Belgium – the sweet and sour of Western Europe
On the shores of the North Sea, between France and the Netherlands, lies the small country of Belgium (well… it’s not that small when you compare it to its tiny neighbor, Luxembourg). Inhabited by 10 million people, it is probably one of the weirdest countries in Europe. It literally houses two separate and totally different populations – the Flemish and the Walloons.
The country has a long history of being split between its more powerful neighbors, the Netherlands and France. Even Spain once dominated these lands (back in the days when they used to dominate half of the known world). Belgium has existed as a state only since 1830, when it gained independence from the Netherlands. Its evolution since then has been tumultuous. It was a colonial power (sparking one of the biggest human rights disasters the world has ever seen), it was twice invaded by Germany, in WWI and WWII – talk about bad luck… -, and it went through massive riots in the 60’s and 70’s that almost split up the country.
Today, Belgium is a kingdom and federal state, with three main ethnic populations: the Dutch-speaking Flemish, the Francophone Walloons and the much less numerous Germans. King Philippe is the country’s head of state (the Belgians love their king, but not in a flamboyant, enthusiastic way, as the British or the Dutch do) and he’s held the crown for only two years now. Belgium is also one of the most developed countries in the world, the European gateway for diamonds (Antwerp), and, more importantly, home of the inadequately called French fries, waffles and a couple of thousand of types of beer.
A visit to Belgium should (and will) probably start in Brussels, the country’s capital. You’ll find here a 2 million-big metropolis with an international atmosphere. The city houses and the European Union institutions with more than 100 thousand people from different places in Europe working here (truly the capital of Europe), but also impressive monuments, such as the Atomium (a 20th century 60-metres high structure that looks like an atom). The Grand Place, the old town’s main square, with one of the most impressive examples of Belgian architecture in the country. The Parc de Cinquentenaire and its Triumphal Arch, built for the 50th anniversary of the Belgian state.
Next stop: Flandres, more specifically, Bruges and Gent, the region’s main towns. Both display brilliant examples of Flemish architecture, with houses dating way back from the 17th century. Both these towns were once upon a time, inland ports, so they both have extensive canal networks (a boat trip is definitely worth-while). If you have time, pass by Antwerp and Ieper (or Ypres, in French) also. The first is one of Europe’s major ports, houses one of the most impressive zoo’s in the country (attention! they have pandas!) and a unique diamond museum. Ieper was the site of one of the biggest battles in WWI, so if you’re a history passionate “looking for cover” in real-life trenches, Ypres’s the place to go.
In the South of the country, Wallonia also has a lot to offer. Liege and Mons are both interesting places to visit (especially Mons, the European Capital of Culture for 2015), with both civil and religious medieval architecture in place. Additionally, if you’re in Liege, take the time and visit the Blegny coal mine. The experience is highly interactive and you get to live the life of an ordinary 20th century Belgian coal miner, even if only for a couple of hours.
Finally, a few tips: don’t leave Belgium without trying the frites (French fries) and gauffre (waffle) – and remember the old Belgian saying: “The dirtier the restaurant, the better the food”; although Belgian beer is great and the variety is so large that it would probably take you a lifetime to try them all, be careful – it’s also very strong; in Belgium, you don’t need more than two beers to sing on the way home; and, one final important thing to remember: Belgium is not the cheapest tourist destination so be sure you bring enough money (and cash; sometimes they can be a bit restrictive towards the types of cards they accept). Nothing more to say than: Bienvenue en Belgique!