BELGIUM

Overview

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Belgium   overview - remarkable Belgian facts
     
history part 1 Roman, Frankish, French and Spanish occupation
  part 2 Austrian, French, and Dutch occupation, independence, colonization
  part 3 German occupation, the Royal Controversy, decolonization, national crises, European integration, recent history
     
what to see Brussels Brussels
  Flanders Antwerp / Bruges / Ghent / Hasselt - Ieper / Kortrijk - Leuven - Lier
    Mechelen - Ooidonk - Ostend / Oudenaarde - Veurne - Vilvoorde
  Wallonia Arlon - Ardennes - Binche - Charleroi - Dinant
    Durbuy - Liège - Namur - Spa - Waterloo

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Overview

Belgium, or given its multilingual history also called België in Dutch, Belgique in French, Belgien in German, and Belgica in Spanish, is one of the smallest and most densely populated western European countries. Its capital and largest city is Brussels (also Brussel, or Bruxelles, Brüssel or Bruselas)... It is by far the most urbanized country, because 97 percent of its people live in urban areas !

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are called the Low Countries, and also the Benelux. The name Belgium comes from an old Celtic tribe, the Belgae, who were conquered by the Roman general Julius Caesar in 57 BC. According to his writings in De Bello Gallico, they were the bravest warriors among the Gauls !

Belgium has a surface of 30,528 sq km (11,787 sq mi), of which about 22 percent is wooded, which makes it slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. It is situated between France, the Netherlands, Germany and the North Sea, across from the United Kingdom. Because of its geographic position as a crossroads of Europe, Belgium has been a major commercial center since the Middle Ages.

The population of Belgium is around 11 million, of which nearly 60 percent live in the Flanders region. The overall population density, one of the highest in Europe, is 344 persons per sq kilometer. Almost 10 percent of all Belgians live in metropolitan Brussels, which is home to vast numbers of foreign guest workers. Brussels is also the headquarters of the European Union and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and therefore home to many diplomats and foreign residents. Many companies and governments maintain offices in Brussels for access to European Community decision-makers, and the capital’s real estate, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment industries bring in sizable foreign earnings.

map of BelgiumGiven the composition of its population and its history, Belgium became a federal nation, divided into three linguistic communities, with three official languages : Flemish (Dutch), French and German, and also divided into three economic regions : Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. Belgian politics and institutions have therefore been incredibly convoluted for decades, as each region and each community has its own government...

According to the criteria used, Belgium has seven or eight governments ! Unfortunately, the only ones that have benefited from such an unbelievably complicated setup are the Belgian politicians...

In the course of its history, present day Belgium has been overrun and occupied by practically every imaginable invader, such as the Romans, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Spaniards, the Austrians, the French, the Dutch, and the Germans !...

Friction between the two main ethnic groups, Flemings and Walloons, has been a longtime socio-cultural and political problem, ever since Belgium gained independence in 1830. This is not very surprising, given the historically extreme differences in language, culture and religion ! But as usual, common sense knuckled under to political considerations...

Actually, the very existence of Belgium came about through political horse trading ! In 1815, a coalition of European armies from Austria, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in Belgium, during the Battle of Waterloo. After the war, at the Congress of Vienna, the allies decided to split the war spoils, and they added the southern Low Lands (present day Belgium) and the principality of Liège to the Netherlands, despite enormous linguistic, cultural, economic, religious, historical and ethnic differences for hundreds of years ! A mere fifteen years later, present-day Belgium revolted...

By then, the Powers-that-be became increasingly afraid of the growing power and influence of the Netherlands, and they decided to set up a buffer state between France and the Netherlands. They forced the latter to accept the independence and "perpetual neutrality" of Belgium... French became the official language, and in the following decades Belgian cultural life was influenced mainly by France. But this dominance, along with Walloon social and economic domination, aroused a spirit of nationalism among the Flemings.

cartoon of an old trainBelgium has very limited mineral resources. It was the first country on the European continent to industrialize, following the lead of Britain in the industrial revolution. It remains one of the most highly industrialized countries of Europe, largely because of its geographical location and transport facilities. With 3,472 kilometres of railroads, Belgium has the most dense railroad network in the world - but unfortunately, it is also the most expensive, most inefficient, and most corrupt institution...

The country used to have seven nuclear power plants, that provided 58 percent of all electricity. The ecological parties strove to abolish them completely, even though there was no alternative, but a knowledge of mathematics, or even mere intelligence, doesn't seem to be a requirement in Belgian politics... In 2008, a convenient "Belgian" solution was found ; liberal prime minister Guy Verhofstadt simply sold the national holding company Electrabel to France, and declared that the nuclear power plants now stood on French soil ! Indeed a creative way to get rid of them...

However, being "creative" was nothing unusual for him, since during his terms between 1999 and 2008, he sold about every Belgian asset he could lay his hands on, in order to present seemingly balanced budgets ! As a result, the Belgian citizen pays one of the highest power bills in Europe, next to having the lowest pensions, nearly the highest tax rates, and food and clothing cost about 15 percent more than in other European countries. Not surprising, any official Belgian statistics appear to be sorely lacking...

The oldest and most prestigious Belgian university dates from the Middle Ages: the Catholic University of Leuven was founded under religious auspices in 1425. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Low Countries were one of the centers of the Renaissance. Flemish painters Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, Hans Memlinck, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Brueghel the Elder were among the outstanding artists of this period. Dominant in the 17th century were Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony van Dyck, who are regarded by many as two of the greatest Flemish painters. Among 20th-century painters and graphic artists of international fame are James Ensor, Paul Delvaux, and René Magritte.

Tourists come to Belgium to enjoy its picturesque cities - some of which date to the Middle Ages, its artistic treasures, and its food. The larger cities of Belgium are fascinating combinations of old and new, where ancient guild halls, churches, and houses contrast with modern office buildings, apartment houses, and factories !

Brussels is famous for its beauty, boulevards, restaurants, and stores. Visitors flock to the Grand-Place, with its ornate Renaissance and baroque buildings, and to the city’s many museums. Brugge (Bruges) has a medieval center and well-preserved houses along a system of canals. Ghent was a center of the Flemish lace and textile industries, and a commercial port during the Middle Ages. The old part of the town, with its many waterways and bridges and medieval and Renaissance buildings, attracts thousands of tourists each year. Antwerp developed as a major port in the 15th century and is today one of the busiest ports in Europe. It is also the leading diamond-cutting center in the world, and produces about 70 percent of the world’s finished diamonds. Oostende is the most popular beach resort in Belgium, and the Ardennes region is popular with outdoor enthusiasts.

Belgium’s fine cuisine attracts gourmets from all over the world. Many of the national specialties are based on seafood, including eel dishes and mussels cooked in white wine, or on foods cooked in beer. Belgian chocolates are internationally famous, and there are more than 750 types of local beer in Belgium !

Belgian (French) fries...
Belgian mussels
   
Belgian chocolates Manneken Pis

** continue reading with remarkable Belgian facts **

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