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Introducing Belgium

Self-deluding foreigners who’ve never been here often quip that nobody can name five famous Belgians. Or that Belgium is ‘boring’. ‘So there’s beer and mussels, but what else?’ Belgians’ downbeat, self-deprecating sense of humour means that locals are more than happy to let such folks fool themselves. If foreigners want to ignore the country’s astonishing art history, its 60-plus Unesco sites, and bizarre carnivals that make Rio’s look unimaginative, so be it. As one Antwerp resident half-mockingly suggested, ‘Don’t waste your time here, Amsterdam is so much prettier!’

But the truth is that Belgium remains a country where people live well. There are strong social support systems, liberal attitudes, imaginative museums, a vibrant theatrical and artistic life and fabulous food. Belgian beers are divine and endlessly varied. Big new attractions for visitors continue to blossom.

Recent additions to Belgium’s portfolio include state-of-the-art galleries in Mons and Leuven, the superb new Hergé museum at Louvain-laNeuve, and the Magritte Museum and subterranean Coudenberg experience in Brussels. Then there’s the incredibly ambitious Grand Curtius in Liège, which is also where one of Europe’s most extraordinary 21st-century architectural talking points, Liège-Guillemins station, opened in 2009.

Above all, though, Belgium is a country of two distinct halves. Dutch-speaking Flanders (northern Belgium) has a flat, often monotonous landscape, but it is interspersed with fabulous historic cities. These lie close together and are conveniently interconnected by regular trains, making travel by public transport seamless. In French-speaking Wallonia (southern Belgium), however, most attractions are contrastingly rural: caves, castles, bucolic valleys and outdoor activities. Staying in village inns and stringing together several minor countryside attractions can make for a truly delightful experience if you’re driving or have strong cycling legs.

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