Late British comic Bob Monkhouse used to joke ‘I went to Belgium once. It was closed.’ Little understood, riddled with Eurocrats, somehow between places – all these impressions have contributed to Belgium’s dull rep. But dig a bit and you’ll find that Belgium is actually fascinating. Here are 10 reasons to cast prejudice aside and head for the Pearl of the Low Countries.
Double- and triple-fried frites
Though the Brits claim them, Belgium is the spiritual home of chips – it’s where golden frites have been perfected. Take them with moules (mussels) at a restaurant, or after a night of beer grab them from a fritkot, the ubiquitous small carts selling chips in paper cones, with mayo. Last year Belgium even held a chip festival. That’s serious.
Snooty jokers might invite people to think of 10 famous Belgians. No problem: hit them with Audrey Hepburn, Jacques Brel, Adolphe Sax (who invented the saxophone), Herge (aka George Remi: Tintin’s author), one-hit wonder Plastic Bertrand, super-surrealist René Magritte (for more on him, see below), ‘hot jazz’ guitarist Django Reinhardt, buff Jean-Claude Van Damme, writer George Simenon and mega-cyclist Eddy Merckx. Don’t mention the Smurfs, obviously.
Talking of Tintin, Belgium is the centre of comic strips or, as they are called here, bandes dessinées. As well as the boy detective, there’s Lucky Luke, Gaston and Gil Jourdan (well, they’re big in Belgium, anyway). At Brussels’ brilliant Comic Strip Centre, you’ll find exhibitions and artworks, including Tintin’s rocket from Destination Moon, all housed in splendid Waucquez Warehouse, an art nouveau masterpiece by architect Victor Horta. There’s even a Brussels' Comic Book Route following murals through the city’s neighbourhoods.
We know. They’re everywhere. But Belgium is a great Christmas market destination because its medieval town centres are so quaint in winter – all canals, twinkly lights, ice rinks and stepped gables. For the pick of Belgium’s Christmas markets try Bruges, Brussels or, for a more poignant feel, Ypres – the centre of commemorations for the centenary of WWI in 2014. All three are pretty close to each other.
Brussels is the world centre of the curvaceous architectural and decor style. It goes back to King Leopold II’s reign, from 1867–1909, when Belgium flourished, commissioning masterpieces from designers including Victor Horta, Paul Hankar and Henri van de Velde. Highlights include the Hotel Tassel, the Musée Horta, the Musée Constantin Meunier, and the Palais Stoclet by Josef Hoffman. After that lot, you’ll need refreshment – so try Le Ultieme Hallucinatie bar, where even the piano is art nouveau.
Belgium is the Bordeaux of beer, with more than 125 breweries making more than 1000 beers. This happy scenario has been caused by good quality water, Belgium’s mix of German and Latin cultures – and entrepreneurial religious orders with brewing traditions. Even the lowest estaminet (bar) takes beer seriously, and from Flemish Flanders through to French-speaking Wallonia, you’ll find new beers en route, served in branded goblets. ‘Cheers’ is proost in Flemish, and santé in French. You’ll need both.
Or Gent, if you’re local. Many visitors target rinky-dink Bruges but Ghent is richer in sights, with more listed buildings than any other Belgian city. Start at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, to view the 1432 altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers; roam Gravensteen, Ghent’s castle; take in Rubens at the Museum of Fine Arts; punctuate with coffee and waffles. See the sun down at ‘t Dreupelkot, a little gin palace on the Groentenmarkt, then end with a warming bowl of Gentse waterzooi, Belgium’s national stew. Job done.
Fashion in Antwerp
The port of Antwerp was recently ranked 11 in the top 50 fashion capitals in the world. How come? Much of the props are due to a group of influential graduates from the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, including Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten, who booted Antwerp to the top of the fashion class in the 1980s. Now the city is a great fashion shopping centre, so head for the Het Zuid neighbourhood and follow your fashion nose – or pick up an Antwerp Fashion Map from the tourist office.
Go to the Belgian seaside. There are belle époque resorts, plentiful dunes, wide beaches, stripey wind breaks, and the most continuous tramline in the world. In just 67km you’ll find cute Koksijde, known for its shrimps; classy Knokke; racy Ostend, for nightclubbing and casino; Zeebrugge, for old buildings and its vast fish market; and Belgium’s Blackpool, Blankenberg. At De Panne the amusement park Plopsaland makes English speakers snigger, for some reason.
Something about surrealist artist René Magritte is very Belgian. Outwardly normal, inwardly eccentric, he painted trains coming out of fireplaces, and skies raining with bowler-hatted men. Born in Lessines, the son of a merchant and a suicidal mother, he studied art and became involved with the surrealist movement. By the 1960s he was feted by museums worldwide, and is now a symbol of Belgium, with his own museum in Brussels (since 2009), the Musée Magritte.