors that has led to Belgium being one of the pioneers of European integration. That, coupled with its handy central position2 meant that the European Commission and its earlier incarnations has always been mainly based in Brussels. The European Parliament also sits there sometimes and NATO has a big base there.
The after-effects of Belgium's political and military game of musical chairs remain. The country is divided into two distinct areas, Wallonia and Flanders, dividing the country straight across the middle, east to west. Wallonia is the French-speaking region of southern Belgium, while the people of Flanders speak Flemish/Dutch.
Brussels, in Flanders, is officially bilingual, but there are more Francophones than Flemish speakers. Indeed, the capital can boast that its city is full of linguistically-gifted citizens - it seems that all of the shopkeepers speak at least French and Flemish, and usually German and some English too, and those who work in some of the more hardcore tourist traps speak a few other languages as well.
Outside of Brussels, there exists a huge rivalry between Flanders and Wallonia. There are also a few German speakers right down in the south east of Belgium, making up less than one per cent of the population... but they don't make much fuss. In fact, they're probably drowned out by all the wrangling going on between the Walloons and the Flemish. To be fair, the two groups never really had that much in common - the country was created as a buffer state and imposed on them3 and they have at least been able to avoid coming to blows over their differences.
Politicians on both sides use (and create, entertain and amplify) tensions resulting from prejudices and different economic situations to impress electors. The media don't help either. In Belgian politics, the surest way to slow down an issue and assure maximum coverage for it is to give it a language spin. Resolving their differences peacefully has left them with a complex federal system that employs too many politicians and civil servants, but that works to the extent that it is looked at as a model for areas with ethnic conflict.
There are differences between the two areas. Flanders has low unemployment and is thriving economically, while Wallonia's traditional heavy industries are grinding to a halt: coal mines are closing and, because it's not economical to import the coal to run them, so are the steel manufacturing plants. Because of the consequent shift in wealth4, an economic incentive now exists for French-speaking Belgians to learn Flemish. There are many Belgians who take advantage of their nation's bilingual status; after all, the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one. And yet the divisions remain.
The Belgian Royal Family are seen as one of the unifying forces that keep Belgium together, as is the football team5. Brussels is also key, as it would be very difficult to divide linguistically.
Where to go in Belgium
Brussels of course. Probably the best base if you're on your first visit to Belgium.
Antwerp is Belgium's second biggest city and a centre for the diamond and jewellery trade, so it's a great place to buy your loved one a glittering bauble if all that chocolate has got you in the mood.
Ghent and Bruges are both rather pretty and extremely interesting. Canals, Flemish architecture, long and varied histories. Bruges is more of a cross between a town and a museum whereas Ghent is a lively city which also happens to be photogenic.
Also in Flanders is Ypres, one of the Allies' strongholds during the First World War and consequently one of its main casualties. There were three battles of Ypres during this time and the bombardment left the town almost entirely flattened. If you're visiting the town, make sure you visit the Menin Gate. On its walls are lists of missing soldiers. The last post is played there every evening to honour those who died on the battlefield. A moving experience, indeed.
Further south is the French speaking area, and notablythe Belgian Ardennes. There's a lot to see and do, and there are even some hills, which makes a nice change from the Flanders plain. You are unlikely to have it to yourself though; it's very popular with the Dutch in particular.
Walibi Belgium is a roller coaster theme park.
Waterloo, scene of the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars, is of particular historical interest. You'll find a good visitors' centre and museum and a monument on a small, but steep, hill that provides great views of the surrounding countryside. If you go around the ring road to its south east corner you'll find plenty of signs pointing you in the direction of the battlefield. Braine l'Alleud's pubs are heartily recommended and not far from Waterloo. You could also visit the new university town of Louvain-La-Neuve while you're in the area.
Belgium is definitely an excellent country to visit if you wish to spend a considerable time inebriated, for the following reasons:
Belgian beer is strong, running into double-figure percentages for alcohol content.
A lot of Belgian beer comes in a bottle and as such can be quite gassy, so the alcohol hits your bloodstream more quickly than creamier styles of beer.
Each Belgian beer is served in its own special beer glass, designed to maximise flavour and aroma, or sometimes as a marketing ploy. Among these are lunettes, huge craters of glasses which look like they hold at least a litre. On the subject of glasses, if a barman or passing acquaintance asks you if you would like a 'bollocking'6 they are in fact referring to a bowlicken, a pleasing glass goblet used to serve beer.
There is no shortage of bars in Belgium to try out the local brews, but if you are passing through Brussels it might be worth checking out Le Bier Circus. The bar's interior is unassuming, but your heart will begin to beat faster as you spy a number of imbibers wielding copies of CAMRA's7The Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland. The bar serves over 200 of Belgium's finest ales and the bar snacks aren't bad either (cheese and sliced sausage among other things). On the other hand, if you'd like to try Belgian beers fresh from the brewery, Belgium - Beermania, a comprehensive guide which details the locations of many breweries across the country, will point you in the right direction.
If, after all that drinking you feel the need to soak up the alcohol, why not investigate Frietkot or Fritkot? These snack stands are Belgium's equivalent of the chip van, though they're much more appealing. Once upon a time these used to sell only one simple dish, French fries with mayonnaise, but in recent times they've diversified their menus to include meat balls, hamburgers and brochettes8.
Fries, of course, along with mussels, are what spring to mind when you think of Belgium's national dishes. Other specialities to look out for are:
Waterzooi - a regional stew, originating from around Ghent, consisting of chicken9, potatoes, other vegetables and cream.
Lapin à la Kriek - rabbit in cherry beer.
Stoemp - mashed potatoes and vegetables with sausages.
Carbonnades Flamandes - chunks of meat cooked slowly in a rich sauce.
Boulettes Liègoises - meatballs with a raisin sauce.
Tarte Chaumont-Gistoux - a tart made with caramelised sugar. As sweet as it sounds.
Then there's Belgian waffles. In tea shops across the country, freshly-made waffles, light on the inside and crisp on the outside, are served with ice cream and chocolate sauce. Take note that the version in Liège comes with giant lumps of sugar in it, while the waffles in Gare Centrale in Brussels are well worth biting into before a hard day's sightseeing.
Belgian chocolate, staple gift of new boyfriends, and confectionery of choice for those in need of comfort, is among the best in the world. Never mind about that great Belgium beer tour, what about a nationwide chocolate fest? Great chocolate can be found everywhere in Belgium but, if you're stuck for choice, find a Leonidas store and they'll help you out, or pop along to the supermarket and grab a few bars of 'Big Nuts'. They're the best.
Sport and Leisure
The major sport in Belgium is football, no doubt about it. Teams such as Anderlecht, Standard Liège and Club Bruges (and indeed the national team, the Red Devils) have often performed beyond their expectations in the European and worldwide competitions. There are a lot of riders and spectators alike interested in cycling - not only Eddy Merckx, a true champion both on and off a bike, but many others at a slightly lower level since then, and many weekend club riders. Tennis is also a popular sport, although there are only three Belgian men in the ATP top 100 at the moment, and two Belgian women in the WTS top 100.
Another thing that is infamously popular in Belgium is DIY. As locals say, 'every Belgian has a brick in his stomach'. This means you need to be very careful when renting or purchasing property, in case the landlord or previous owner has done something 'shocking' with the electrics. This tendency coupled with the notorious lack of planning rules in the 1960s and 1970s has resulted in some very unusual houses being built, especially in Brussels. Houses with virtually no windows for example, or gothic horror mansions on a suburban street.
Famous Literary Belgians
Agatha Christie's moustache-twirling detective, Hercule Poirot, is Belgian. In every single one of the books10 where he appears, some young gentleman or old dear thinks he's French, a comment at which he takes great umbrage.
Then there are the cartoon characters: Tintin and Snowy his dog; and Gaston Lagaffe, by the cartoonist Franquin. (Gaston is a disorderly but friendly office boy, in case you didn't know.) If you're interested in finding out more about Belgian cartoon characters, why not visit Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée, (the Belgian Comic Strip Centre). The museum, complete with well-stocked shop selling all manner of Tintin memorabilia, can be found in the Ixelles area of Brussels.
Currency is now the Euro. Only cash points outside the banks (Bancontact/Mr Cash) will take your card - those inside are for customers of the bank only. Credit cards are widely accepted.
The SNCB train service is pretty good and cheap. Be aware that for both Liege and Ghent, the train station is too far to walk from the centre of town - you'll need to take a bus/tram on arrival. A particular bargain is the train-plus-bike option: take the train to a destination and then pick up a bike at the station for a ride around town. Don't forget to take your passport with you as proof that you will bring the bike back.
There is a very extensive free motorway network in Belgium. Some of them even go right into and through the centre of cities on flyovers or in tunnels. They are a bit bumpier than French or British motorways. The motorway network is so well lit that it can be seen from space, apparently.
Watch out for the changing names on the signposts - you can be heading for Mons (city in Wallonia) until you cross into Flanders, at which point you need to follow the signs for Bergen! Where they really take the Micky is when you are trying to find Lille, a French city and it suddenly becomes Rijssel...
The airport in Zaventem is not well designed. Be prepared to walk for a considerable distance.
Bon voyage and vaarwel!