Belgium is a low-lying country on the North Sea coast in the Benelux. With the majority of West European capitals within 1,000km or 622 miles of the Belgian capital of Brussels, and as a member of the long-standing international Benelux community, Belgium sits at the crossroads of Western Europe. Its immediate neighbours are France to the southwest, Luxembourg to the southeast, Germany to the east and the Netherlands to the north.
Belgium is a densely populated country trying to balance the conflicting demands of urbanization, transport and industry with commercial and intensive agriculture. It imports large quantities of raw materials and exports a large volume of manufactured goods, mostly to other EU countries.
Belgium is the heir of several former Medieval powers, previously named Belgae (or Belgica reference to the Roman Empire period), and you will see traces of these everywhere during your trip in this country.
After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, the territory that is nowadays Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, was part of Lotharingia, an ephemeral kingdom soon to be absorbed into the Germanic Empire; however, the special character of "Lower Lotharingia" remained intact in the feudal Empire: this is the origin of the Low Countries, a general term that encompasses present-day Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
The widely autonomous fiefdoms of the Low Countries were amongst the richest places in Medieval Europe and you will see traces of this past wealth in the rich buildings of Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai, Mons, etc. These cities progressively fell under the control of a powerful and ambitious family : the Dukes of Burgundy. The whole realm of the dukes extended from the Low Countries to the borders of Switzerland. Using wealth, strategy, and alliances, the Dukes of Burgundy aimed at reconstituting Lotharingia. The death of the last Duke, Charles the Bold, put an end to this dream. However, the treasures of the Dukes of Burgundy remains as a testimony of their rules in Belgian museums and landmarks.
Flat coastal plains in northwest, central rolling hills, wooded hills and valleys of Ardennes Forest in southeast.
Temperate; mild winters, cool summers; rainy, humid, cloudy. Average annual temperature between 1976-2006: 10°C
Belgium consists of three federal regions, listed from North to South:
The northern, Dutch-speaking region of the country. It includes well known cities like Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. The Flemish provinces are (from west to east): West-Flanders, East-Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish-Brabant and Limburg.
The bilingual capital region of the country and headquarters of the EU.
The southern, French-speaking region, incorporating a small German speaking region in the east near the German border. The Walloon provinces are (from west to east): Hainaut, Walloon Brabant, Namur, Liège and Luxembourg.
Being such a small country (300 km as its maximum distance), you can get anywhere in a couple of hours. Public transport is fast and comfortable, and not too expensive. Between larger cities, there are frequent train connections, with buses covering smaller distances. A useful site is InfoTEC which has a door-to-door routeplanner for the whole country, covering all forms of public transport (including train, bus, subway and tram).
A look on the map may suggest that Brussels is a good starting point to explore Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge, Namur and Leuven on day trips. Antwerp is popular among those who want to be in a cosmopolitan place, and Ghent is tops with those who like a good mix of open-minded provincialism.
To do some local sightseeing, especially in Flanders, a lot of infrastructure is available for cycling. Bikes can be rented virtually everywhere. In the country side of Wallonia, mountainbikes are available, and rafting is popular along the border with Luxembourg.
- As anywhere else in the world, avoid the tourist traps, where the touts are trying to get you in the restaurants. You will get average to bad quality food for average to high prices, and, at busy times, they will try to get rid of you as soon as possible to make space for the next customer. A good example of this is the famous "Rue des Bouchers/Beenhouwersstraat" in Brussels in this picture.
- Belgium is a country that understands what eating is all about and can be a real gastronomic paradise. You can have a decent meal in about every tavern, from small snacks to a complete dinner. Just pop into one of those and enjoy it.
- If you want to eat really well for not too much money, ask the local people or the hotel manager (that is, supposing he does not have a brother restaurant-manager) to give some advice for a good restaurant. Not a bad idea is to find a restaurant or tavern a little bit outside of the cities (if advised by some locals) they are usually not too expensive but deliver decent -> high quality food. And ordering the specialties during the season will be both beneficial for your wallet and the quality of the food.
- Quality has its price: since the introduction of the euro, price for eating out in Belgium nearly doubled. Expensive food like lobster or turbot will always cost a lot of money at any restaurant. But you can also find some local and simple dishes, rather cheap and still very tasty (such as sausages, potatoes and spinach). Normally a dinner (3 dishes) will be around 30 - 50 eurosm depending your choices of food and restaurant. And for cheap, greasy food, just find a local 'frituur', it will be the best Belgian Fries you'll have had in ages.
For party-minded people, Belgium can be great. Most cities are close to each other and are either large urban areas (Brussels, Antwerp) or student areas (Leuven, Liège, Ghent), etc. In this little region, you will find the most clubs, cafés, restaurants per square mile in the world. A good starting point can be places with a strong student/youth culture : Leuven around its big university, Liège in the famous "carré" district, etc. You can expect a wide variety in music appreciation, going from jazz to the better electronic music. Just ask around for the better clubs and there you will most likely meet some music fanatics who can show you the better underground parties in this tiny country.
The government has a mostly liberal attitude towards bars, clubs and parties. They acknowledge the principle of "live and let live". As long as you don't cause public disturbance, vandalize property and get too drunk, the police will not intervene. This also one of the main principles of Belgian social life, as this sort of behaviour is generally considered offensive. Of course, in student communities this is more tolerated, but generally, you are most respected if you party as hard as you like- but with a sense of discretion and self-control.
Officially, drugs are not allowed. But as long as you respect the aforementioned principles, you are not likely to get into serious trouble. Beware though, that driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs is not tolerated and traffic laws are strictly enforced in this matter. Especially in the weekends on main roads, you have a good chance of being stopped for an alcohol control.
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