It is common knowledge, or, at least it should be common knowledge, that Belgium is home to the best beer in the world. And, obviously, it’s famous for its delectable chocolate. That is probably why Brussels, the capital of Belgium, was chosen as home to both the European Union and NATO. Still, as a tourist destination, Belgium remains grossly underrated. When was the last time you heard of anybody who went for a holiday to Belgium?
Background: a Divided Nation
Belgium is divided into two parts: Dutch speaking Flanders, and French speaking Walloon. With three official languages, Dutch, French and German (two parts speak Dutch, one third speaks French and a small minority speak German as a first language), you would expect things to get complicated. But many people in Brussels, the only officially bilingual part of the country, speak both Dutch and French.
Waiting at Brussels North station for my train to the West Coast, where I would spend the majority of my stay, I got a sense of life in the multilingual capital. The newsstands were filled with a generous choice of papers in both Dutch and French and regular train departure announcements were also in both Dutch and French. Walk into a shop or a cafe and you’re greeted in both languages. As one of Europe’s main business centres, many expats are among the office workers and students that rush through the station, resulting in English also being widely spoken.
In December last year Belgian state television ran a mock breaking news bulletin “announcing” that the Dutch speaking part of the country had declared independence and as a result the king and queen had fled. Only half an hour later did the station inform its viewers that the whole thing was a hoax. But many people, including politicians and ambassadors abroad, had already fallen for the stunt. Criticism came from all sides, that is, apart from the separatist far-right Flemish Interest party, which advocates Flemish independence. The broadcaster later defended the program, stating that it illustrated the importance of the debate on the future of Belgium. But, for some, this longstanding issue is anything but a joke.
According to statistics, many Flemings support the independence of their region, but wouldn’t push for it if it came down to it. Three months after Belgians went to the polls, the country still doesn’t have a government, fuelling speculation by some that the country is running into real trouble. While independence isn’t an aim of any of the major parties in power, the economic gap between the wealthier Flanders and struggling Wallonia has intensified discussions on the subject. The two regions have separate political parties and media, and have enjoyed self-rule since the 1980s. Along with economic, social and cultural differences, these were among the reasons a group of 65 Flemish businesspeople and academics, which released a manifesto in 2005, argued their case for independence. In the meantime, it does seem somewhat ironic that the centre of European politics is having an identity crisis of its own.
A Fishy History
The two-hour train journey from Brussels to the beach resort town of Oostduinkerke in the southwest of the country passes contrasting landscapes of medieval cities and open farmland. While you’re unlikely to visit the Oostduinkerke and its surrounding area for its stunning scenery, the area offers plenty of cultural activities. Its rich history also has significant links to Iceland. Until 1995, local fishermen sailed to Iceland to work in the lucrative cod-fishing industry. Today, the seaside resort town’s economy heavily relies on the many tourists who flock to the sandy beaches, lined with cafes and beach cabins, during the summer months.
However, the fishing industry is also still visible. At low tide you can still catch shrimp fishermen on horseback dragging their nets through the shallow waters off of the beach. These fishermen are one of the village’s tourism draw cards as they are supposedly the only fishermen in the world to fish on horseback. During peak season, they can be seen searching the grey waters of the North Sea before later cooking and selling their catch to hungry passers-by on the beach. The town celebrates its annual Shrimp Festival in late June, which includes a public shrimp fishing competition and culminates in the crowning and procession of the “shrimp queen”, the winner of the teen pageant.
But it wasn’t that long ago when fishing wasn’t so glamorous and fishermen had to travel much further to fill their nets. Once Belgian fishermen sailed to Iceland to earn a living catching cod. Every Friday during July and August a “folkloric” evening is held at the National Fishery Museum in Oostduinkerke to commemorate the history of local fishermen going to sea. The event consists of a market of traditional crafts and foods including hammocks made from fishing net and hand woven baskets, similar to those which hang from each side of the shrimp fishermen’s saddles, and local delicacies such as dried fish and other seafood. Each week a band entertains the crowd with folk songs, now mainly consisting of tourists. My evening there, the group sang about the hardship of sailing to Iceland – the cold (some of the fishermen suffered from frostbite), spending six months of the year away from their families, and eating nothing but cod and potatoes. In the early years, fishermen would also walk long distances to the harbour where their boats were kept before setting sail north
The bodies of some of the fishermen who died at sea in Iceland are buried in a small cemetery next to the museum. While the younger members of the festival’s crowd were using the cemetery as a playground, much to the disgust of some, the locals are generally keen to honour and pass on the history of these men. Though the Amandine, the last trawler that sailed from Belgium’s coast to Iceland, arrived back in April 1995, many festivals and initiatives have been set up to do just this. One such initiative is The Youth for Europe Exchange set up by the European Union, which invites young Icelanders to Oostduinkerke to take part in a cultural and historical exchange with young Belgians in an attempt to foster interest in the history and to forge links between young people of both countries. Many of the fishermen who did not make it back alive were buried on Icelandic soil, while some of the survivors stayed on to live in Iceland. Those that did built and decorated their houses with the remains of the stranded fishing boats.
But this region isn’t just about fishing. Belgium may be one of the most densely populated and urbanised countries in the world, but large areas have also been dedicated to outdoor leisure, such as extensive cycling tracks. The notoriously flat countryside is perfect for the sport, and it’s not uncommon for bicycles to outnumber cars on the roads. The paths wind through peaceful farmland and small villages, but the highly organised mapping and signing system allows you to cycle the whole country with little navigational effort. And because there are so many paths to choose from, you can cycle in relative solitude, even during peak holiday season. At least, that’s what I experienced.
“Venice of the North”
Most commonly referred to as the Venice of the North, the medieval and World Heritage listed city of Bruges lies a little inland from the West Coast. The impressive Old World architecture and canals are worth a visit in themselves, that is, if you don’t mind sharing the tiny streets lined with stores selling what else but pralines, souvenirs of perhaps one of Belgium’s most famous exports – Tintin, and carts selling chips with mayonnaise, with hoards of other tourists. Finding less scenic, but more charming, quaint cobble-stoned back streets wasn’t too difficult, though.
Bruges is famous for its handmade lace. A recently aired program on Belgian television claimed that some of the “locally-made” lace actually comes from China, an allegation that has the local lace makers in uproar. But some of the craft workshops welcome visitors interested in viewing the women making the intricate lace, a skill which apparently takes years to master. After walking the narrow streets and admiring the canals, we stopped at the Béquinages, a once enclosed convent-style (although, less strict) community built during the Middle Ages and designed to help unmarried women (many men lost their lives fighting during this time, leading to a shortage of men) meet their spiritual and material needs while also providing them with a safe place to live. The Béquinages were the result of a semi-religious movement by women in Northern Europe who wanted to maintain a sense of independence. Although the site is a major tourist attraction, the place continues to house women.
It’s clear that the tiny nation Belgium is definitely underrated on the international stage. The weather may not always be fantastic, but the country has a rich history and its people are passionate about preserving tradition. For such a small country, Belgium offers incredible diversity in everything from scenery to culinary delights to things to see and do. Why else would foreign diplomats, cycling-enthusiasts and beer-lovers be equally content on visiting?