16 Jun,2016 By Jagabond
Most people are just in and out of Belgium, or just ‘passing through’ on their way to Amsterdam, Germany, London or Paris. They experience the beer and the chocolate, but you can’t get a feel for the uniqueness of the country in only a few days. I was lucky enough to live here for two and a half years, and even though I traveled elsewhere quite a bit, I eventually was proud to call Belgium home. Here are some fun and useful things I learned about the country…
1. Beer is a culture – As you might imagine, the beer is taken very seriously here. Drinking directly from the bottle or can isn’t considered proper, as most of the over 2,000 beers in Belgium have their own branded glasses. Many of the beers are over 8% alcohol, so to avoid an early night or embarrassing experience, pace yourself with the milder pilsners like Jupiler or Maes. Belgium is home to six of the eleven monasteries that brew the famous Trappist beer. This tradition has existed in Europe for centuries, and is how monks can help fund their charitable work. Some call Westvleteren the best Trappist beer in the world, but I’m partial to Westmalle Tripel. You can spend a long weekend in Belgium, and literally taste multiple beers that your mouth will never forget.
2. Avoid bringing up politics – Not because you might offend, but because you likely won’t get any interest. The political system in Belgium is based on total compromise, which typically means strong positions end up becoming diluted before they are made into law. They even spent twenty months a few years back without an active government at all, and most people didn’t seem to mind. Don’t look at their high voter turnout as evidence of interest, since voting in Belgium is legally mandated. In fairness, I do have one Belgian friend who is very knowledgeable about politics, and we had quite a few intelligent discussions during our recent road trip in Spain.
3. Bruges versus Ghent – A debate I love to jump head-first into! Bruges had a movie made about it, but in my opinion Ghent is the much nicer city. If you are with your partner, Bruges is a nice romantic place for an overnight trip, maximum. However, I feel that Ghent has everything Bruges does, with the addition that it’s less touristy and ‘feels’ like a real city. There are some amazing medieval views in the downtown area, the nightlife is vibrant, and Bruges doesn’t have a castle as nice as Gravensteen. You can spend the entire month of July there with a smile on your face, enjoying the annual jazz festival and Gentse Feesten. I’ve listed Ghent as one of my hidden gems of Europe.
4. The language divide is very real – The differences are stark between the Dutch-speaking Flanders region and the French-speaking Wallonia. It’s not a stretch to suggest these regions act almost as independent countries. I don’t see a lot of love exchanged between the people, in fact speaking French in the Flanders region is a good way to get annoyed looks. Flanders is more ‘pretty’, with places like Bruges and Ghent, whereas Wallonia has more nature and war history. Trains will list the stops in both French and Dutch, so ‘Soignies’ is the same as ‘Zinnik’.
5. The best zoo in Europe is here – After seeing the highly reviewed zoos in Vienna and Cologne, I was surprised that it was a zoo in Brugelette, Belgium that really blew my mind. Pairi Daiza should be considered more of an animal park, as they spread the holding areas out very well and allow for maximum living space. The grounds are beautifully green and floral, and I especially loved the Chinese garden area. This is a great place for children or adults, as they of course have cafes here with a fine selection of Belgian beer!
6. The Belgian national team is very good – I recently wrote of my journey into loving European football. Belgium doesn’t have a great pro league, but their national team is stocked with some great young players, and their performance in the World Cup in 2014 really galvanized the country. In fact, Belgium is my pick to win the Euro next month if all that individual talent can play together as a team. I still remember watching the Red Devils knock the USA out of the World Cup…the locals at the Belgian pub just shook my hand and had a beer with me. Great sportsmanship!
7. There are THREE peeing statues in Brussels – Most have heard of Manneken Pis, or the peeing boy fountain in the heart of Brussels…but did you know he had a sister and pet? Tucked away near the entrance to Delirium Cafe is Jeanneke Pis, a peeing girl fountain weirdly situated behind bars on a street wall. Finally, further away in an area of Brussels unknown to many including myself, is the peeing dog, Zinneke Pis…interestingly the only one in the family that isn’t a fountain, just a statue lifting his leg beside a street post. Credit to Amusing Planet for this great depiction of the three friendly pissers!