Modest little Belgium has never been known to boast of its charms, yet its variety of language, culture, history, and cuisine would do credit to a country many times its size. Belgium's diversity stems from its location at the cultural crossroads of Europe. The boundary between the Continent's Germanic north and Latin south cuts clear across the nation's middle, leaving Belgium divided into two major ethnic regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.
Although international attention is focused on Brussels as the "capital of Europe," there's another Belgium of Gothic cathedrals, medieval castles, cobblestone streets, and tranquil canals waiting in the wings. In a country the size of Maryland and two-fifths the size of Scotland, the timeless beauty of Bruges and Ghent are accessible, even to the most hurried visitor, and to get away from it all, there's no better place than the unhurried Ardennes.
In a sense, Brussels has a split personality. One is the brash new "capital of Europe," increasingly aware of its power and carrying a padded expense account in its elegant leather pocketbook. The other is the old Belgian city -- once a seat of emperors, but lately more than a little provincial, tenaciously hanging onto its heritage against the wave of Euroconstruction that has swept over it.
These two cities intersect, of course, generally in a popular bar or restaurant, though they may sit together uneasily. Most foreigners who live here long enough, or who stay on an extended vacation, find they need to choose between the two. As an outsider, it's easy enough to live in the Eurocity. Getting below the surface to the real Brussels is more difficult, but worth the effort.
From its 13th-century origins as a cloth-manufacturing town to its current incarnation as a tourism mecca, the main town of West Flanders province seems to have changed little. As in a fairy tale, swans glide down the winding canals, and the stone houses look as if they're made of gingerbread. Even though glass-fronted stores have taken over the ground floors of ancient buildings, and swans scatter before tour boats chugging along the canals, Bruges has made the transition from medieval to modern with remarkable grace. The town seems revitalized rather than crushed by the tremendous influx of tourists.
Ghent & Antwerp
The old town at the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers has been spruced up, and Ghent has never looked so good. Although this former seat of the powerful counts of Flanders is larger and more citified than Bruges, it has enough cobblestone streets, meandering canals, and antique Flemish architecture to make it nearly as magical as its more famous sister.
Antwerp is a port city, with all the liveliness, sophistication, and occasional seediness you'd expect from the world's fifth-largest port. The city is the acknowledged "Diamond Center of the World," the leading market for cut diamonds and second only to London as an outlet for raw and industrial diamonds. It boasts a magnificent cathedral, a fine-arts museum full of Flemish masterpieces, a maze of medieval streets in the town center, and a vibrant cultural life.
The Belgian Coast & Ypres
At the center of the seacoast is Ostend, the "Queen of the Coast." It retains a little of the cachet and some of the ambience of its great days as a 19th-century beach resort. It's complemented by more modern resorts such as Knokke-Heist and De Panne.
Having suffered through centuries of intermittent warfare and almost total destruction during World War I, Ypres (Ieper) has picked itself up in the years since, its indomitable spirit intact -- a spirit that shines in the perseverance underlying its 20th-century rebuilding of 13th-century buildings.
Liège, the Meuse River & Hainaut
The rugged Meuse River valley, the heartland of French-speaking Wallonia, is speckled with resort towns in which fine cuisine is a way of life. A visit to Liège, Namur, Huy, and Dinant after being to Brussels and the Flemish art cities of Bruges and Ghent adds another dimension to Belgium.
Tucked into an area south of Brussels that stretches to the French border, Hainaut, Belgium's "Green Province," can seem isolated from the mainstream of Belgian life, yet possesses prime assets in the historic towns of Mons and Tournai.
Belgium's wildest, most heavily forested region is its least populated, part of the rugged Ardennes-Eifel Massif, which stretches across into Germany, Luxembourg, and France. French is the most common language, but in the northeast, in the area called the Ostkantone (East Cantons), you most often hear German spoken, a residue from the years before 1919 when this part of the Ardennes belonged to Germany.
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