By Melanie Franssens and Nicoleta Acritidu
Belgium is a country I have visited many times before, partly because I live quite close to its border and also because my parents have to go there quite often for their work. My parents work in the inland shipping industry, and when I was younger I would often accompany them on board while they were navigating through Belgium. There are a lot of beautiful and unique places to discover in this country. In this travel story, I will share my experiences of some of the places I have visited and talk about what characterizes Belgium.
Let’s start off with the Belgian Ardennes, a beautiful wooded area in the Southeast of the country. The Ardennes are for instance perfect for outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, cycling, horseback riding and canoeing. In this area you will find many small and picturesque villages as well as castles. I have canoed many times over the river Ourthe, which is always a fun experience.
My personal favourite city in Belgium is Ghent. There are many things to like about this city. First of all, Ghent is a great place for shopping and it is also home to many nice cafes. One cafe in particular, a cafe called ‘’Dulle Griet’’, is especially unique and definitely worth a visit. Here you can choose between 500 different kinds of beer. There is, however, one particular type of beer which is a bit more special compared to others. It is called ‘Kwak’ and comes in a huge glass with a convex bottom that hangs in a wooden holder. If you want to order one, you have to give one of your shoes to an employee as a ‘’deposit’’. The theory behind this is that people are less likely to try and steal the glass (which is quite expensive) if they have to give up one of their shoes. Overall, this cafe has great aesthetics and is visited by both local and tourists alike.
Another reason to visit Ghent is its delicious waffles. In Ghent, you will mostly find Liege waffles. In the French part of Belgium (Wallonia), Brussels waffles are more common. Liege waffles (as seen on the photo below) are thicker compared to Brussels waffles and contain sugar grains. I would advise to go to a place where they serve their waffles fresh from the waffle iron. In Belgium it is also common to put warm cherries on top of your waffle.
Ghent also has some awesome events every year (*note: due to covid-19 these events may not take place). One of these events is the ‘’Gentse feesten’’ (celebrations of Ghent), when the streets in the centre of the city are filled with people and artists performing all sorts of acts. Moreover, if you happen to be a live music lover, you will most certainly not be disappointed as well. The event starts in the third week of July and lasts 10 days. Besides the Gentse feesten, there is also the ‘’Winter feesten’’ (winter celebrations). This event could be compared to the famous Christmas markets in Germany, with the difference that Ghent seems to be less crowded. Next to small stands with food, drinks and other products, there is also a big ferris wheel which gives you a beautiful view of the whole city. What is more, there is an ice skating rink, in case that you and/or your company happen to like doing something more active.
Another great city to visit is Bruges. The inner city of Bruges is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list, and one could easily tell why. There are numerous museums to visit and splendid architecture to see. As a huge chocolate lover myself, I especially like Bruges for the high selection of chocolate stores it has.
The last destination within Belgium to be covered in this article is Dinant. Dinant is a relatively small but picturesque city in the province of Namur. It runs along the Meuse River on the eastern side, against a steep rock face, with a narrower strip on the western side, against a forest. Its old town is one of Wallonia’s most spectacular sights.
One of the first things that catches the eye when arriving at the destination is Collégiale Notre Dame de Dinant, a splendid 13th-century Gothic cathedral. The cathedral is nestled below a stone cliff, on top of which stands the Dinant Citadel (La Citadelle de Dinant). This fortress overlooks the city as a testimony of its tumultuous history. The panoramic view from up there is totally worth the 400 steps climb. Taking a cable car is also possible.
Did you know that of all places, Dinant is where you could try Couque de Dinant, the hardest biscuits in Europe (unless you’re worried about breaking your teeth)? Another fun fact about Dinant is that the creator of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, grew up here. He was the son of a Belgian-French musical instrument-maker and inheriting his father’s skill, Sax invented the saxophone and its varieties in the 1840s.That is why in Dinant’s city centre, many sculptures and symbols that pay a tribute to his musical invention, are found. If you happen to visit Dinant, you will most probably cross the Pont Charles de Gaulle. Multiple saxophone sculptures are placed around the bridge, along with flags of European Union countries. Each saxophone is unique in its colouring and placed in front of its respective flag, paying tribute to the country it represents.
Last but not least, if you visit Dinant (or nearby), you should by no means miss out checking out Walzin Castle. Hidden less than 10 kilometers from Dinant, this is one of the most picturesque castles in Belgium (and Belgium has lots of them) and my personal favourite in Wallonia!
Lastly, I want to talk about some stereotypes about Belgium. Belgium is for example known for its badly maintained roads. Although I don’t live in Belgium, I can not deny that this stereotype is unfortunately true. If you are crossing the border by car, you will literally be able to feel that you have entered Belgium. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but truthfully, signs at the border are completely unnecessary. In addition to many holes in the road, you can also encounter many unclear roadblock signs. According to research from the World Economic Forum, Belgium’s roads quality scores at position 46 out of 137 researched countries in total. Just to compare, the road quality from less economically developed countries such as Namibia and Rwanda scored better. So if you are planning to visit Belgium by car, be aware of the road quality!
Overall, Belgium is a fun country to visit. It’s inhabitants are kind and there is a lot to discover in each city you visit. Belgium may not be on top of everyone’s bucket list, but in my opinion it is definitely worth a visit!