Friday, October 3, 2008

Taking the grand tour: starting in Belgium

When starting the Grand Tour in Belgium, I am doing something that makes sense in more ways than one, and still would not be very common for a Belgian to do. Belgians unfortunately take too little pride in their own country, chosing to focus on the negative and considering themselves too small to be of notice. This attitude however denies many of our guests the discovery of one of the pearls in Europe's crown.
If you were to fly to Brussels, capital of Belgium, you would actually see posters welcoming you in 'the heart of Europe', and Belgium is that in more ways than one. That is why starting here makes sense. Belgium is not just at the center of Europe, but also the place where the European government seats. Above that, it is a crossroad of many of the European cultures and styles and therefor can give guests a bit of a taste of everything.
So... welcome to Belgium, my homeland! Make yourself comfortable, because this might be a long post!
What is important to know about Belgium? I could of course surround you with facts here. There are so many for such a small country, because Belgium IS small. It is about the size of Maryland, and despite that fact it has more governments to steer this one country than the US has, not to mention the mount of actively participating political parties....
The reasons for that are historic and strongly related to what I said earlier: Belgium finds itsself at the crossroad of many European cultures. This is most reflected in the languages. Belgium has no less than three official languages: Dutch, French, and German, and groups of the different language communities do not always get along, not just because the language, but also because the different regions have developed historically different. Unfortunately, if I delved into Belgian politics, I would need at least ten blogposts for that topic alone. Instead, I will give you the basics:
Belgium is federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Wow! That is a mouthful isn't it? What it means is that the Belgian government is elected by the people, based on the constitution. There is a monarchy, but the powers of the king are mainly symbolic. He is a unifying figure who must be above party politics, but does sign laws into power, though he does not have veto powers over those laws. The fact that Belgian, after consitutional reforms in the seventies is a federal state means that different parts of Belgium have autonomy of decision on certain terrains. The current King of Belgium is named Albert II. He followed after the death of his brother Boudewijn I and will be normally succeeded by his son Philip I.

But... you did not come to Belgium just to hear a lesson about politics. In fact, you don't even exactly know where Belgium is. This map will give you an idea. Belgium is the small, yellow triangular country across from England, and in between France, Germany, Luxembourgh and the Netherlands. Now... why would you come here for your Grand Tour, aside from the convenient location in the middle of more famous destinations? Three good reasons: art, history and food.
To the surprise of many, Belgium is a very young country. It actually is younger than the United States, having become independent from the Netherlands in 1830 and with the first King (Leopold I, imported from Germany) swearing the oath on the 21st of July in 1831. However, it is hard to find a richer history anywhere in Europe for the regions that have formed the current Belgium. Sometimes it is named the battlefield of Europe, and since Roman times, each conquering army has tried to get the rich regions under it's thumb. The current Belgium has belonged to Rome, fighting tribes, France, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany... and each of those conquerors have not only failed to keep it, but also have left behind a bit of their style, their culture, and their influence. You have probably heard of the battle of Waterloo against Napolean. The Siege of the Yser in the first world war, and the battle of Bastogne in the second. Less known are the medieval battle of the Golden Spurs, or the early seventeenth century Battle of Sluis.
If you wish to read more about the history of Belgium, I can recommend this page for a quick overview:

Coming to Belgium means being surounded by this ancient History. Belgians in general have a long memory, even if it is stuck under layers of daily life enjoyment. It is less openly celebrated than in many other countries and there certainly is less of a patriotic feeling, but if you look around you, you will see the plaques remembering the fallen, the statues from heroes of 1302.
It will also mean seeing the known art cities of Flanders: Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges. The beautiful capital of Brussels with it's City Hall build in 1402, and the houses of the guilds surounding the Grand Place square. Antwerp with the most beautiful Cathedral in the world, as those of Antwerp claim, (It has the less notable distinction of being the place where I married.)the house of Rubens, the river Schelde, the unique atmosphere of modern and medieval mingling. Ghent, with the beautiful bellfry, the clothhall and the cathedral and last but certainly not least Brughes, once called: the Venice of the North, with its tiny medieval streets were you can easily imagine the way life used to be.

Belgium is more than Flanders. In Wallonia we find the three beautiful cities of Liege, Tournai and Namur with its famous citadel. Or what to think of the many castles, with the castle of Modave as one of my all time favourites both for it's looks as for the wonderful way they interior tells of it's history. You might be surprised by the connections with the famous French Palace of Versailles. It in itsself is worth a visit, not to speak of the surrounding countryside with the smallest city in the world Durbuy.
For more views of this beautiful castle, have a look at this page:

This post has gone on so long, but there is so much to tell about this tiny country. What about the wonderful art that was created, some say, because of the beautiful light Belgium offers. World famous artists like Rubens, Van Dijck, Magritte have lived and worked here. There were Brussels famous tapestry ateliers. Adolphe Sax, who developed the saxophone was Belgian. The Art Deco architect Horta was Belgian, as was Herge, the author of the comic Tintin. What about the intricate lace for which Belgium is famous and that in some ateliers or homes still is handmade day by day, Antwerp diamond jewelry or the famous Belgian fashion designers.

And we haven't even talked about the food. Of course you know that Belgium is famous for it's chocolates, and perhaps you have heard about the beer. By now you will realise that Brussels sprouts come from Belgium, named after the region around the capital. Brussels andives are delicious and we can't even start on regional specialities like Brussels waffles, Liege waffles, smoked Ardennes ham, or the witte pens, a soft white sausage that is delicious to eat with apple sauce. If you want to try some of the Belgian cuisine, these are a few recipes that I can claim to be true regional specialities:Waterzooi (a creamy chicken dish): met pruimen (Rabit with prune sauce): (carrot and potato mash): (for a variation with leeks see: )Balletjes (Belgian meatballs): (Flemmish Carbonade): or (Brussels Waffles): madame (grilled cheese sandwich with egg): (croque monsieur is the same, but without an egg, and croque hawaii adds a slice of pineaple with the ham and cheese)Pannekoeken (Belgian Pancakes): in de oven (chicory with cheese in the oven): (mussels); (one of the easiest seafood recipes you'll find)Rijstpap (riz au lait) (a cheap and great desert)Frieten (Belgian fries): (these twice baked fries will be the best you ever tried. My mother taught me that you know when they are finished for the first time baking when they 'sing'. This is a nice step by step version with more details:
Look at this page for some photographs and more comments on some of the recipes:

And then there is the mentality of the Belgians, who do not take themselves too serious. Who are surrounded daily by history, from the biggest art cities, to the small parish churches that can date back more than a thousand years. Who have made an enjoyment of life into an art form in the small daily rituals. Belgians eat much more as one family at the dinner table. Most households have only one television, and people watch together, or don't watch. Going to the market on saturday for fresh vegetables, fruit and regional specialities is something that even urbanites apreciate and is just part of the fabric of daily life in the smaller villages. Small villages as well as big cities still have the specialised shops: butcher, baker, milk and cheese, where the products are much more varied than in any supermarket. And food is a serious matter. Of course you will encounter the local or international fast food restaurants, but they are never considered a place to actually have dinner. Going out to eat is done less frequently than it is in the US, but when it is done, it is taken seriously. A meal is supposed to take time, and no waiter worth his salt is going to just put the check on your table when you are finishing up. I remember a funny incident during my courtship when my now-husband and I sat waiting for a long time after dinner at a restaurant. After a while I asked if he didn't think it was time we would go. He agreed but said: "well, we haven't gotten the check yet." "of course not." I explained, "We have not asked for it yet." After all, putting the check on your table would be tantamount to telling you they want you to leave and that would be considered most rude in Belgium, where especially in restaurants and smaller shops, the service will show you that the customer is still king, a leasurely king at that, because the pace of life in general is much, much slower.

By now I have shown you some of Belgians history, some of it's art treasures, allowed you to virtually taste some of it's food, and allowed a tiny glimps into the Belgian lifestyle. It is time we conclude our trip to Belgium with a few final thoughts:
To Remember:
I would like you to remember the following things about Belgium:
- Belgium is about the size of Maryland and can be found in the center of Europe, across from England- Though it has a king (Albert I), it is a parlimentary democracy, and has three official languages: Dutch, French and German (although most people also speak a bit of English)- Because they have been conquered by just about anyone, Belgians do not take themselves or their country too serious.- Three famous Belgian artists are Rubens, Van Dyck and Magritte- Belgian food is rich and delicious
Now... a homework assignment! I will give several assingments and let you pick one. Please let me know in a note if you have done one and what your thoughts were.
Practical assignment:
- Prepare one of the Belgian recipes for your family (the fries or croque madame are particularly easy, as are the stoemp or pannekoeken). Do not forget to eat it together as a family! You don't need the good china, but a nicely made table with a cheery cloth will definitely get you in the mood. Research assignment:
- Do an internet search and read more about any one of the following topics (I know, I've given you a lot to read already):
Waterloo, Flanders, Battle of the golden spurs, Rubens, Van Dyck, Antwerpen, Ghent, Bruges, Ardennes, Bastogne, Ypres, Yser, Belgian monarchy, Belgian fashion, Antwerp Diamond or Belgian tapestryEasy assignment:
- Mention three facts about Belgium to someone else in the next few days. And do not forget to tell me how they reacted to your new found wisdom! *W*

Well, that was finally it... until tomorrow when we visit France, I will leave you to your day! I hope you've enjoyed it and I will most definitely try to keep the next lesson a lot shorter! We have a saying in Dutch: "waar het hart van vol is, loopt de mond van over: (What fills the heart, spills out of the mouth)
May you have a wonderful day. I will leave you with a few last pictures of my wedding in Antwerp!


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