Belgium is wonderful
Back in the days Belgium was still part of Laurasia, our earlier inhabitants, the iguanodons, decided to stay. The weather was pleasant, the accommodation was good. The type species of the iguanodon, “bernissartensis”, in fact refers to the village of Bernissart in Belgium, where the largest find occurred. At least 38 individuals were found in a coal mine in 1878. This bulky herbivore is estimated to have weighed about 3.5 tons and measured about 10 meter. It walked on 2 and on 4 legs. We don’t know why.
We also welcomed the Neanderthals until they became extinct. It did not help that they ate each other. They have lived here alongside with the European early modern humans for more than 4,000 years. Those Belgian early modern humans are the founding fathers of Europe: DNA reveals all Europeans are related to a group that lived in Belgium 35,000 years ago. Your visit to Belgium may become a bit more personal!
The name Belgium comes from the Belgae, a large confederation of tribes living in northern Gaul. Julius Caesar noted about the Belgae that they were the bravest. It is only part of the quote and we tend to interpret it in a convenient way. The etymology of Belgae: to swell with anger. You have been warned. One of the angry Belgians was Godfrey of Bouillon, who led the first crusade and ended as the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Belgium was created as a buffer state and a French speaking unitary constitutional monarchy. It turned into a complex institutional lasagna with governments and parliaments on various levels. Brussels is bilingual (French and Dutch), the northern part called Flanders is Dutch speaking, the southern part called Wallonia is French speaking. And we have a German speaking corner. Government formation can be a challenge. Since 2011 Belgium is holding the world record of days without a government: 589, closely followed by Iraq.
If your reading stops here, we do want you to know that the saxophone, plastic, BMI and the big bang theory are Belgian inventions, every spa worldwide refers to the thermal baths in the Belgian town of Spa, and we have more comic strip artists per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. For introductions on Belgian fries, waffles, chocolate and beer and why you should visit most other Belgian cities, we happily refer to the world wide web. A selection of cities is discussed below.
Antwerp is often second. According to the inhabitants of Antwerp, it is second to none, but it is e.g. the second biggest city in Belgium, it has the second biggest sea port of Europe and the Antwerp football team has been playing in the second league for over a decade. But it is the biggest raw diamond trade hub in the world and is also Belgium’s fashion capital. This was already illustrated in the paintings of Antwerp’s baroque superstars Rubens and Van Dyck. In the 1980s six fashion designers (the Antwerp Six: Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela) have put Antwerp back on the international map of contemporary fashion design. Antwerp’s architectural offer ranges from medieval churches to Zaha Hadid’s latest addition to the Antwerp skyline: the Port House (2016). For our guests from Japan: Nello and Patrasche are sleeping in front of the Antwerp Cathedral. For more information, please click here.
Bruges is one of the most well preserved medieval cities in Europe. It also referred to as the Venice of the North. It has all the beauty Venice has to offer, but with less pigeons and no cruise ships. Strategically located on crossroads of the northern Hanseatic League and the southern trade routes, it turned into a chief commercial city of the western world, with a thriving textile industry. In 1309 the Bourse opened (most likely the first stock exchange in the world) and developed into the most sophisticated money market of the Low Countries in the 14th century. The wealth of the city resulted in the entire city center being protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. With the city center closed off to cars, it can be easily explored on foot, by boat ride along quiet canals, or – less quiet – by horse-drawn carriage over cobblestone streets. Although Bruges is a small city, it will easily take more than one day to explore all of its architectural, artistic (e.g. Flemish primitives) and religious (e.g. cloth with blood of Jesus Christ) treasures, chocolate shops, lace boutiques and local restaurants. Don’t forget to watch the swans on the Lake of Love. For more information, please click here.
In the words of Lonely Planet: “Ghent might just be the best European city you've never thought of visiting, in a country that continues to be criminally overlooked.” But let’s not talk about crime and focus on this funky, creative university town with an architecturally diverse setting, cosy and vibrant, inhabited by stubborn and colourful characters. When visiting the Saint Bavo Cathedral, beware of the altar piece. Several cases of adoration of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Van Eyck brothers, 1432) have been reported. In the Belfry next door, you will find the world’s oldest fencing club. In 1180 Philippe d’Alsace, Count of Flanders, built the Castle of the Counts in the city centre, modeled after crusaders castles. It turned into a courthouse, a prison and a factory. Now it is a castle again. In the direct neighbourhood you will find different stands selling the cone shaped Ghent candy ‘cuberdon’ or ‘nose’. The vendors are known for their quarrels in this highly competitive market. If you are still around on 14 July, do visit the Gentse Feesten, a 10 day music, theatre and street animation festival. Here you will find more information.
If you are traveling by car, follow any of the following signs: Liège, Lüttich or Luik. When traveling by train, your stop is the impressive, white train station designed by Santiago Calatrava. Liège is Belgium’s third biggest city. Nickname: the fervent city (“la cité ardente”). As it was the capital of the prince-bishopric of Liège for about ten centuries (8th until 18th), is has a rich medieval (and military) history. In the 16th century, it emerged as the center of metal and in particular weapons industry. Lots of wars imply lots of weapons, and wealth for the region of Liège – to the extent they developed their own Liège baroque style. Still today it hosts Europe’s largest exporter of military small arms, FN Herstal, which is fully owned by the Walloon government. For those who like running up stairs: the 374 steps of the Montagne de Bueren take you up to the Citadel. You have to cross the river Meuse to find out all about Tchantchès and the typical Liège puppet theatre. Some classical music trivia to end with: both César Franck and Eugène Ysaÿe were born here. For more information, click here.
European Capital of Culture 2015, Mons is a dynamic city with a rich heritage located close to the French border and at the center of the largest mining and industrial region of Belgium. In April 1893 the first general strike in Belgium (and according to some historians, in Europe) was called by the Belgian Labour Party to pressure the government to introduce universal male suffrage in elections. It was called under the pressure of the miners of the Mons region. At the main square you find the 15th century gothic town hall and a monkey statue in front of it. It is unclear what the monkey is doing there, but patting it on the head apparently brings luck. Every year Mons celebrates Doudou, a procession, the descent and the uprising of the shrine of Sainte-Waudru and Lumeçon, a one hour battle of Saint George with the dragon. Other must sees are Belgium’s only baroque belfry and the Brabant gothic collegiate church Sainte-Waudru. For 20th and contemporary art fans, a visit to the BAM is recommended. For more information,please click here.
Namur is the capital of Wallonia located at the confluence of the rivers Sambre and Meuse. Enjoy a stroll through the medieval city center, with its belfry and Saint Aubain Cathedral and hike up to the Citadel, an impressive stronghold. A first version was built by Romans, followed by an upgrade by the Merovingians, the Spanish, the Austrians, the French and the Dutch. It was demilitarized only in 1975 and is now open to the public. In both World Wars Namur was severely hit. In World War I it was a major target: the river Meuse was considered a gateway to France. In World War II Namur was in frontlines of both the Battle of the Ardennes (1940) and the Battle of the Bulge (1944). The only fight in Namur these days is the annual Battle for the Golden Stilt, a tradition that dates back from 1411. Two stilt walker teams, the ‘Mélans’ from the old city with their yellow and black stilts and the ‘Avresses’ coming from beyond the walls on their red and white stilts confront each other. The goal is to make all members of the other team fall. Louis XIV, Peter the Great and Napoleon were fans. I am convinced you will like it too. For more information, click here.