By Meryl Hanmer
Bearing the scars of centuries worth of wars, battles and invasions, Belgium is a place of pilgrimage for all those looking to understand, remember and mourn such events. This country demonstrates great sensitivity when it comes to honouring fallen soldiers and places heavy importance on keeping their stories of bravery and courage alive.
Belgium is home to no less than thirteen UNESCO World Heritage sites, with medieval towns rich in enviable architecture, bustling cities ripe with culture and countryside primed for the keen adventurer. This small country has always been a haven for art, for centuries acting as a crucible for European paintings, and to this day is the dawn of modern popular culture such as fashion and the famous comic strips.
Although small in size, Belgium is a country divided by distinct cultural contrasts. The medieval towns of the Flemish-speaking Flanders region in the north seduce more and more visitors each year with their peaceful market squares and step-gables houses that line the enchanting canals. Head south however into the French-speaking Wallonia region and you seamlessly move into a land that is profoundly rural boasting caves, castles and wooded hills all calling to be explored.
Despite the cultural contrasts filtering through the rest of Belgium, Brussels is a city where all world cultures intertwine with one another. As both the capital of Belgium and the administrative capital of the European Union it is undeniable that Brussels is multicultural through to its roots. The cityscape shifts from majestic to rundown from street to street making a simple stroll through the Brussels pathways rather quirky. In one fine swoop, you can swing from the majestic central hub of the Grand Place, to the 1960’s concrete developments and on to the dominating glass of the EU district. A city of contrast if ever there was one!
No other city across the continent can boast as many fast, reliable and direct rail links to other major Western European destinations as can Brussels. With strong links to Paris, Amsterdam, The Hague, Cologne, Frankfurt and many more, Brussels is ideally located for multiple city/country day trips. Discounting other Belgian cities, my personal favourite destinations for day trips from Brussels are Lille (in the north of France, southwest of Brussels), Aachen (small German town that sits closely on the Germany, Netherlands and Belgian border) and Luxembourg City (situated southeast of Brussels in the small landlocked country of Luxembourg).
Located in the Northern ‘Flanders’ region is Belgium’s second largest city and biggest port. With its history dating back to the middle ages, Antwerp is famed for its diamond district which houses thousands of diamond traders, cutters and polishers. With numerous places to admire the work of superstar painter, Pieter Paul Rubens Antwerp draws the attention of art lovers from across the globe. Despite severe bombing during World War II Antwerp has still retained its medieval heart with its Grote Markt, riverside fortress and magnificent cathedral.
With cobbled streets, entrancing canals, a medieval market square and soaring towers, Bruges is one of the more picturesque towns, not only in Belgium but in the entire European continent. The historic churches and charmin g houses make this quaint but popular town immensely photogenic. To capture the most perfect panoramic pictures, a climb up the 83metres high tower on the market square is an absolute must. A spring visit is highly recommended to experience Bruges at its best, every year the town leaves visitors in awe as they view the carpet of daffodils that alluringly line the tranquil courtyards.
Famed amongst citizens as Belgium’s best-kept secret, there is a unanimous love for the north-western port city of Ghent. With fabulous canal-side architecture and a wealth of quirky bars, it remains a great surprise that tourists are scarce. A prominent city-state in the middle ages, today Ghent is a predominantly university town and cultural hub for those wishing to escape the hectic hustle and bustle of the larger Belgian cities. An absolute must-see on a visit to this old city is the 12th-century Gravensteen castle which sits along the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers.
Known worldwide for its luscious chocolate and mouth-watering waffles, Belgium serves up a remarkable range of edible delicacies; however, there is more to this land than just the food. With the greatest diversity of original beer styles on the planet, none can deny that this country has an unrivalled brewing heritage. Perfectly marrying modern innovation with delicate respect for tradition, Belgian beer is hailed as the most expertly sublime. Five beers that consistently rank amongst the countries favourites are: Westmalle Triple, De Ranks XX bitter, Rodenbach Grand Cru, St Bernardus Wit and Boon Oude Gueuze.