Date Visited : June 2012.
I like Belgium. Although I only spent a handful of days there, it’s actually one of my favourite countries. It’s also one of the quirkiest, what with its street art, weird beer, pretty towns, and especially its political makeup. I like to think of it in fact as being like a married couple who’ve been together for around ten years, who don’t hate each other but for whom the spark has long since gone, but they stay together “because of the children”.
On first sight, much of this doesn’t seem to make sense. This is the country, after all, that at the time of writing, holds the world record for the longest period of time after an election without having a government (589 days), a situation caused primarily because of arguments between the French and Dutch speaking parts of the country which are so complex and typically “Belgian” that even Belgians can’t truly explain it.
Belgium is bi-lingual. In the sense that it has two languages, not in the sense that everyone can speak both languages. The train announcements are in whatever is the dominant language it’s passing through at the time, regardless of origin and destination, so on a train from Bruges to Liege, the same guard would talk over the tannoy first in Dutch only, then in both Dutch and French (as it passes through Brussels), then in Dutch only again, before finally in French only as it arrives in Liege.
The quirkiness extends to the towns; they all seem to have a very separate charm. Bruges, for instance, is very olde-worlde and therefore very popular, but even when the tourists have gone it still has that feel, and you can enjoy it more without feeling rushed, sampling it properly. Liege on the other hand is much more ‘gritty’, ‘working-class’ if you will, more reminiscent of the sorts of towns I grew up near in the UK, and a world apart from Bruges (no-one goes on holiday specifically to see St Helens and Warrington, unless you’re a Rugby League fan). Brussels is different again, not just from being the capital and a mish-mash of the two dominant cultural groups, but also from the street art (officially-sanctioned cartoons adorn many of the city walls), and a certain sense that it doesn’t really take itself too seriously (while the Mannekin Pis is undoubtedly famous, only in Belgium would you have a similarly-‘active’ sculpture of both a girl and a dog. The dog is in the artistic quarter. I stopped worrying about symbolism after finishing ‘A’-level English, but even so …).
I felt very safe the whole time I was in Belgium. Even when I was walking through the city streets after dark (and bearing in mind it was June, that meant it was quite late) I never felt like anything bad was going to happen. And even as a foreign tourist, I never felt like I was an obvious target for anything untoward. I certainly felt safer in Brussels than I would have done in Nottingham. Plus the Belgians themselves all seemed to be friendly and approachable; they didn’t appear too stand-offish as they would have been in the UK.
This is despite Belgium being particularly famous for beer. Back in the UK there’s a feeling that alcohol inspires bad behaviour. Although the beer in Belgium tends to be much stronger, it’s also far far tastier, and because it also tends to be quite complex and ‘thick’ in flavour, it’s very hard to drink quickly. Therefore drinking in Belgium is a much more sedate activity. Or maybe I just went to those kinds of bars (hey, they gave free cheese with the drinks so you could cleanse your palate before having the next one).
So, I really enjoyed Belgium, and would happily go back there. Even if it’s only to drink more beer. 🙂