Belgium is a rather odd place. There’s perhaps no other European country which is so small, yet so divided. Around 12 million people live there. The country is split into Dutch-speaking Flanders, and French-speaking Wallonia. (A person from Wallonia is called a Walloon, which sounds great for some reason). And then there’s the third major region, Brussels, the capital, which is both French and Dutch speaking. From what I could see, the reality seems to be that few people speak both languages. Which makes any trip to Brussels, and living there probably, a little confusing. To deal with this issue, the Belgian football team allegedly communicates in English.
Belgian politics is also febrile. Huge generalisations incoming. The rich, Flemish north resents the French-speaking Walloons for being lazy and unproductive. The Walloons resent the Flemish, thinking they’re arrogant and only care about money. The result of this split is that Belgium is practically an ungovernable country. Amazing really, given that it’s so small you can drive across it in a couple of hours. Had the EU not chosen Belgium for its headquarters, I feel like Belgium would have perhaps split by now into two countries. It still might, who knows? The current governing coalition contains a mere seven political parties, and yet, still barely scrapes a majority in parliament. It took a whopping 652 days of negotiations before the new coalition and government was formed. This has happened before. It took 541 days to form a governing coalition in 2011, leaving Belgium without a government for two years. It makes Italy seem politically stable, and even the UK these days, dare I say it.
So, when am I going to talk about chocolate, waffles, and Tin Tin? It’s coming, I assure you. But this preamble is necessary. To highlight the fact that this little, in places picture-postcard nation, is packed with irregularities and quirks. And for myself personally, Belgium was perhaps one of my least explored countries in Europe before this trip. That Belgium is one of the closet countries to the UK makes this inexcusable. But I think this is the same for a lot of potential tourists. With Amsterdam to the north, Paris to the south, and London just across the channel, it’s easy to see why Belgium might get overlooked from time to time. That, and the fact that its capital, Brussels, is a traffic-clogged and rather uninspiring place. I first visited in 2010. I next set foot in Belgium in 2023. Which perhaps speaks volumes.
In Bruges. Literally?
After a day of driving up to Belgium from Turin, Italy, I finally arrived in Bruges. I’d heard better things of Bruges than of Brussels. And when I strolled into this little chocolate box of a town, I could see why. First, because every other shop was a chocolatier. And second, because there are perhaps few medieval towns in the world that are as well preserved as Bruges. Strolling its cobbled streets, you’re treated to a quite delightful array of miniature and colourful brick houses. Often wonky and slightly dilapidated. But topped with iconic Flemish stepped gable roofs, which make it look like they’ve been built out of Lego. Perfectly manicured flower boxes often sit outside them, cranking the ‘twee’ level up to 100%.
To make the place even more picturesque, Bruges is bisected by a plethora of cute and winding little canals, crossed by ancient stone bridges and filled with pretty barges. Overlooked by a few of Bruges’s famous towers. The Belfry, most notably, is almost 800 years old. A gothic structure so dark and brooding it looks straight out of Lord of the Rings. Indeed, I felt fairly sure when I saw it that the eye of Sauron wouldn’t look out of place on top of it. There’s the Church of Our Lady of Bruges, which is the third tallest brick building in the world. It’s around 30 storeys high, impressive given that it was built many hundreds of years ago. It’s these structures, among others, that give you the feeling that Bruges hasn’t changed for centuries.
Unfortunately, other people are aware of Bruges’s charms (even if they’re less keen on Belgium overall). If someone goes on a holiday to Belgium, Bruges is often the main or only place they might visit. The city only has a population of around 100,000 people, so it can at times feel overrun by tourists. You can’t walk more than a few feet without passing a touristy-Belgian waffle place, or overhearing an American talk loudly about how “small everything is here”. In the central square, there are horse-drawn carts to take tourists around town. When I visited, it was over 30 degrees Celsius most days. So, the scent of horse manure was liable to waft and bellow around the city’s narrow streets and alleys, ever so slightly less appealingly than the smell of waffles or chocolate.
After a few days exploring Bruges, we’d had our fill of chocolates and waffles and tourists. So we drove for around 30 minutes – a veritable eternity when Belgium’s small scale is considered – and arrived in Ghent. Ghent felt more like a ‘real’ city than Bruges. There were actual people doing stuff. Like going to work, studying, and the alike. It wasn’t a town that existed only as a very nice but sort of Disneyland-version of a twee European town. Once again, there was much to like about Ghent. It had pretty canals and charming stepped gabbled roofs. And in the centre of town, building facades which were so old they appeared to lean over the pavement; as if they could collapse at any minute. Perhaps they could? Locals cycled around and oozed class. Indeed, lots of Belgians appeared to wear those tiny, circular reading glasses which makes you assume they must be intelligent.
Around half a million Flemish Belgians live in Ghent. It reminded me of Amsterdam, but a quieter, less overrun version of it. In the historic centre, there’s a place where three canals converge, almost into a fork. It’s overlooked by ancient gothic structures and wonky church steeples. It was still stiflingly hot. And against my better judgement, I felt that a beer could help with the heat and my thirst, despite the fact I’m a massive lightweight and barely touch alcohol these days. Or that drinking poison (which is what alcohol literally is) probably isn’t good for hydration. Even I was shocked at how inebriated one drink could make me. I checked the alcohol percentage only after finishing the drink and feeling like I was ready to go to a nightclub. The Casteel Bier – a dark brown Belgian beer – was a stonking 11% alcohol. Having a pint of 11% strength beer isn’t far off drinking a pint of wine. And in the heat, perhaps, I could be forgiven for how it affected me. But all the beers are incredibly alcoholic. I don’t really know how the Belgians cope.
And Finally, Antwerp
Our final stop was the port city of Antwerp. It’s a bustling city of around half a million people. It’s also Europe’s second busiest port, after Rotterdam. So it has a much grittier, industrial feel than Bruges or Ghent. Down by the docks, this means there’s been scope to have some more experimental architecture. Most notably, the late, great Zaha Hadid’s Port House. Where she rather audaciously plonked a spaceship on top of an old fire station. The result is magnificent, much like her masterpiece in Azerbaijan.
In the centre of Antwerp, there’s still pockets of the medieval architecture which defines so much of Belgium. But here perhaps, it’s not been quite as well preserved. The picture below shows one of its loveliest structures towering above a bloody Burger King.
So overall, what can be said about Belgium? It’s highly worth a visit. It’s so small that you can drive between each of these three cities in an hour or two, and the history and chocolates alone would make the country worthy of a visit. And what of Tin Tin, who I promised earlier to speak about? Tin Tin is a fictious Belgian cartoon reporter, and is probably the most famous Belgian ever to have ‘lived’. British and American people – but definitely not me – have been known to play a patronising game called “name ten Belgians”. That’s the game. Give it a go, how many can you get?
My trip didn’t help me much. For me, to get to ten, Tin Tin usually needs to be included in the list. (All the others are footballers, and the country’s prime minister Alexander De Croo, who has a memorable surname). Belgium, this rather mysterious, secretive little place, tucked away right in the middle of Europe, and under your nose if you live in Blighty. It’s definitely worth getting to know it for yourself, even a bit.
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