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Belgium:The Crucible of Modern Europe


Belgium is a country forged in the turbulent history of continental Europe. The nation emerged in the revolutions of 1830 and was formerly a Habsburg possession, known as the Spanish or Austrian Netherlands. In origin strongly Catholic in nature, Belgium is a union of Flemish-speaking Flanders and francophone Wallonia (though German is also an official language, as is spoken in a small enclave in Eastern Belgium).
Despite being a relatively small country, Belgium is cram-packed with culture, amazing Renaissance and post-Renaissance architecture, beautiful scenery and some of the finest chocolate in the world !. It also produces a huge range of excellent beers.Brussels is home to the European Commission, BENELUX headquarters, and N.A.T.O. 366,000 U.S. Tourists visited Belgium in 2014.
Flanders tends to get the lion's share of tourism (compared to Wallonia) as it possesses the so-called 'Flemish Cities of Art' Leuven, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Mechelen, and therefore attracts much cultural tourism. Its magnificent churches, medieval architecture, stunning market squares and serene canals (lined with tall gabled houses) cannot fail to impress.
However, Wallonia does have its attractions.Mainly rural, it boasts some impressive castles and lovely country villages.
Ardennes. The Ardennes is a densely forested area on the border with Germany; it is a beautiful wilderness often used for hunting, as it is well stocked with deer, wild boar, and birds.While an area of outstanding beauty, it is probably best known worldwide as the site of the 'Battle of the Bulge' Hitler's 'last-gasp' counterattack in December 1944. The assault was entirely unexpected, catching the American defenders completely by surprise. The events were immortalized in the film of the same name, and the towns of Bastogne and Malmedy are sites of pilgrimage for those who took part in that battle, and many history buffs.
Waterloo (just outside Brussels). Probably one of the most famous battles in world history, where Napoleon was defeated, (but only just) by the forces of the British, Dutch and Prussians.Only the arrival of the Prussian Marshal Blucher saved the day for the allies.2015 was the 200th anniversary of the battle, and a host of major events took place to commemorate the date. The Battle site has many organized tours, and most of the original farm buildings are still intact.There is also a museum, so well worth a visit.
World War One
Belgium arguably took the brunt of the carnage of the Great War. There are many battlefields, that will go down in history, such as the Somme and Ypres. The war is commemorated by the Menai Gate, where the last post is sounded every night (it was erected as a tribute to the British and Commonwealth dead). The Gate is located at the eastern end of the town of Ypres, which was obliterated in the war.Flanders fields saw the loss of millions of lives, the cream of a generation. Visiting is a truly emotional experience. There are many Museums dedicated to the horrors of the First World War and individual battles, located all over Belgium.
Brussels is a cultured, cosmopolitan city, famous for its restaurants (Belgian cuisine does tend to suffer by the dominance of the French in the culinary arts). Treat yourselves to mussels in white wine sauce and frites (fries), washed down with a frothy Belgian beer (monasteries are major brewers here, with Biere Trappist and Chimay being well-known brands). Don't forget to try the waffles and the delicious chocolates.
The capital is a major center of business tourism and a center of world politics.The majority language is French, though the city is surrounded by the Flanders province, it is a self-governing region, with signs in both Flemish and French. A small tip is to not speak French in Flanders or Flemish in Wallonia; you may get a frosty reception !.Stick to English, which is widely spoken.
Architectural styles vary in Brussels; with Gothic, Baroque, Rococo and Modernist influences, but the Grand Place containing the Town Hall, Guildhalls and the  Maison du Roi (or Breadhouse) which houses the Museum of Brussels are true gems. The Palace of Justice is, by repute, the largest building constructed in the 19th century, the Royal Palace is another imposing landmark.
Belgian Coast
There are 42 miles of sandy beaches on the Flemish coast. There are enormous sand dunes and nature reserves, plus plenty to do for kids and adults alike.Main resorts include Blankenberge(famous for its Pier), De Haan (a pretty 19th-century town), De Panne, Knokke (playground of the wealthy) and Ostend and Zeebrugge for nightlife.
Like the Grand Place in Brussels, the center of Bruges is a UNESCO world heritage site.The town has a picture-postcard beauty and has many narrow cobbled streets with houses that are hundreds of years old.The city is walled and as usual, has extensive canals.Highlights include the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the Groeninge Museum (for art), and the Brewery De Halve Maan (the latter has a fascinating 45-minute beer making tour).
To live and work in a city as splendid as Ghent must be a real privilege.Like Bruges most of the city center is traffic free; sit among the dozens of pavement cafes and soak up the atmosphere. The Castle of the Counts and St Michaels Bridge are particular highlights, and you must see the altarpiece 'The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' by the Van Eyck brothers, painted in 1432 it sits in St Bavo's Cathedral.
Has an impressive main square; the 'Grote Markt,' which is lined with wondrous Guild buildings.Plus, as with every one of the other 'Cities of Art,' it has more than its fair share of Museums including the Rubenshuis.Leuven and Mechelen are very similar towns in this architectural and artistic tradition.
Another top tip is that a trip into the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg will find you in a city with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.Definitely, one for the gourmet !.
Getting about in Belgium is very easy.There is an extensive public transport system plus, in the cities, there is a Metro system, cycling is particularly encouraged. Travelcards can be bought for one day's travel or several.
Brussels is the main airport in Belgium (though flying to Paris or Amsterdam are viable options), and there are regular flights from the U.S.A. www.paylessflights.com have all the best prices for transatlantic travel and a wide choice of Belgian hotels.