Next stop is Belgium. It is a small country, less than half the size of Scotland for instance, but it packs in 11 million people. It’s also been a key arena in European affairs for all of its existence, being fought over numerous times and being controlled by many of Europe’s great powers (lucky them).
For most people, any mention of Belgium might get them thinking about beer and chocolate, its two most famous exports (and here’s no doubt about it, they do make great beer and chocolate). History buffs might remember Belgium as the reason Britain entered World War One, and if you know a thing or two about politics you might recall the fact that its capital, Brussels, is home to the headquarters of the EU. True as all that may be though, it doesn’t begin to tell the real story of Belgium.
History of Belgium
The history of Belgium starts with a group of Celtic and Germanic tribes called the Belgae. The name apparently means those who swell with anger and battle fury. Anyway, when the Romans came in 100 B.C. (you didn’t think the Romans wouldn’t be involved somewhere did you?), they founded Gallia Belgica, which was an important province as it bordered the Germanic tribes to the East. After the fall of Rome there was a succession of different rulers – the Merovingian Kings, the Carolingian Empire, the Dukes of Burgundy, the Hapsburgs… In the 1560s, the whole area of the low countries – including modern day Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – was ruled by the Spanish Empire of Phillip II. They revolted, and while the Dutch were successful, founding the independent Dutch republic, the rest of the area including modern day Belgium remained under control of the Spanish, then the Austrians and for a time, the French. After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo (which is in Belgium by the way), they were subsumed into the Netherlands again before finally gaining independence in 1830. It was at this time that the modern countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg took shape.
The first half of the 20th century was a tough one for Belgium, as they were invaded by the Germans twice, at the start of both World Wars. Belgium suffered heavy casualties in both of them, and during the First World War much of the fighting on the Western Front took place in Belgium. After the Second World War, Belgium worked very closely economically and politically with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, forming the Benelux group of nations, and became a founder member of NATO and also the European Coal and Steel Community which later became the European Union.
Did you know that ever since 1831, Belgium has been a constitutional monarchy? The current monarch, Philippe, became King in 2013 and is only the 7th King of Belgium (all their monarchs have been men). Where does the first King come from though? Leopold I was the first king. He was born into the ruling family of a German Duchy and started out life as a soldier. Aged only 5 he was given the honorary commission of colonel in the Russian Imperial Army, and seven years later was promoted to Major General. A touch of nepotism there I think! He had a busy career, he was also a member of Napoloeon’s court, before turning down a senior position of adjutant and subsequently making a name for himself fighting against him. He married the British Princess Charlotte who may have become Queen one day had she not died young. After that, Leopold was offered the position of King of Greece, but turned it down before taking up the offer to become King of Belgium.
Enough about history, what sort of country is Belgium? Well it is not part of the ‘low countries’ for nothing – it is mostly flat with a large coastal plain of sand dunes and polders, though there is some upland areas in the Ardenne region. It shares a border with France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, but is culturally a mixture of these groupings. There are two main groups, approximately 60% are the Dutch speaking Flemish community, and the remainder are French speaking Walloons. There’s also a small community of German speakers in the High Fens area bordering Germany.
The main capital of Belgium is Brussels, and is a city of wonderful old city, centering on the aptly named Grand Place. As well as original architectural gems there is some recreated ones too in the rather unusual Mini Europe – a model of Europe built in miniature on a 1:25 scale. Most people don’t manage to visit all of the great sites of Europe in a lifetime, but here you can wander around the main attractions in a single day – the Acropolis, the Eiffel Tower, the Houses of Parliament, the Berlin wall. It’s all here, approximately 80 cities and 350 monuments. Quite a lot to get around, even in miniature! If you are short on time but want to visit real attractions outside Brussels though, you can easily visit some of Belgium’s other marvellous historical cities too like Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent – all within an hour’s train ride from Brussels.
Oh hey, it’s Ohey!
I asked my wife to find a Belgian town or village at random to have a virtual wander through, and she settled on Ohey because she liked the name. It’s a Walloon principality in the province of Namur, so a French speaking area. It’s got a population of about 5,000 and is approximately 90 kilometres from Brussels. I thought at the first that there was going to be nothing to say about Ohey, but I hadn’t reckoned on the 2nd annual Big Spring Clean which is coming up. This seems like a major event in Wallonia, with last year’s Big Clean attracting over 10,000 participants. This year, the Wallonia authorities are offering everyone who takes part a cleaning kit consisting of gloves, fluorescent vest and trash bags. Its purpose is to mobilize as many citizens as possible to “give a glow to their street, their neighbourhood, village, park of forest path”. I think many other places could learn a thing or two from this.
According to the official Ohey website, the area is a corner of land suited for guests “looking for beauty, nature and rest.” It has “pretty parks and castles, churches, imposing farmhouses, typical limestone houses, countryside, woods and thickets”. I’m paraphrasing of course to compensate for some of Google Translate’s more obvious errors, but it sounds lovely. A wander round the village with Google Streetview does nothing to contradict these claims. It looks to be a sleepy place, with pretty stone houses and bright blue street signs, surrounded by lots and lots of greenery. It’s a land that hasn’t caught up with the modern world, with what looks like just a small village convenience store and a post office that only opens at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. There’s something rather nice about that.
When it comes to food, we have a lot to thank Belgium for, starting with Christmas dinner. Oh, not the turkey or the roast potatoes but that good old Christmas perennial Brussels Sprouts. These mini cabbages are thought to have originated from Brussels in the 13th century, and from there spread around the world. Brussels isn’t the only place in Belgium that has given its name to a popular food too – another example is Ardennes Pate. The Ardennes region of Belgium is famous for its smoked meats and pate, which is traditionally made from game such as wild boar.
Brussels sprouts and pate are not to everyone’s tastes, but Belgium has plenty for those with a sweet tooth including its chocolates and of course Belgium waffles. Whatever you choose, why not wash it down with one of many of Belgium’s world famous beers.