International calling to Belgium.
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One of my favorite rock bands ever, AC/DC that is, wrote a cool song back in the 80’s named Bedlam in Belgium (just heard it on the radio), hence today’s travel article is about, yes, you guessed it right, Belgium. If you know anything about the European Union, I bet you learned that Belgium is at the heart of this super-state, since Brussels, the country’s capital is also the EU’s. Located in the North Sea coast and part of the Benelux economic union (the precursor to the EU), Belgium is a highly developed country, densely populated and an under-rated tourist destination. With a land surface of 30,510 square kilometers and a population of just over 10 million people, Belgium has three official languages, despite being such a small country: Dutch, German and French. If you want to define Belgium in just a few words, those would be chocolate, beer and moules-frites (that’s French fries folks). These may very well be your starting points when travelling to Belgium, but there’s more than that, as you can imagine. Belgium is home to world-class preserved medieval cities, like Antwerp, Bruges (just like that movie In Bruges) or Brussels.
If you want to imbibe in stunning classical architecture and a history filled with military legacy, there’s no place like Belgium, believe me folks. The country is pretty small and it’s relatively easy to travel anywhere in just a few hours, not to mention that Belgium hosts 60 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, along with its ancient military history, ranging from Waterloo to World War 2. The country is divided into three distinct regions: Wallonia (in the south, where people mostly speak French), Flanders (in the north, Dutch speaking) and the Brussels region (there’s a mélange of the two aforementioned languages spoken in Brussels region, along with English and what not). Basically, Belgium can be regarded as an artificial country split down between linguistic/ethnic lines, and that’s even the opinion of Belgians themselves. However, if you’re taking into account that visiting Belgium you’re actually visiting three different countries, you can imagine that this is a pretty fascinating experience, to say the least. Flanders is a place imbibed in ancient history, boasting its amazing museums and perfectly preserved medieval architecture. Wallonia is more about beautiful scenery/landscapes while Brussels is the new Babylon of our modern times: an interesting mélange of art nouveau architecture, with impressing sky scrapers, sitting next to flea markets and art galleries, chip stands and lots of Michelin starred restaurants.
What to do, what to see in Belgium
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I did when I arrived in Brussels was to indulge myself in chocolate. Belgium is the paradise of chocolate aficionados, famed for its truffles, especially Brussels and Bruges, where you can find boutiques of the famous chocolatier Marcolini.
For outdoors enthusiasts, after eating 2-3 boxes of chocolates, you may pay a visit to La Roche en Ardenne and go kayaking on its rivers, or take a ride cycling amid Ardenne’s beautiful hill country. The area is filled with idyllic spots for young couples, being very romantic and, how should I say it, love-inducing.
Ostend was back in the day the cradle of European aristocracy and also its playground, a place where you can enjoy a beautifully preserved city, the Mercator Navy ship and splendid beaches. While here you can enjoy bargaining for fresh shrimp while visiting the local fish markets.
The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium is another strong selling point for travel agencies, as it was recently reworked and renovated and now it is composed from three segments from 3 distinct eras: Musee Modern, Musee Old Masters and Muse Fin de Siecle. This world famous museum located in Brussels stretches for more than five centuries, harboring some of the greatest painters/names in the history of art, ranging from the Flemish primitives to Delvaux and Rubens. I bet you’ll be deeply impressed, just like yours truly, and if that museum is not enough for the art buff that you are, all you have to do is to pay a visit to the next-door located Musee Magritte.
Antwerp is that place from which diamonds come from, right? Also, it’s Belgium’s second largest city and Flanders capital, Europe’s 2nd largest harbor and home to an ancient zoo, not to mention a once in a lifetime (as in must see) art collection (masterpiece paintings courtesy of Peter Paul Rubens).
One of the greatest battles in WW1 took place in Belgium at Bulge, near the Luxembourg border and, while here, enjoy the Bastogne Historical Centre located nearby; here you can admire a vast collection of memorabilia and you may buy a few souvenirs for your friends of family members.
The country’s and EU’s capital Brussels is a multicultural city filled with Eurocrats, Bureaucrats and loads of immigrants: Moroccan, Congolese, Turkish and what not. While here you can admire the UNESCO listed Grand Palace, the Mannaken-Pis statue, the impressive EU buildings or the Ixelles district.
Wallonia is the reason for which Belgium is said to have the highest density of castles per square mile in the world. Also keep in mind that no trip to Belgium would be complete without trying/sampling their moules-frites specialty, offered with plenty of dipping sauces and a refreshing pint of beer. And while we’re talking about beer, Belgium has a century’s old tradition, dating back to the middle Ages when it comes to ale and brewing and stuff like that. As you can imagine, some of the best beer in the world can be sampled here, hence if you’re into this sport, Belgium will feel like paradise on Earth.
For history buffs, Belgium is the place where Napoleon got his French butt kicked at Waterloo in 1815 by England’s Duke of Wellington; so, don’t forget to visit this historic site while you’re here.
Food and Drink
Belgium’s cuisine is often quoted as being the best in Europe, and I think that saying is quite right. The foods in Belgium are much, much more than waffles, chocolate and beer, remember that folks. Here you can have a gastronomical revelation, as you can eat fish and mussels, rabbit, pheasant, butter, cream, venison, not to mention world class beef and lamb. Specialties include the aforementioned French-fries called moules frittes, mashed potatoes, ham-wrapped endives with cheese sauce, fish-chicken stew, rabbit specially cooked with beer and prunes, eel cooked in spinach sauce, tarragon, mint, white wine and thyme, butter-cooked pheasant with chicory and brussel sprouts, salad made from boiled potato, green beans and bacon and so on and so forth. Regional drinks consist of over 400 types of beers, all brewed and bottled in Belgium. There’s also a spirit called Jenever, very similar to gin and sometimes flavored with chili, chocolate or lemon.
Belgium is a member of the European Union and it signed the Schengen treaty, hence if you’re an EU citizen, you’ll not require a passport, just an ID (if anything). For USA/Canadian tourists, a passport is required (no Visa though).