In late May 2012 I spent a few days in Belgium. For a small country the Belgians speak a lot of languages! There are 3 official languages French, Dutch (Flemish) and German.
In and around Brussels and the Southern part of the country French is the most common language with Dutch as a secondary language (and of course many people speak English), to the North it is predominately Dutch (such as Antwerp) and in parts of the East of the country it is German (at one stage I thought I was actually in Germany until I looked at the map in more detail to discover I was well and truly still in Belgium! I was eating a Currywurst mit salate und frites and everyone was speaking in German).
I stayed in the capital of Brussels (Bruxelles) and did day trips to Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) and Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch). All interesting and beautiful cities, I had kind of always bypassed Belgium in past trips to Europe but I am glad I finally made it there. The people are friendly, the sights are wonderful and the food is great! Later I travelled through the Ardennes (between Bastogne and Liege) and Luxembourg but more on that later.
Any trip to Belgium must include eating Frites (fries with a multitude of different mayonnaise based sauces such as curry, pepper etc. – the Belgians claim to have invented fries..not sure why they are called “French Fries”???) and Belgian Waffles (the traditional way is just with a dusting of sugar but you can add all sorts of toppings such as chocolate and fruit). Mussels and Frites are very popular (and expensive!). Of course there are also the vast number of multitude of Belgian beers (many well in excess of 8% alcohol content) – if you drink in tourist areas expect to pay premium prices but if you walk a couple of blocks away it will be much cheaper, or even better just buy them for less than $2 Euro at a convenience store.
The streets of Brussels are a mix of the old and the new with lots to see. There is Grand Place (first established in the late 11th century) which is surrounded by Guild Halls and the Town Hall and the nearby “Manneken Pis” statue (yes the little urinating boy – on certain days someone dresses him in different outfits. I saw him undressed and in some sort of graduate garb), along with the European Parliament, the Royal Palace and gardens, impressive cathedrals and much more.
Bruges is the capital of the West Flanders Province and the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a canal based city that came into prominence from the 12th century and was at various stages one of the most important port cities in the world. Today it is predominately a tourist destination dotted with cathedrals and ancient buildings along picturesque streets including the Town Hall on Burg Square, the impressive 13th century Belfry tower on the Markt (Market Square) and the Church of our Lady.
I went to Antwerp on a whim but what a beautiful place it turned out to be. It is the capital of the Flanders province and dates back to the 4th century! The port city particularly came to prominence in the 16th century when foreign traders started to move there from Bruges and it became an important international trading centre. The most prominent buildings are the massive Cathedral of our Lady (construction commenced in the 14th century), the 16th century Town Hall and Guildhouse’s around the Grote Markt (Main Square) and Het Steen (“The Stone“) a part of the old citadel. Even the Central Train Station is an impressive monument (completed in 1905)!
Also for me a short trip by train from Brussels to the Herge Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve was essential. Herge was the creator of Tintin and so much more. This museum is a tribute to the life of Herge and his work that is cherished around the world. There are photos, models, artworks, sketches and personal mementos on display. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photos inside the museum.