BRUSSELS -BRUXELLES-BRUSSEL – How does a place get so little respect whose walk-around delicacies include wondrous waffles, where three languages elbow each other for predominance with no victor apparent and where there are cathedrals as old as the hills, diamonds by the billions, amazing chocolate and beer, high fashion and high commerce galore, and where the national monument is a statue of a little kid taking a pee?
Poor little Belgium is so often and maddeningly dismissed as a lightweight by the seasoned travel crowd that you could not appreciate that the tiny little country is so amazingly rich in culture, history, architecture, spirit and fun.
Tucked up between France and the Netherlands, Belgium is where surrounding cultures come to have their great battles. En Germany’s route to Paris, Belgium contains Flanders Field where so much of the horrid, senseless First World War was fought; it is where Waterloo is; where the Battles of the Bulge and the Ardennes took place – and so many other war monstrosities exist on behalf of the bloody neighbors.
Yet it is a terrific place to visit.
About the size of your living room, Belgium is still big enough to have sharp and bitter language wars between the Walloons of the French-speaking south and the Flemish speakers in the north, who actually pretty much speak Dutch which, since no one speaks either Dutch or Flemish, is unintelligible far and wide.
But languages are so important, and fractious, that the place is like some truly ancient Quebec where you can get in more trouble for your vowels than for your behavior. In Brussels (Bruxelles or Brussel, to the take-your-pick locals) They work French and the signs cascade between French, Flemish and English, where only a few miles away to the north, no respect is granted the
Francais (and English is the effective fallback.) There is constant talk of separation but maybe because neither side chooses to understand the other, it goes no where.
They may care deeply but we don’t have to.
We did a fortnight here and are still dazzled by how much there is to see and do in a place that is no bigger than Maryland.
Brussels is a rich mix of the old and the new, the historical and the bureaucratic, the religious and the merrily profane. There are cathedrals here with Reubens’ all over the walls – and businesses with gigantic cartoons in the cartoon-crazy land, painted on their own walls. Tin Tin was from here, as were the Smurfs. There are palaces and museums and the entire leadership of the European Union, today’s would-be lords and sovereigns.
These exist as distractions between snacks. The Belgian waffle, eaten like an ice cream cone covered by chocolate or cream, and the French Fry (invented here) dipped in mayonnaise are what you nibble on walking along.
Ghent and Bruge (Brugges or Bruges or “F^*&#@ Bruge” as Colin Farrell so often dismisses it in the grand move, “In Bruge”) are just minutes away to the west yet are so markedly different in tone and texture that you could truly imagine that you are in a different land entirely.
Ghent is an old university town with distinct gimcrack architecture along its canals while Bruge carries us back centuries with its ancient bridges, beguinages, cathedrals and museums. These are so much more quiet – while so very lively at the same time – as to be must-sees for anyone wanting to sample medieval Europe along with the waffles. And the chocolate. Oh my, yes, the chocolate.
Antwerp (or Antwerpen) to the northeast is so complex and rich that you can watch the world’s largest amassment of diamonds, the faith’s most accomplished art, architecture and history or the times’ hottest new fashions all within block of one another.
There are cathedrals in Antwerp (such as St Paul’s) that are barely noticed in the guides yet upon whose walls hang art around which major cities would build entire museums. Peter Paul Reubens was a local, and his majestic paintings are to be found more here than anywhere else.
Eighty-percent of the world’s diamonds pass through Antwerp to be bought and sold, cut and fashioned by Jewish and Indian artisans. So much of middle Europe’s goods come and go through the great port while so much of the region’s religions finds their home in the vast churches.
The country is small enough that you can stay in one place and take day-trips to the highlights beyond, if you want. Staying at the glorious Metropole in Brussels we very well might have enjoyed its vast luxury as a base and taken the amazing train network for quick-trips to the other locales. We didn’t – but only because we didn’t think of it. Instead we took the zip-along train to Ghent (35 minutes) and then to Bruge (another half-hour.) Later it was to Antwerp (a major trip, all of 80 minutes) and then back to Brussels (40 minutes).
What a great way to travel, the European train. Exactly on time, it flashes across the countryside with destinations of train stations as marvelous as the cathedrals of the city beyond. Buy a 10-trip pass but do not fail to fill out the date and destination before the conductor gets to you or you will risk a scolding. (As a rule, the Belgians never take themselves so seriously as their French and German neighbors — but bureaucrats are bureaucrats everywhere.)
Tourists do visit Belgium in large numbers, and it is wise to stand back and let the clouds of Asians and other following the guides’ flags pass first. The glories of the place aren’t going anywhere.
As with most of Europe, Belgium can be expensive but, as with most of Europe, it’s worth the dime – or euro. So richly international, the country has every sort of restaurant imaginable and some quite unimaginable, too. A high-end dinner out can cost what a small automobile costs but there are all manner of smaller places and chains at very reasonable tabs. Or you can live on the waffles and come home pounds heavier but immeasurably happier.