|Government||federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch|
|Area||total: 30,510 sq km |
land: 30,230 sq km
water: 280 sq km
|Population||10,274,595 (July 2002 est.)|
|Language||Dutch (official) 60%, French (official) 40%, German (official) less than 1%, legally bilingual (Dutch and French)|
|Religion||Roman Catholic 75%, Protestant or other 25%|
|Time Zone||UTC +1|
Belgium is a low lying country on the North Sea coast in Western Europe. With the majority of West European capitals within 1,000 km of Brussels, the seat of both the European Union and NATO, Belgium sits at the crossroads of Western Europe. Its immediate neighbours are France to the southwest, Luxembourg to the south east, Germany to the east and the Netherlands to the north.
Belgium consists of three regions, listed from North to South:
- Flanders: northern, Dutch-speaking region
- Wallonia: southern, French-speaking region
Flanders and Wallonia are each divided in 5 provinces.
- Flanders: Antwerp (province), East Flanders, Hainaut, Li�ge, Luxembourg, Namur and Walloon Brabant
These are the major cities in Belgium.
- Brussels, Belgium's capital.
- Flanders Fields Country
- The Binche
Belgium is a densely populated country trying to balance the conflicting demands of urbanization, transportation, industry, commercial and intensive agriculture. It imports large quantities of raw materials and exports a large volume of manufactured goods, mostly to the EU.
Temperate; mild winters, cool summers; rainy, humid, cloudy.
Flat coastal plains in northwest, central rolling hills, wooded hills and valleys of Ardennes Forest in southeast.
Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830. It was occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II and has many war graves near the battle zones. It has prospered in the past half century as a modern, technologically advanced European state and member of NATO and the EU. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south have led in recent years to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy.
Electricity is supplied at 220 to 230V 50Hz. Outlets are the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko" or the compatible, but non-grounded, CEE-7/16 "Europlug" types. Generally speaking, U.S. and Canadian travelers should pack an adapter for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Belgium.
Brussels is home to an international airport, - Brussels National Airport (http://www.brusselsairport.be/index.cfm?lang=en) (IATA code BRU), about 25 minutes from the city centre with the train or the number 12 airport express bus.
There are also small airports at Charleroi - Brussels South (http://www.charleroi-airport.com/) (IATA code CRL, 1 hour from Brussels) , Oostende (IATA code OST, on the coast, Tel: 059/55.12.11 - Fax: 059/51.32.51) and Deurne - Antwerp (http://www.antwerpairport.be/) (Tel: 00 32 (0)3 285 65 00).
Virgin uses Zaventem airport, Ryanair uses Charleroi, and charter flight tour operators use all of them.
There are high speed trains between Brussels, Cologne, Paris (Thalys), and London (Eurostar), as well as normal trains that run between all cities. Check out the website for SNCB/NMBS (http://www.b-rail.be). If you are planning to travel around Belgium by train often, perhaps you should buy a "Rail Pass" (26 years old +) or "Go Pass" (up to 26 years old). For 44 Euros (student price), you can buy 10 one-way trips anywhere in Belgium. Not bad considering most trips will cost you at least 7 euros.
Major European highways like the E-19, E-17, E-40, E-5411 and E-313 pass through Belgium.
Belgium has an extensive public transport network with frequent operating buses and trams.
There are boat services to/from England and Ireland, e.g. from Ostend. From Ghent, you can sail to Sweden.
Being such a small country (300 km as its maximum distance), you can get anywhere in a couple of hours. Public transport is fast and comfortable, but rather expensive. Between larger cities, there are frequent train connections, with buses covering smaller distances.
To do some local sightseeing, especially in Flanders, a lot of infrastructure is prepared for bikes.
Go Pass: 43 euro's for ten rides from any station to any other station within Belgium, within one year. Only <26 can use the Binche  (http://www.visitbelgium.com/mediaroom/BincheCarnival.htm) Belgium's most famous carnival, the carnival in Binche, attracts thousands of visitors annually. For three days in February the town of Binche is transported back to the 16th century for one of the most fantastic festivals of the year. Highlighted by music parades and fireworks, the climax of this event is when the Gilles appear on the Grand Place and throw oranges to the spectators. This infamous festivity has been classified as part of the world's cultural heritage by UNESCO along with its renowned Gilles.
Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch, and German. English is widely spoken by people under 30, regardless if you are in Flanders or Wallonia, but speaking foreign languages is far more common in Flanders, especially Englsh and German. You will find that some older people do speak English but it is less likely.
- Belgian chocolate: A long tradition has given the belgian chocolate a superior refinement process, that is world wide recognized.
- Textiles in Bruges
Belgium is Famous for its good cuisine and Belgians like to go to restaurant frequently. However as a small country in the centre of western Europe, the cuisine is influenced not only by the surrounding countries, but also by many others. This is also emphasized by many foreigners coming to this country to make a living here, for instance by starting a restaurant. You can find all types of restaurants:
- French/Belgian: A traditional Belgian restaurant serves the kind of food you will also find in the best French restaurants. Of course there are local differences: at the coast (in France as well as in Belgium) you have a better chance to find some good seafood, like mussels, turbot, sole or the famous Nord sea shrimps. In the southern woods of the Ardennes (remember the battle of the Bulge?), you are better off choosing game or local fish like trout.
- English/German/Dutch: You won't find them in Belgium.
- American: There are McDonald's or look-alikes in every town. The belgian variant is called "Quick". You may also find a local booth serving sausages, hot dogs or hamburgers. Try it: the meat tastes the same, but the bread is much better. And what about real American restaurants? See the previous chapter.
- Mexican: Only in the cities and rather costly for medium quality.
- Chinese: They have a long tradition of restaurants in Belgium. Rather cheap, but for an acceptable level of quality. Choose chicken or pork. Not beef and certainly not fish.
- Greek/Spanish/Italian: Like all over the world, nice, rather cheap, with a good atmosphere and typical music (Greek: Choose meat, especially lamb) (Spanish: Choose paella and tapas) (Italian: Choose anything).
- Japanese/Thai: You usually only find them in the cities and they are rather expensive. But they give you great quality.
- Arabic/Turkish/Moroccan: Rather cheap, with a variety of local dishes, especially with lamb, no fish or pork or beef.
- And many, many others! Belgium offers a wide selection of international restaurants.
- Belgian "French fries" (from the verb to french  (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/french#Verb)). These are called frieten (meaning "fries" in Flemish) or frites (meaning "fries" in French), and they are world-renowned. Belgium proudly claims the title of inventor of the French fry. Whether or not this is true, they certainly have perfected it.
- Belgium is a country which understands what eating is all about, and can be a real gastronomic paradise. You can have a decent meal in about every tavern, from small snacks to a complete dinner. Just pop into one of those and enjoy it. You really are going to ask, why isn't this possible in other countries?
- If you want to eat really well for not too much money, ask the local people or the hotel manager (that is, supposing he does not have a brother restaurant-manager) to give some advice for a good restaurant.
- There is a price for everything: expensive food like lobster or turbot will always cost a lot of money at any restaurant. But you can also find some local and simple dishes, rather cheap and still very tasty (e.g. sausages, potatoes and spinach).
Belgium offers an incredible diversity of beers. The most well known are Stella Artois, Duvel (literally: the Devil, beware, 8.5%!), Leffe, Jupiler (plain standard beer), Hoegaarden (white beer). The names given to some beers are pretty imaginative: eg Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), Judas, Delirium Tremens. Some really exquisite ones are the beers that are still brewed in monasteries of the Trappist monks, such as the West-Vleteren, rated best beer in the world! Warmly recommended are also Kriek (sweet cherry beer) and, for the christmas season, Stille Nacht (Silent night).
- About the famous beer: the 'geuze' (http://www.3fonteinen.be/index_e.htm) - As geuzeblendery 'The 3 Fonteinen' has a long tradition.
Belgium has many fine hotels, but the best are located in Antwerp, Brussels and the Ardennes region of Belgium.
The level of Belgian education and universities rank among the highest of the world. The other side of the medal is that Belgian students have to study for long periods.
Having one of the highest labour taxes in Europe, Belgium is struggling to reposition itself as a high-tech country. In that struggle, Flanders is quite ahead of Wallonia, in contrast to the previous decades, where Wallonia's steel industry was the main export of Belgium.
Highly skilled people will have the most chance to find work, and knowing multiple languages (Dutch, French, English and/or German) is almost a standard requirement. Interim offices providing temporary jobs are flourishing in a search to avoid the high labour taxes.
The upside of the high taxes is that Belgium has a very good social security system, with compulsory health insurance, unemployment wages and pension for all citizens.
Except for certain neighbourhoods in Charleroi, Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium is a safe country. Being aggressive or even unhelpful towards strangers is very unnatural for Belgians in general. One exception: when driving a car, don't annoy other drivers with more expensive cars.
Also be aware of a mild form of resentment towards Muslims and North African ethnicities.
Always use your common sense, of course. Don't walk in empty streets in the middle of the night, showing off your expensive equipment or jewelry.
In the winter, like most other countries, only influenza will cause you an considerable inconvenience. No inoculations are needed to enter or leave Belgium.
The Belgian attitude towards life is one of humility, and not being proud of what's given to you. A real Belgian patriot is very hard to find.
A few sensitive points:
- Belgium has a catholic history, and is not as open minded as e.g. the Netherlands, but foreigners are easily forgiven for their wrongdoings. But with most of the people it is not a problem to comment on religious topics as most people are not religious.
- Most Belgians do not like to discuss their wages or their political preferences.
- Depending on who you talk to, talking about right-wing politics may spark heated discussions.
- Also be careful about commenting on Flemish identity, it could cause some trouble.
Belgium has a modern telephone system with nationwide cellular telephone coverage, and multiple internet access points in all cities, free in most libraries. Also in multiple gas stations, NMBS train stations and diners on the highways there is wireless internet access available.
- Belgium Tourist Office (http://www.visitbelgium.com)
- Federal Portal of Belgium (http://www.belgium.be)
- National Geographic Institute (http://www.ngi.be/FR/FR4.shtm/) - Administrative and communication maps