I am smitten by Belgium. Every nook and corner of this small kingdom is crammed with history. It comes with a different touch for me – it is about European history which I confess to be dim on.
My husband had to travel on a project and make his base in a small town called Mechelen. But when I arrived in the town, in the course of a few days of walking around, I was zapped by how much it had to show me.
All I knew when I landed in Belgium was that it is the land of the detective with the egg-shaped head we all know as Hercule Poirot. And that it is synonymous with Tintin, Hergé’s young journalist with the quiff. Beyond that I really had scant idea of the country. In fact, a friend of mine told me recently that a friend of hers had told her to skip Belgium in her list of must-sees in Europe. I am a little aghast at the thought after being introduced to Belgica – as it was known in Latin.
This federal monarchy occupies a significant position in the international scheme of things — it is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU’s headquarters in its capital city of Brussels. It can become a bit confusing at times when it comes to its rich cultural texture – it straddles the cultural boundary between Germanic and Latin Europe. It has the Flemish speakers (their Dutch is derived from the Germanic tree), the French speakers (from the Latin tree) along with a small group of German speakers. French is spoken more in the central part of Brussels and the southern region of Wallonia, German in eastern Wallonia, while Dutch is common in Flanders.
While travelling and scouring its various museums, I was constantly pinged by the word — Low Countries. In history, Belgium along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg were known as the Low Countries.
History points out that Belgium was, from the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, renowned as a commercial and a cultural hub. But from the 16th century until the Belgian Revolution in 1830, Belgium seceded from the Netherlands. It was dubbed the ‘Battlefield of Europe’ after many battles were fought on its soil between various European powers. The two world wars set a seal upon this reputation.
The Belgians are obsessive. At least about a few things.
Their national dish of frites (fries) promises to be my undoing. When a bowl of the perfectly done, fat potato sticks are put in front of me, my senses go into a tizzy. It is inevitable therefore that you spot a frituur (small kiosks/vans/eateries offering fried and grilled grub, with frites) in every Belgian town. It helps that they are kind on the pocket.
Or waffles, for that matter. How many times have you heard about Belgian waffles? Well, one bite into a chocolate-filled waffle and I have been hooked, line and sinker. Walloping them down often for breakfast and dinner. That is what the heady notes of vanilla wafting in the air from the ubiquitous waffle shop, round every corner, can do to you. They wreak havoc with your senses, be warned.
The Belgians love their pint. Period. They are serious about their brews, which is probably why you will be flooded with options when you want to experiment. There are apparently 700 different kinds out there – my favourites are the blondes and the Trappists.
I am quite fascinated by the fact that there are six Trappist abbeys where monks brew beer. It has set me on the beer crawl and there seems to be something new to look forward to every time we set foot inside a café. Do not underestimate the buzz they leave you with. The beers are often high in their alcohol content.
Ah, now chocolate is just all over the country. Which is why I like to call Belgium my soul country. While chocolate is referred to as confectionary here, dark chocolate is the favourite of most chocolatiers/confiseurs. The concentration of cocoa in Belgian chocolates can often go as high as 85 per cent. A little note: The giant chains of Godiva, Neuhaus and Leonidas are sniffed at by locals. An old lady in Bruges warned me rather seriously, “Take care never to venture into Leonidas”. They take their chocolate-making and chocolate-scoffing to heart. Get ready for those chocolate walks, chocolate tours, chocolate museums, chocolate workshops…everything to do with the ‘food of the gods’ to get those endorphins rushing.
(A tiny warning: I am charmed. So there shall be plenty of posts on my travels in Belgium following this post)