| Page 1 of 1|
The one thing guaranteed to annoy a Belgian is to ask him to name five famous Belgians. Well our pictures of Belgium may just help!|
Belgium is a small northern European country with a population of just 10.5 million. It's a strange and somewhat artificial combination of the Flemish in the north (whose language is similar to Dutch) and the French-speaking Walloons in the South, plus a very small German minority in the East. This leads to some challenges for the foreign traveler. Arriving at Brussel Zuid (Flemish name) station one looks for a train to Antwerp, Belgium's famous port, starting point for many transatlantic liners and home to a thriving fashion industry, or Mechelen, home of the shock winners of the 1988 European Cup Winners' Cup. You won't find either on the departures board because they're in French, so it's Anvers and Malines that you need to find.
Belgium's history has been closely linked with that of the Netherlands (not too surprising, since together they were known as the Low Countries, and many famous Flemish contributors are mistakenly taken for Dutch). Much of the area was under Habsburg rule until 1794 when the whole area was annexed by the French Republic. The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created in 1815 following the Napoleonic wars. Belgium wasn't established as an independent and unified state until as late as 1830.
The late 19th century saw Belgium's entry into the world stage when the Congo was given to King Leopold II as his personal possession. What followed was possibly the most shameful imperial episode of brutal exploitation and disregard for human life - and that's up against some pretty stiff competition. See Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad for vivid confirmation.
In WWI the von Schlieffen plan called for the swift movement of the German Army through Belgium to outflank the French Army in the North-West. This violation of Belgian neutrality formally led to Britain's declaration of war. Despite overwhelming numerical inferiority stiff Belgian resistance played a key role in delaying the German advance and the ultimate failure of the Schlieffen plan. In WWII the Germans again launched a blitzkrieg that led to five years of occupation. Belgium's history has continued to run with that of the Netherlands. The governments-in-exile of both countries (plus that of tiny Luxembourg) established the Benelux Customs Union in 1944. In the 1970s it was always strange to drive between the countries with no internal border controls. Since the war Belgium has been a major beneficiary of Europe's 60-plus years of peace, positioning itself at the heart of the European Union and home to its bureaucracy - Brussels is home to diplomats and civil servants from around Europe - hence all those pubs dotted around the city - as well as a host of expensive restaurants.
Apart from their occasional successes at football, Belgian sport is in a healthy, if not always internationally winning, state. There is a fine tradition of competitive cycling, a currently flowering presence on the lawn tennis court, and even a smattering of happy clubs devoted to the Great Game of rugby union. Lord Price himself has several times graced the rugby pitches of Belgium, and can attest to the splendid sportsmanship and hospitality of the local players.
A quick survey of our Belgium pictures might lead you to think that Belgians live on beer and chocolate. That's a fine diet, to which we would add moules frites!
And as for our list of five famous Belgians, in reverse order, they are:
5 Georges Simenon - author of the Maigret novels but included here for the number of ladies with whom he claimed to have had relations (10,000!)
4 Plastic Bertrand - punk singer of the classic Ça plane pour moi
3 Pieter Brueghel the Elder - Renaissance artist and painter of wild peasant scenes
2 Eddy Merckx - five-times winner of the Tour de France
1 Hergé - Georges Remi, creator of Tintin
"Nous ne sommes plus vos singes" - We are no longer your monkeys Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo