Difference between revisions of "Belgium"
Revision as of 09:32, 8 January 2011
Belgium (Dutch: België, French: Belgique, German: Belgien)  is a low-lying country on the North Sea coast in the Benelux. With the majority of West European capitals within 1,000 km of the Belgian capital of Brussels, and as a member of the long-standing international Benelux community, Belgium sits at the crossroads of Western Europe. Its immediate neighbors are France to the southwest, Luxembourg to the southeast, Germany to the east and the Netherlands to the north.
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.
Belgium is the heir of several former Medieval powers, and you will see traces of these everywhere during your trip in this country.
After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, the territory that is nowadays Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, was part of Lotharingia, an ephemerous kingdom soon to be absorded into the Germanic Empire; however, the special character of "Lower Lotharingia" remained intact in the feudal Empire : this is the origin of the Low Countries, a general term that encompasses present-day Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
The widely autonomous fiefdoms of the Low Countries were amongst the richest places in Medieval Europe and you will see traces of this past wealth in the rich buildings of Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai, Mons, etc. These cities progressively fell under the control of a powerful and ambitious family : the Dukes of Burgundy. The whole realm of the Dukes extended from the Low Countries to the borders of Switzerland. Using wealth, strategy, and alliances, the Dukes of Burgundy aimed at reconstituting Lotharingia. The death of the last Duke, Charles the Bold, put an end to this dream. However, the treasures of the Dukes of Burgundy remains as a testimony of their rules in Belgian museums and landmarks.
The powerful Habsburg family then inherited from the Low Countries. Reformation is the reason why Belgium and Netherlands were first put apart : the northern half of the Low Countries embraced Protestantism and rebelled against the Habsburg rule, while the southern half remained faithful to both its ruler and the Catholic faith. These two halves roughly corresponds to present-day Belgium and Netherlands.
Belgium was called Austrian Netherlands, then Spanish Netherlands, depending on which branch of the Habsburg ruled it. The Powerful German Emperor & Spanish King Charles V was born in the Belgian city of Ghent and ruled from Brussels. Many places in Belgium are named after him including the city of Charleroi, and even a brand of beer. Every year, the Brusselers emulates his first parade in their city in what is called the Ommegang.
Belgium was briefly a part of the Napoleonic Empire. After Napoleon's defeat, a large Kingdom of the Netherlands was created, comprising the whole of the Low Countries. However, the religious opposition still remained and the split was aggravated by political differences between Belgian liberals and Dutch aristocrats. Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830 after a short revolution and a war against the Netherlands. 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.
Flat coastal plains in northwest, central rolling hills, wooded hills and valleys of Ardennes Forest in southeast.
Temperate; mild winters, cool summers; rainy, humid, cloudy. Average annual temperature between 1976-2006 : 10° Celcius
Electricity is supplied at 220 to 230V 50Hz. Outlets are CEE7/5 (protruding male earth pin) and accept either CEE 7/5 (Grounded), CEE 7/7 (Grounded) or CEE 7/16 (non-grounded) plugs. Older German-type CEE 7/4 plugs are not compatible as they do not accommodate the earth pin found on this type of outlet. However, most modern European appliances are fitted with the hybrid CEE 7/7 plug which fits both CEE 7/5 (Belgium & France) and CEE 7/4 (Germany, Netherlands, Spain and most of Europe) outlets.
Travellers from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland and other countries using 230V 50Hz which use different plugs simply require a plug adaptor to use their appliances in Belgium.
Travellers from the US, Canada, Japan and other countries using 110V 60Hz may need a voltage converter. However, some laptops, mobile phone chargers and other devices can accept either 110V or 230V so only require a simple plug adaptor. Check the voltage rating plates on your appliances before connecting them.
Belgium consists of three regions, listed from North to South:
Belgium has a very high rate of urbanization and has an astonishing number of cities for such a small territory
Major cities :
Smaller cities :
War memorials :
Belgium is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are.
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 . Other full-service airlines use BRU, as well as budget carriers such as Vueling , JetairFly  and Thomas Cook.
There is a train (€ 5.10) running every 15 minutes to Brussels centre taking 25 minutes, some of them continuing to Ghent, Mons, Nivelles, and West Flanders and bus lines number 12 and 21 (€ 3 at the vending machine/€ 5 on board) 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 € 35 - cheaper if booked in advance. Taxis bleus: +32 (0)2 268 0000, Taxis Autolux: +32 (0)2 411 4142, Taxis verts: +32 (0)2 349 4949.
Brussels South Charleroi Airport (IATA code CRL), about 50km south of Brussels, mostly serves low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair  and Wizzair . You can get to Brussels Gare du Midi on a coach in about an hour (€13 one way, €22 return). If you're going to any other part of Belgium, buy a combination bus+train ticket via Charleroi Sud train station from the TEC vending machines outside the airport for at most €19.40 one-way.
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 as of May 2006) and you can check with the taxi driver if he will accept your credit card(s) or not.
Antwerp Airport  (IATA code ANR) has some business flights, including CityJet 's reasonably priced link to London City airport. Other airports include Oostende, Liège and Kortrijk, but they only handle freight and charter flights.
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 trains, you need to book in advance for cheap fares, either online or using a travel agency. There are no regularly scheduled sleeper trains anymore.
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.
Smoking is no longer allowed in Belgian trains.
Major European highways like the E-19, E-17, E-40, E-411 and E-313 pass through Belgium.
The cheapest way to get to Belgium (3€/100km) from anywhere in Europe if you are a little flexible and lucky is usually taxistop 
Due to the Bosnian war in the 1990'ies there are bus companies serving the Bosnian diaspora, which provide a cheap and clean way of getting to the other side of the European continent. Semi tours  runs three times per week from various destinations in Bosnia and Hercegovina to Belgium and the Netherlands, Off-season approx (159€) for a return ticket.
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.
From the Netherlands
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, Ghent, Brugge, Namur and Leuven on day trips. Antwerp is popular among those who want to be in a cosmopolitan place, and Ghent is tops with those who like a good mix of open-minded 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 available for cycling. Bikes can 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 Ghent, 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 Ghent, 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 helpful and willing to smile.
The trains are punctual and mostly 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 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 or credit card. Not buying a ticket can cost you up to €200. Return tickets are cheaper at the weekend.
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 €50. 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 €73 for 2nd class or €112 for 1st. When using these passes make sure you have filled in the line before you get on the train (strictly speaking: before you enter the platform). 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.
The NMBS website has a searchable timetable  with delay information, and a fare calculator . You can also find a map of Belgian railroads and stations  and another one, more detailed, but not printable .
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 is possible to go from city to city by bus. However, this is much slower and only slightly cheaper than taking a train. There is also the Kusttram , running along almost the whole Flemish seaside from France to the Netherlands--definitely worth a trip in the summer.
Within cities, a normal ticket for one zone never costs more than €1.60, and there are various travelcards available. Note that local transport is provided by different companies: STIB/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 m long. Antwerp is much bigger, but 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 in Wallonia are poorly maintained. 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.
Some hire cars come equipped with sat nav but it's a good idea to request this when you book your car. It's probably the most reliable way to get from A to B in Belgium. This way you will get to see some of the sites of Belgium, as flat as it may be, but architecture in the towns is something to be admired. You will be pleasantly surprised at just how clean the towns and villages of Belgium are. Drive through on any afternoon and you will see people caring for the street in front of their homes - a real, backdated village community feel.
Speed traps are positioned along roads frequently and drink driving of only small amounts comes with serious penalties, such as 125 Euros on the spot fine for 0.05 per cent and 0.08 per cent. Over that amount of alcohol in your system and you face anything up to 6 months imprisonment and loss of driving licence for 5 years.
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.
An alternative spot to go to the north is in Anderlecht, near the Hospital Erasme/Erasmus (Metro station Erasme/Erasmus.)
Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German. However, English is widely spoken by the younger generations. You will find that some older people do speak English, especially in Flanders, 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 albeit the lingua franca is French. The only official language of Wallonia is French, except for the nine municipalities (including the town of Eupen and its surroundings) of the German-speaking Community.
A number of inhabitants of Wallonia, particularly the older generations, speak the Walloon language. This language, while not official, is recognized by the French Community of Belgium as an "indigenous regional language", together with a number of other Romance (Champenois, Lorrain and Picard) and Germanic (Luxembourgian) language varieties.
Belgium has the euro (€) as its sole currency along with 24 other countries that use this common European money. These 24 countries are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (official euro members which are all European Union member states) as well as Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and the Vatican which use it without having a say in eurozone affairs and without being European Union members. Together, these countries have a population of more than 330 million.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse, as well as all bank notes, look the same throughout the eurozone. Every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
Belgians like to eat. Belgium is famous for its good cuisine and people like to go to restaurants frequently. Best description for Belgian food would be "French food in German quantities".
A number of dishes are considered distinctly Belgian specialities and should be on every visitor's agenda.
Mussels are a firm favorite and a side-dish of Moules et frites/Mosselen met friet (Mussels with French fries). The traditional way is to cook them in a pot with white wine and/or oignons and celery, then eat them up using only a mussel shell to scoop them out. The top season is September to April, and as with all other shellfish, do eat the closed ones. Belgium's mussels always come from the Netherlands earby. Imports from other countries are looked down on.
Balletjes/Boulettes are meatbals with fries. They will either be served with a tomato sauce or with the sauce from Liège, which is based on a local syrup. For this reason they will often be introduced as Boulettes à la Liégeoise.
Stoemp is mashed potatoes and carrots with bacon and sausages. It is a typical meal from Brussels.
Stoofvlees is a traditional beef stew and is usually served with (you have guessed it already) fries.
Witloof met kaassaus/Chicons au gratin is a traditional gratin of chicory with ham and a cheesy bechamel sauce, usually served with potatoe mash or croquettes.
Konijn met pruimen: rabbit cooked in beer and dried plums.
Despite the name, french fries (frieten 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 mayonaise over ketchup as the preferred condiment (ketchup is considered to be "for kids").
Every village has at least one frituur/friterie, an establishment selling cheap take-away fries, with a huge choice of sauces and fried meat to go with them. The traditional thing to try is friet met stoofvlees, but remember the mayonaise on it .
Waffles (wafels in Dutch, gaufres in French) come in two types:
The latter are often eaten as a street/ take-away snack while shopping and therefore 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, Galler, Marcolini and Neuhaus, but the best stuff can be found at tiny boutiques, too small to build worldwide brands. In nearly all supermarkets, you can buy the brand Côte d'Or, generally considered the best 'everyday' chocolate (for breakfast or break) among Belgians.
As a small country in the centre of western Europe, the cuisine is influenced not only by the surrounding countries but also by many other countries. This is also emphasized by many foreigners coming to this country to make a living here, for instance by starting a restaurant. You can find all types of restaurants:
Tap water is drinkable everywhere in Belgium.
Belgium is to beer what France is to wine; it is home to one of the greatest beer traditions in the world. Like other European countries in medieval times, beers were brewed in a huge variety of ways with many different ingredients. In addition to the standard ingredients of water, malted barley, hops and yeast, many herbs and spices were also used. This activity was often done in monasteries, each developing a particular style. 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.
The Trappist label is controlled by international law, similar to that of Champagne in France. There are only six Trappist Abbeys in Belgium that produce beer qualified to be called Trappist. In order to carry the Trappist label, there are several rules that must be adhered to during the brewing process. The beer must be fermented within the walls of the abbey, the monks of the abbey must be involved in the beer-making process, and profit from the sale of the beer must be directed towards supporting the monastery (similar to a non-profit organization).
Belgium offers an incredible diversity of beers. Several well known mass-produced Belgian beers are Stella Artois, Duvel, Leffe, Jupiler, Hoegaarden. The names given to some beers are pretty imaginative: eg Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), Mort Subite (Sudden Death), De Kopstoot (Head Butt), Judas and Delirium Tremens.
Warmly recommended are also Kriek (sweet and sour cherry beer) and, for the Christmas season, Stille Nacht (Silent night).
Plain blond draughts (4%-5,5%): Stella Artois, Jupiler, Maes, Cristal, Primus, Martens, Bavik.
Trappist ales (5%-10%): Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle.
Geuze: Belle-Vue, the lambic Mort Subite (Sudden Death), Lindemans in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, Timmermans, Boon, Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, Giradin, Hanssens, De Troch.
White beers: Hoegaarden, Dentergemse, Brugse Witte.
Belgium has many fine hotels. Capital Brussels has countless rather expensive business hotels catering to the European Union's bureaucrats, and while you can usually get a good room for under €100, prices can spike if there's a big EU shindig in town.
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 Flemish 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 far ahead and much wealthier than 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.
Belgium has one of the highest tax rates in the world. An employer who pays a salary about €1500 a month actually pays another €1500 or more in taxes. Where does this money go to? It goes to the social network. People only pay a small charge for healthcare, for example. And the budget for education, arts and culture is enormous. The budget for defense is however very tiny.
Although Belgium is undesirable for building wealth, it's a good place for someone who already is wealthy to reside because there is very little capital gains tax (some forms of capital gain is not taxed at all).
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 introverted, but generally helpful towards strangers.
For those landing in Charleroi and Liège, those are the regions that boast the highest crime rates in Southern Belgium. But if you keep an eye on your belongings, and don't wander alone at night, nothing really serious can happen to you.
Muslims and people of North African ancestry may experience mild resentment, a problem that is particularly acute in Brussels and Antwerp.
Always use your common sense, of course. Don't walk in empty streets in the middle of the night, showing off expensive equipment or jewelry.
Marijuana laws are quite lenient, with small amounts only punishable by fines.
The emergency phone number in Belgium (fire, police, paramedics) is 112.
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.
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 Wi-Fi available.
For party-minded people, Belgium can be heaven. Most cities are close to each other and are either large urban areas (Brussels, Antwerp) or student areas (Leuven, Liège, Ghent), etc. In this little region, you will find the most clubs, cafés, restaurants per square mile in the world. A good starting point can be places with a strong student/youth culture : Leuven around its big university, Liège in the famous "carré" district, etc. You can expect a wide variety in music appreciation, going from jazz to the better electronic music. Just ask around for the better clubs and there you will most likely meet some music fanatics who can show you the better underground parties in this tiny country.
The government has a mostly liberal attitude towards bars, clubs and parties. They acknowledge the principle of "live and let live". As long as you don't cause public disturbance, vandalize property and get too drunk, the police will not intervene. This also one of the main principles of Belgian social life, as this sort of behaviour is generally considered offensive. Of course, in student communities this is more tolerated, but generally, you are most respected if you party as hard as you like- but with a sense of discretion and self-control.
Officially, drugs are not allowed. But as long as you respect the aforementioned principles, you are not likely to get into serious trouble. Beware though, that driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs is not tolerated and traffic laws are strictly enforced in this matter. Especially in the weekends on main roads, you have a good chance of being stopped for an alcohol control.