Difference between revisions of "Belgium"
Revision as of 11:20, 18 June 2007
Belgium  is a low lying country on the North Sea coast in Western Europe. With the majority of West European capitals within 1,000 km of Brussels, the seat of both the European Union and NATO, and 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 south east, Germany to the east and the Netherlands to the north.
Belgium consists of three regions, listed from North to South:
These are the major cities in Belgium.
Belgium is a densely populated country trying to balance the conflicting demands of urbanization, transportation, industry, commercial and intensive agriculture. It imports large quantities of raw materials and exports a large volume of manufactured goods, mostly to the EU.
Temperate; mild winters, cool summers; rainy, humid, cloudy.
Flat coastal plains in northwest, central rolling hills, wooded hills and valleys of Ardennes Forest in southeast.
Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830. It was occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II and has many war graves near the battle zones, most of them are around Ieper (in English archaically rendered as Ypres, with Yperite another name for mustard gas due to intensive use there in WWI). It has prospered in the past half century as a modern, technologically advanced European state and member of NATO and the EU. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south have led in recent years to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy.
Electricity is supplied at 220 to 230V 50Hz. Outlets are the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko" or the compatible, but non-grounded, CEE-7/16 "Europlug" types. Generally speaking, British, U.S. and Canadian travelers should pack an adapter for these outlets if they plan to use their electrical equipment in Belgium.
Brussels Airport (also known as Zaventem due to the town in which it is mainly located) is Belgium's main airport, IATA code BRU. It is not located in Brussels proper, but in surrounding Flanders. The airport is the base of the national airline Brussels Airlines, which was founded when SN Brussels Airlines and its low budget sister company Virgin Express merged in March 2007. All other full-service airlines use BRU, as well as budget carriers such as Vueling and SkyEurope. There is a train (2.80 €) running every 15 minutes to Brussels centre taking 25 minutes, some of them continuing to Ghent and West-Flanders and a bus line number 12 and 11 (3 €) every 20 to 30 minutes to Place Luxembourg (European Parliament) district. The bus stops at NATO and Schuman (for the EU institutions) on its way to the centre. There are also two trains per hour to Leuven, taking 13 minutes. A taxi to the centre of Brussels costs around 20 € (as of 2004) when booked in advance, otherwise around 30 €. Taxis bleus: 02 268 0000, Taxi Brussels: 02 411 4142, Taxis verts: 02 349 4343.
There are two other airports in Belgium with scheduled flights. Ryanair and Wizzair fly to Charleroi airport (aka "Brussels South", IATA code CRL), about 60km away from Brussels. You can get to Brussels Gare du Midi on the Ryanair coach in about an hour (€10.50 each way). If you're going to any other part of Belgium, ask at the Ryanair ticket desk for a combination bus+train ticket via Charleroi Sud station (€10 each way if bought in the airport, but more expensive in stations).
However, if you are really stuck, it is not unusual for taxi drivers to take credit cards. The price of a taxi ride to Brussels is a set fare (approximately 95 Euros as of May 2006) and you can check with the taxi driver if he will accept your credit card(s) or not.
Antwerp Deurne airport (IATA code ANR) has some business flights, including VLM's reasonably priced link to London City airport. Other airports include Oostende, Liège and Kortrijk, but they only handle freight and charter flights.
Flights to airports in neighbouring countries, might be worth considering, especially to Amsterdam Schiphol which has a direct rail link to Brussels and Antwerp. Budget airline route information available from Low Cost Airline Guide and WhichBudget will give you all the budget airline routes and booking links.
There are direct trains between Brussels and:
They connect with domestic trains at Brussels' Gare du Midi/Zuidstation, and with all Eurostar or ICE and some Thalys tickets, you can finish your journey for free on domestic trains. For all high-speed and sleeper trains, you need to book in advance for cheap fares, either online or using a travel agency.
You might want to check the TGV connections to Lille too. The trains from the rest of France to Lille are more frequent and usually cheaper. There is a direct train connection from Lille Flandres to Ghent and Antwerp. If your TGV arrives in Lille Europe, it will take a 15 min walk to the Lille Flandres railway station.
Plan your trip with the Deutsche Bahn timetable. It has all domestic and international connections across Europe.
Major European highways like the E-19, E-17, E-40, E-411 and E-313 pass through Belgium.
There are overnight ferries to/from Zeebrugge from Hull in England and Rosyth in Scotland, but they are not cheap. There's also a vehicle-only daytime service from Oostende to Ramsgate in England.
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, Gent, Brugge and Leuven on day trips. However, each of these four cities are cheaper, safer, cleaner and especially, infinitely more interesting (and welcoming) to tourists. It may be a better idea to spend your nights in Brugge, Gent, Leuven and Antwerp, visiting Brussels on a day trip, than the other way around. Most tourists looking for authentic medieval neighbourhoods make Brugge their base, while those who want a lively student athmosphere go to Leuven (except in summer). Antwerp is popular among those who want to be in a cosmopolitan place, and Gent is tops with those who like a tad more provincialism. Liège is beautiful, but too close to Germany to be a good base for day trips. Mechelen is considered boring by tourists, but has a very good brand new youth hostel next to a train station with trains to everywhere else every 30 mins.
To do some local sightseeing, especially in Flanders, a lot of infrastructure is prepared for bikes. Bikes can also be rented virtually everywhere. In the country side of Wallonia, mountainbikes are available, and rafting is popular along the border with Luxembourg.
Most of Belgium is well connected by train, run by NMBS (SNCB in French) with most of the main routes passing through Antwerp, Namur or Brussels. This is where you'll arrive on international trains, and both can be reached by train from Brussels airport or by coach from Antwerp or Charleroi airport. Transfers are very easy. Note that all Eurostar & ICE and some Thalys tickets allow free same-day transfers by domestic trains to any other Belgian station. Also, there are Thalys trains from Paris directly to Gent, Brugge and Oostende with no need to switch trains in Antwerp or Brussels. From London (by Eurostar) you need to switch in Brussels for Antwerp, Leuven or Gent, but for Brugge, you can already switch in Lille (France) with no need to make the detour via Brussels. Both in Lille and Brussels the staff are very very helpful, though never willing to smile.
The lines are very punctual and most of the trains are quite modern and comfortable.
Normal fares on Belgian trains are cheap compared to Germany or the UK, with no need nor a possibility to prebook or reserve. 2nd class fares don't go much higher than €20 for the longest domestic trips, and 1st class always costs 50% extra. Trains can get very full during the rush hours, so you might need a 1st class ticket to get a seat at those times. You can buy normal tickets online or in stations, but not usually in travel agencies. If you want to buy a ticket on the train, you have to warn the train conductor and a supplement may be charged. In the train station, you can pay with cash money or credit card.
Normal tickets are sold for a designated day, so there is no extra validation when you step on a train.
The cheapest option if you're planning several train trips is a Go Pass, which gives you 10 single 2nd class trips (including train changes if necessary) for €45. It's valid for a year and can be shared with or given to other people without any restrictions. The only problem is you have to be younger than 26, but there's a more expensive version for older people called a Rail Pass. This costs €68 for 2nd class or €104 for 1st. When using these passes make sure you have filled in the line before you get on the train. The train conductor can be very picky when the pass is not correctly filled in. However, if you address train station staff before boarding, they will be glad to help you.
Please note that train schedules usually change around December 10. Those changes are usually limited to introducing a few new train stations and adding a few regular lines. No lines have been discontinued in a very long time.
Buses cover the whole country, along with trams and metro in the big cities. Most routes cover short distances, but it's possible to go from city to city by bus. However, this is much slower and only slightly cheaper than taking a train. There's also the Kusttram, running along almost the whole Flemish seaside from France to the Netherlands - definitely worth a trip in summer!
Within cities, a normal ticket for one zone never costs more than €1.50, and there are various travelcards available. Note that local transport is provided by different companies - MIVB in Brussels, De Lijn in Flanders and TEC in Wallonia, and outside Brussels they don't accept each others' tickets.
Most tourists will not need the bus companies, as it is much more user-friendly to take trains between cities and go on foot inside them. Only Brussels and Antwerp have a subway, but even there you can make your way around on foot. The historic center of Brussels is only about 300 by 400 metres big. Antwerp's is much bigger, but there a ride on a horse-pulled coach gives a better view than the subway.
Belgium has a dense network of modern toll-free motorways, but some secondary roads are in poor condition. Signs are always in the local language only, except in Brussels, where they're bilingual. As many cities in Belgium have quite different names in Dutch and French, this can cause confusion. For example, Mons in French is Bergen in Dutch; Antwerp is called Antwerpen in Dutch and Anvers in French; Liège in French is Luik in Dutch and Lüttich in German, and so on. This even applies to cities outside Belgium; driving along a Flemish motorway, you may see signs for Rijsel, which is the French city of Lille or Aken, which is the German city of Aachen.
Drivers in Belgium should also be aware of the "priority from the right" rule. At road crossings, traffic coming from the right has the right of way unless otherwise indicated by signs or pavement markings. You're most likely to encounter such crossings in urban and suburban areas. Observant visitors will notice a lot of cars with dents along their right sides! Drive defensively and your car will avoid the same fate.
In Belgium the motorway signs are notoriously inconvenient, especially on secondary roads. There is no uniformity in layout and color, many are in bad state, placed in an awkward position or simply missing. A good roadmap (Michelin, De Rouck, Falk) or a GPS system is recommended.
The best place for hitchhikers. Just ask for a lift! Having cardboard signs with towns' names on it can really help to get a quick lift.
Next to it you have a huge 'park and ride' and a bus stop. Hitchhiking near the bus stop should get you a ride in less than 5 minutes during traffic hours.
You can reach this place with the bus N°87. An alternative spot to go to the north is in Anderlecht, near the Hospital Erasme (Underground station Erasme.)
Belgium has three official languages: Dutch (also known as Flemish, but it's the same language), French and German. However, English is widely spoken by people under 30 in both Flanders and Wallonia. Speaking foreign languages is more common in Flanders, especially English and German, since Wallonia is more rural. You will find that some older people do speak English but it is less likely.
Please note that although Belgium has three official languages, that does not mean that all of them are official everywhere. The only official language of Flanders is Dutch; Brussels has both Dutch and French as its official languages. The only official language of Wallonia is French, except for the eastern cantons (including the town of Eupen and its surroundings) where the official language is German.
Belgium is famous for its good cuisine and Belgians like to go to restaurant frequently. However as a small country in the centre of western Europe, the cuisine is influenced not only by the surrounding countries, but also by many others. This is also emphasized by many foreigners coming to this country to make a living here, for instance by starting a restaurant. goodresto.be will help you find almost any restaurant in Belgium, comments and appreciations must not be taken literally. You can find all types of restaurants:
A number of dishes are considered distinctly Belgian specialities and should be on every visitor's agenda.
Mussels are a firm favorite and a snack of mosselen met friet (mussels and fries) are to Belgium what fish and chips are to England. The traditional way is to cook them in a pot with white wine, then eat them up using only a mussel shell to scoop them out. The top season is September to April, and as with all shellfish it's best not to eat the closed ones. Belgium's mussels always come from nearby Holland. Imports from other countries are looked down at.
Despite the name, French fries (friet in Dutch, frites in French) are proudly claimed as a Belgian invention. Whether or not this is true, they certainly have perfected it — although not everybody agrees with their choice of mayonnaise over ketchup as the preferred condiment.
Waffles (wafels in Dutch, gaufres in French) come in two types: a light and airy variety that Americans are more familiar with, or a heavier variety with a gooey center known as Luikse wafels. They can be found at stands on the streets of the cities.
Last but not least, Belgian chocolate is famed around the world. Famous chocolatiers include Godiva, Leonidas, Guylian and Neuhaus, but arguably the best stuff can be found at tiny boutiques in the Flemish cities, too small to build worldwide brands.
Imagine you've only been drinking red and yellow lemonade with a bit of alcohol thrown in all your life, and then suddenly you are introduced to the best varieties of wine available. This is what it can be like for people from countries like the US or other ones which mostly have industrial production blond lagers on offer, who then come to Belgium and are introduced to what is arguably the richest beer culture on the planet.
Like other European countries in medieval times, beers were brewed in a huge variety of ways with many different ingredients, apart from the standard water, malted barley, hops and yeast many herbs and spices were used. This activity was often done by monasteries, each developing its particular sort. For some reason uniquely in Belgium many of these monasteries survived almost into modern times, and the process was handed over to a local commercial brewer if the monastery closed. These brewers would often augment the recipe and process slightly to soften the taste to make it more marketable but the variety survived in this way. These beers are called Abbey beers and there are hundreds and hundreds with a range of complex tastes unimaginable until you've tried them.
Less than 10 of the original monasteries still make beer, this according to traditional methods going back to the Middle Ages. These monasteries make Trappist ales and in order to carry this badge of honour the monastery has to abide to strict rules regarding only using the best natural ingredients and only traditional, non-mechanised brewing processes. These amazingly rich and complex beers are truly artisanal products in that sense, and can confidently be considered the best in the world.
Belgium offers an incredible diversity of beers. The most well known mass-produced ones are Stella Artois, Duvel (literally: the Devil, beware, 8.5%!), Leffe, Jupiler (plain standard beer), Hoegaarden (white beer). The names given to some beers are pretty imaginative: eg Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), Judas, Delirium Tremens. Warmly recommended are also Kriek (sweet or sour cherry beer) and, for the christmas season, Stille Nacht (Silent night).
Belgium has many fine hotels, but the best are located in Antwerp, Brugge, Gent, Leuven and the rural Ardennes region of Belgium. Gent and Leuven are bustling college towns, Brugge is touristic yet still very authentic, medieval and quiet at night, with small guest houses and family businesses greatly outnumbering the few chain hotels. Antwerp caters both to businessmen and tourists. This influences the atmosphere in hotels. Brussels hotels receive mostly diplomats, eurocrats and conference-goers, which makes Brussels more expensive, both in terms of hotels and restaurants, and (especially) souvenir shops. For best value in everything, head to Brugge.Some Bandb's
Education in Belgium is compulsory between the ages of 30 months (perhaps unique in the world) and 18 years. Private home education is possible, though very rarely applied. The different stages of education are the same in all communities:
Education is organized by the regions (Dutch-speaking Flanders on the one hand, French and German speaking Wallonia on the other) and the small federal district of Brussels has schools run by both the Flemish and Walloon authorities. Both states recognize independent school networks, which cater to far more students than the state schools themselves. Most Belgian students go to a Flemish catholic school. However, every independent school needs to follow the official state curriculum, and catholicism in Flanders has long been extremely liberal anyway.
Having one of the highest labour taxes in Europe, Belgium is struggling to reposition itself as a high-tech country. In that struggle, Flanders is quite ahead of Wallonia, in contrast to the previous decades, where Wallonia's steel industry was the main export of Belgium.
Highly skilled people will have the most chance to find work, and knowing multiple languages (Dutch, French, English and perhaps German) is almost a standard requirement. Interim offices providing temporary jobs are flourishing in a search to avoid the high labour taxes.
The upside of the high taxes is that Belgium has a very good social security system, with compulsory health insurance, unemployment wages and pension for all citizens. Unemployment rates fluctuate around 9% in Dutch-speaking Flanders, and around 18% in Wallonia. In Brussels, the main cause of unemployment tends to be a lack of Dutch: most inhabitants are immigrants from French-speaking countries. Among inhabitants of Brussels who can speak (fairly good) Dutch, unemployment is close to 0%. Among those who speak only French, it is estimated at around 25%, and most get only part-time jobs. Immigrants who know neither Dutch nor French may consider moving to one side or the other: long-term unemployment hits the overall majority of them. Their cause is not helped by the fact that Dutch and French are spoken in less households in the city than Arabic, Turkish and various native African languages. One newspaper pundit recently claimed the one language that most people in Brussels communicate in to be "broken English".
Except for certain neighbourhoods in central Brussels and the outer edge of Antwerp (the port and docks), Belgium is a safe country. Belgians are somewhat shy and introvert, but generally helpful towards strangers in general.
Also be aware of a mild form of resentment towards Muslims and North African ethnicities, especially in Brussels and Antwerp. For black people and muslims it is always best to introduce yourself as a tourist: other foreigners are expected to integrate and learn the local language, but tourists can always be forgiven for being a little ignorant of local culture.
Always use your common sense, of course. Don't walk in empty streets in the middle of the night, showing off your expensive equipment or jewelry.
In the winter, like most other European countries, only influenza will cause you a considerable inconvenience. No inoculations are needed to enter or leave Belgium.
The Belgian attitude towards life is one of humility, and being proud of what's given to you. A real Belgian patriot is very hard to find. The country shares virtually all its history with the Netherlands, of which it seceded only in 1831, and also with France which ruled its southernmost regions until Napoleonic times.
A few sensitive points:
Belgium has a modern telephone system with nationwide cellular telephone coverage, and multiple internet access points in all cities, free in most libraries. Also in multiple gas stations, NMBS/SNCB train stations and diners on the highways there is wireless internet access available.