TRAVEL TALK

Belgium: small country, big travel experience


Published: Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 8:00 p.m.

Belgium usually garners one day on whirlwind European tours (“If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”), but you could spend two weeks and not be bored.

Brussels has a cosmopolitan as well as small-town ambiance, and the Grand-Place, Royal Palace, museums, magnificent cathedrals and strolls through the parks should be included. Even the metro stations are decorated with paintings, sculptures and mosaics.

If you visit Manneken-Pis (the little statue of a boy peeing), you might wonder what all the fuss is about, but take it as a sign of the Belgians' good-natured humor. And the Atomium, constructed for the 1958 World's Fair, still impresses.

One of the interesting aspects of Belgium is the division of the country between the Flemish/Dutch-speaking population of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. But it's also confusing with cities having different spellings. The University town with its magnificent Town Hall is Leuven, or Louvain in French. And if you visit Mechelen, its French name is Malines.

Worth a couple of nights' stay is lively and colorful Antwerp (in English), Antwerpen (Flemish/Dutch) or Anvers (French). The romantic and medieval Bruges/Brugge can be overwhelmed by mass quantities of tourists, so take time to wander down back streets and outside the main attractions (Markt square, the Burg, Groeninge and other museums, churches, the Beguinage).

If you're not exhausted from walking the cobblestone streets, rent a bike and cycle to Damme by way of scenic canal-lined roads. Highlights of my various trips to Belgium include Waterloo, St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent (for the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb mural by Van Eyck), the citadel high above the town of stunningly scenic Dinant, walking around the World Heritage city of Tournai, the collegiate church of St. Waudru in Mons and staying at La Roche-en-Ardenne.

The Ardennes is Belgium's beautiful area of wooded, winding canyons and river valleys. Other cities of interest are Liege, Spa, Namur and Ypres.

But Belgium is more than sites and cities. It's a travel experience among a friendly people, diverse culture and variety of languages (Flemish/Dutch, French, German), with great shopping, food and drink. You've no doubt heard of Godiva chocolate, but Leonidas pralines are incredible (Belgian pralines are hard-shell chocolates with soft fillings — nothing like New Orleans' pralines).

Everywhere are shops called friteries selling French fries, traditionally served in a cardboard cone with a spoonful of sauce on top (usually mayonnaise). Belgian waffles are garnished with chocolate, whipped cream, ice cream, you-name-it. Waterzooi is a rich stew/soup of chicken (sometimes fish), and moules-frites is the popular mussels and French fries dish.

There are about 178 breweries, and beers are usually served in their own special glasses.

Because the country is the size of Maryland, you can easily take the fast and efficient trains between cities. Crime is not a big problem in this country of 10 million people. The only handicap is the unpredictable weather: Late spring or autumn are generally the best months.

So, if you've been to France, Germany, Spain and Italy — maybe, it's time to give this “little guy” a look.

Claudine Dervaes' travel column is published the first Sunday of each month.

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