Some places worth visiting in Belgium

Nov 26, 2011 (Updated Aug 20, 2013)

The Bottom Line There are many memorable places to see in the small country of Europe.

Long review alert!

Belgium is a small, densely-populated country in western Europe, nestled between France to the west, The Netherlands and Germany to the east, and Luxembourg to the south. It is inhabited my two different peoples, the Flemish in the north and the Walloons in the south. These two peoples have different languages and different cultures, and they do not like one another. The Flemish speak Dutch or a dialect thereof, while the Walloons speak French or a dialect thereof. Many Walloons will tell you that their French is the true French language, while the people of France speak a modernized, and even distorted version of real French. While in Belgium, you will find that many of the people speak English, and English-speaking tourists are probably safest sticking to English.

The Belgian climate is mild, with summer days rarely reaching ninety degrees Fahrenheit, and winter nights seldom falling below twenty degrees Fahrenheit. You can expect fog in the morning, and light rain is never a surprise, as it is common.

In the United States, a country that became a nation 235 year ago, a two-hundred-year-old building is considered old. You will notice in this review references to places dating back 1300 or more years. My cousin lived in a building that was older than the United States, and no one there thought of it as particularly old. When I first got off the plane in Brussels, I could somehow immediately tell that I was somewhere old. During that trip, I visited Roman ruins dating back to about 400 A.D.; that was thought of as old in Belgium. Some of the Roman aqueducts were still working, for farming purposes, I think.

For a small country, Belgium has many sights that are worth seeing. The most commonly known are Brussels and Brugges. Another large city, in the north, is Antwerp. I have never been to Brugges, but I know it is called the Venice of the North because of its many canals.

Brussels is located near the center of the country, is the national capitol, and houses the headquarters of NATO and the European Union. Most of its residents are trilingual (French, Flemish or Dutch, English), and it sits on the fuzzy line dividing Flanders in the north and Walloonie in the south. Belgium is a constitutional monarchy and the palace of the king, King Albert II, is in Brussels. The city boasts many parks and many statues, perhaps oddest of them all being Manneken Pis. Manneken Pis is a small statue of a young boy urinating in a fountain. The story is that a rich man’s son wandered off and was found peeing in a fountain. The man was overjoyed that his son was found safe and sound, and he erected the statue. A tradition has developed involving dressing the statue is various costumes.

Another, bigger, more famous attraction is the Grand Place, a large square or plaza that is surrounded by many very old buildings, some of them decorated in gold trim. Also surrounding the Grand Place are many cafes, where beers from all over Europe can be found. Do not be surprised to find a large dog, often a boxer, under one of the tables. Belgians love dogs, and the café dogs serve as night watchmen, with the owner often living upstairs.

The largest attraction in Brussels is the Atomium, a monument to the Nuclear Age, built in 1958 for World’s Fair. It is a giant model of an atom and resembles a child’s jack standing on end. It has nine spheres connected with tubes. The structure stands 102 meters (335 feet) high. Each of the spheres can house a small museum and the top sphere has a public viewing platform and a restaurant. The connecting tubes are elevators or escalators. It is truly an impressive sight and can easily be seen from the air if you fly into Brussels.

Far to the north, on the coast of the North Sea, you will find Antwerp or, as the French call it, Anvers. Many Belgian cities have two names, one in French and one in Flemish. Antwerp, the unofficial capitol of Flanders, is a major commercial port, and one the biggest cities in the international diamond trade. Some of the attractions include the home of Peter Paul Rubens, a Baroque painter. His paintings, portraying the Stations of the Cross, can be found in the large cathedral of Antwerp. If you visit the cathedral, note that the floor contains the graves of wealthy patrons of the church. The cathedral was begun in 1352 and has never been fully completed.

Other attractions in Antwerp include a beautiful old train station, a small zoo, and boats that take tourists on a tour of the port. These boats are called, by the French, bateau-mouche, or fly boats. In the summer, the many windows attract flies on the outside and inside. Actually, the name derives from where the boats were originally built, the Mouche region of France. Antwerp also has a skyscraper with a rather exceptional history. During World War Two, a large German bomb went right through the building, leaving a large hole. Instead of tearing down the building, the Belgians restored it to original condition. Postcards with three pictures are available in the area: before the bomb, right after the bomb, and after the restoration. The first and third pictures are astonishingly indistinguishable.

Far to the south, at least three cities are worth seeing: Namur, Dinant, and Bastogne. Namur and Dinant are both citadel towns, meaning a large castle is present to protect the adjoining city. In both cases, the citadel itself sits atop a large rocky spur or small mountain. For Namur, which is the capitol of Namur Province, the city is at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers. The citadel was begun in the tenth century, and has been expanded and enhanced several times over the centuries. A tour of the citadel is quite memorable and educational.

Dinant is a smaller city but its citadel is also quite impressive. There is a cable car to take you from the city, on the banks of the Meuse River, or you can choose to take the 408 steps up. Compared to Namur, the city is smaller but more colorful. The cathedral in town boasts one of the largest stained-glass windows in the world, and is gorgeous when the sun is shining.

Both Namur and Dinant are at the northern end of the Ardennes Forest. The forest was badly damaged during World War Two, by tanks, fire, and other aspects of war. It was in the Ardennes that the Germans made their last final push to win the war, in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Dinant was one of their stumbling points in that objective, as a mine outside the city, near a large spur of rock called the Bayard Rock, blocked the road. That only enhanced the legend of Bayard Rock as a protector of the city.

Dinant is copper country, and you will find shops selling a variety of copper products. The city is famous for another commodity -- cookies. But do not eat les couques de Dinant! They are very ornate and extremely hard. They are actually designed to be hung up on a wall, possibly after giving them a coat of lacquer.

I almost forgot about Bouillon!  There you can see the castle of Godefroid de Bouillon (1060-1100), who was a Frankish knight who holds a prominent place in history.  Whatever one might think of his achievements, he accomplished much.  As a knight in the First Crusade, he once ruled Jerusalem.  In Bouillon, you can visit his ancestral castle, which he sold to finance the First Crusade.

Mentioning the Battle of the Bulge brings us to the third city, Bastogne. Having been heavily damaged by both sides in that final German push and the Allied counteroffensive, the people of Bastogne did something for which I admire them. The building around the main square were all in very bad shape after the war, but they did not do what Americans would likely do: tear it all down and build new buildings. Instead, they restored all the buildings to pre-war condition. If you go there, you can get postcards showing the three scenes: pre-war, immediately afterward, and restored. Like the skyscraper in Antwerp, the before and the restored pictures look identical. I stayed at a restored hotel right on the main square.

There are aspects of history to see in Bastogne. In the town square you will find an American tank in excellent condition, commemorating Brigadier General McAuliffe. Why? Well, he was temporarily in command of the troops there, they were greatly outnumbered and outgunned by the Germans, and the winter weather precluded hope of immediate reinforcements. The German general sent an polite and articulately-worded demand for surrender to General McAuliffe. He sent the courier back with his one-word reply, “Nuts.“ The weather cleared and reinforcements arrived the next day, the Germans were defeated, the Battle of the Bulge was over, and the beginning of the end for the German army was at hand. The Belgians hated the Germans and liked McAuliffe’s response.

Outside of Bastogne is the war memorial at Mardasson. It is a giant five-pointed star, twelve meters high, with a circular atrium. The memorial is made of marble, and the names of those wounded or killed in the Battle of the Bulge are engraved in the marble, arranged by their home state. It is a truly impressive site.

Near the middle of Belgium there is another historic site commemorating another famous battle. In 1815, the army of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte faced the combined armies of numerous other countries, led by the Duke of Wellington and General von Blucher. It was basically the end of Napoleon’s first empire. Outside of the town of Waterloo, in farm country, you will find a large man-made hill. Sitting atop that hill is an enormous statue of a lion, facing France. There is a museum, the Wellington Museum, at the base, with colorful dioramas depicting the battle. You can climb the hill, as I did in 1969, via 226 steps, to be at the base of the lion, which can be seen for miles in every direction.

Two other historic sites to see are abbeys or monasteries. L’Abbaye d’Aulne is a Benedictine monastery that was begun in the year 657 A.D. The original church is still there, although all that remains are the pillars and the main walls, all of stone. The stained glass windows are just the lead, with no glass left. When the replacement church was built, the monks built it right next to the old one. They kept doing that, giving visitors a chance to walk through time on the grounds. There is still a working monastery, known for the beer they make. L’Abbaye d’Aulne is south of Waterloo.

Another abbey that is definitely worth a visit is the Benedictine monastery Maredsous, near Namur. Like l’Abbaye d’Aulne, Maredsous is a working monastery. I had the best lunch of my life there, sitting at a hand-made wooden picnic bench beneath an oak tree, next to a field where cows grazed. I drank milk from those cows, and my sandwich had cheese from those cows. The stone-ground wheat of my sandwich’s bread came from the field beyond the cow pasture. My dad’s beer was also made on site, all by the monks. There were no tours of the full monastery, but the grounds were open to the public. Do yourself a favor and have lunch there.

I know that I have presented a lot here, but there are three more sites that deserve mention. At a location the small village of Ronquieres, the Brussels-Charleroi Canal required fourteen locks because of the change in altitude of the terrain. That was until 1968, when the inclined plane of Ronquieres was completed. With locks, water from the higher water is lost with each lock. Also, going through a system of fourteen locks is very time-consuming. Belgium relies on its railway system and the barges on the many canals to move a lot of cargo from place to place. As you might have guessed, given that Ronquieres and the inclined plane are on the Brussels-Charleroi Canal, they are located about halfway from Brussels to Charleroi.

An inclined plane is basically an angled railway system. The one at Ronquieres has two caissons, resembling large railway cars on many small wheels, each measuring ninety-one meters long by twelve meters wide and from three to almost four meters deep. A ship arriving at the upper end of the inclined plane enters a caisson filled with water, and then proceeds 1432 meters through a change-of-height of over 67 meters. Fifty minutes later, the ships leaves the caisson. As there are 5200-tonne counterweights, both caissons can operate at once. No water is lost, as the same water will carry ships on the return trip. By the way, each caisson can hold one ship of 1350 tonnes or the weight in smaller ships. The towers at one end of the plane to provide tourists with an observation deck. The whole mechanism is quite a site to experience.

The last two sites both feature underground cave systems that can be toured. Remouchamps is south-southeast of the city of Liege, and it boasts a very impressive underground cave system with tours available. The caves have the longest subterranean river in the world, the Rubicon, according to one website, Atlas Obscura. Tourists are first guided on a long walk to the cave called the Cathedral, where the stalactites reflected in a pool resemble a grand cathedral. Then comes a boat ride on the Rubicon, ending where the river surfaces. As you leave, they fire off a small cannon, so that you experience the echoing. Don’t be surprised if you also see bats fleeing when the cannon goes off.

The other cave system worth a visit is outside the village of Hans-sur-Lesse. Here, the River Lesse forced its way underground for about a mile through a limestone hill. You take an old-fashioned trolley-car from the village to the caves. The entire trip, tram-ride, walk through the caves, and the walk from the exit of the caves back to the village, takes about ninety minutes. The caves are beautiful and well-lit. You need to dress warmly, as the caves are always fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. They do give you hot spiced wine or cider halfway through. I see these caves as better than the ones at Spa Remouchamps. If you do go to Hans-sur-Lesse, and you like to eat trout, there used to be, and possibly still is, a restaurant in the village where there is a tank out front with live trout caught in the River Lesse. You pick your trout and they broil it for you. Warning: the trout are served with the head, fins, and tail attached.

I know that I could not do justice to the city of Brugges and that I left out many fine places to visit, either because of memory or because I never went to that city or village or attraction. I hope that there is some value still in this guide.

Three notes on Belgian cuisine: the Belgian frites are the best "French" fries in the world, and you can look for roadside stalls that sell them, hot and fresh. Don't ask for ketchup, though; my brother almost got kicked out of a restaurant for doing so. Mustard and mayonnaise are fine, but no ketchup.

The second item is the Belgian tarte. At first glance, they look like American pies, but there is no top crust, and the bottom crust is less flaky and much less sweet. A good bakery in Belgium will turn these into pieces of art, with slices of fruit layered in a spiral pattern. Delicious!

Belgium is renowned worldwide for its chocolate. Godiva is well-known in the United States, but that is just due the brand getting here first, plus good marketing. Godiva is mediocre Belgian chocolate, with many better brands, like Leonidas.

This is part of the Geography Write-Off.

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