By Joseph Richard Francis
Belgium is a real palimpsest of European cultures. Sat smack right in the midst of the Low Countries, where French melds with Flemish and German mixes with Dutch, it’s a nation of multi-lingual types and worldly folk. In the capital, bankers and politicians occupy the cafes and office blocks, while Antwerp bustles with traders and sailors much like it did back in its heyday of the 16th century. What’s more, the pages of many a Europe travel guide continue to extoll the virtues of cities like Ghent and Liege. But despite its undeniable modern edge, Belgium has also managed to retain a real feel for its traditions and past, whether in those unrivalled chocolate selections (sorry Switzerland!), the high-stacked waffle plates, historic churches, interesting castles or rolling backcountry of hills and forests. Here are some of the truly unmissable experiences this country has to offer.
Sample a real Trappist beer
Aside from chocolate and waffles, Belgium hails in as the home of mass-produced beer. Still cooked up and bottled by the same order of Trappist monks who started the tradition of monastery brew houses back in the 17th century, Belgium’s most famous beers come from just a handful of cloisters that pepper the backcountry of Wallonia, Gaume and around. Ask any Belgium tour guide and they will tell you to check out the likes of Chimay Brewery, the Westmalle Abbey and the Rochefort Abbey, which churn out acclaimed labels like the Westvleteren Blond and the flavoursome Rochefort 10 – all legendary stuff for any hops head!
Listen to jazz in Antwerp
Thanks to its sprawling docks and bustling mercantile character, the city of Antwerp has emerged as one of the most cosmopolitan and energetic towns in northern Europe. Cue one top-quality jazz scene, which has come to rival even the likes of Amsterdam and Paris and now features in many a travel guide. Yes sir, names like Café Hopper, Jazzcafe De Muze and Buster are now totemic on any aficionado’s jazz tour through the continent, boasting smoky basement interiors and intimate stages that seem to fit perfectly with the boho streets and hipster after-dark scene of Antwerp town as a whole.
Devour authentic Belgian chips
Whoever said the French fry was, well, French? In fact, the cultural battle for possession of this much-loved fast food treat has been raging for decades, with many experts actually siding on the eastern side of the border with the Belgians, who claim the potato snack is actually a medieval creation of theirs. But whatever its origins, there’s no denying the folk here do one fantastic rendition. Head to one of the holes-in-the-wall in Brussels (the Maison Antoine is the stuff of legends according to most Belgium travel guides) or Bruges to sample some of the finest fries in the country, which are cooked in accordance with unwritten traditions – thick-cut, double fried and made with aged potatoes – and served with a hefty dousing of mayo for good measure.
Rub shoulders with VIPs in Brussels
The veritable heart of the European Union and Belgium’s banking and business hub besides, Brussels has risen to become one of the most important cities in the world in modern times. At any one time the town is packed with heads of state, politicians and fat cat bankers alike. Take a stroll deep into the Old Town area and hit the Grand Place, a sprawling square that showcases an impossibly beautiful medley of the Gothic, the Francophone, the Baroque and the Belle Époque, before hitting the famous Parc du Cinquantenaire and the walkways around the Manneken Pis, all the while keeping those eyes peeled for celebs and big names!
See the World War 1 sites
Spread right across the seaboard of the North Sea and the English Channel, between both Belgium and France to the west, the sobering but fascinating sites that pay homage to the fallen soldiers of World War I are a veritable must while touring the country. Arguably the most enthralling of the sites on offer can be found in Ypres, which was surrounded on three sides by lines of German soldiers during the winter in 1914. Other spots of importance include the poppy-clad Flanders Fields, where the In Flanders Field Museum focuses on the historical chronicles, and the remnants of trenches and fortifications and bomb blasts still pepper the landscape.
Get enchanted in Bruges
Away from the bustling cities of Antwerp and Brussels, Bruges offers a taste of Flemish charm. Despite being a largely reconstructed rendition of its former medieval self, the town still rarely fails to enchant visitors (visitors who now come in their droves both summer and winter). Expect crenulated houses straight out of the Middle Ages abutting winding canals, soaring gothic towers and cosy Low Country pubs laden with Trappist beers. There’s also one gorgeous market square to see and the mysterious relics of the Basilica of the Holy Blood besides.
Walking in Wallonia
Landlocked Wallonia accounts for more than half of Belgium’s humble territory in total, spreading out over more than 16,000 square kilometers on the borderlands with France and the Netherlands in the south. It’s famed for a wondrous backcountry of verdant valleys and deep forests, cliffs and karst hills, all of which come criss-crossed by arguably Europe’s finest and best-kept array of walking trails and biking tracks. In the deep south, the thick forests of beech and chestnut and oak that form the Ardennes begin to rise, edging up to the bends of the Semois River in one glorious display of northern European nature – perhaps the best place for a hike in all of Belgium.
Take a gander at the Gravensteen Castle
In the midst of the bubbling town of Gent, Gravensteen castle rises in a commanding array of Gothic battlements and apses, gravity-defying turrets and spiked towers. It’s a spot plucked straight out of Game of Thrones and dating back to the 12th century, when the artistic Philip of Alsace raised the walls in a tribute to the great bulwarks he’d encountered on The Crusades. Striking and unforgettable, the fortification is fairy-tale in the extreme, while the interior also boasts an array of arms and judicial objects from the Middle Ages.
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
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