Belgium: A European Crossroads

Bordered by France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, with the British Isles a short jaunt by ferry across the English Channel, and with the current headquarters of the European Union inside its borders, the small country of Belgium serves as a hub for much of Europe. Rail lines from France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and even the United Kingdom cross through the Belgium capital of Brussels, which also serves as a major center for air travel for people flying into and throughout Europe. But even in the midst of this metropolitan knot, Belgium has its own distinct flavor, known for its chocolate, beer, and the woefully misnamed French fries, a Belgian invention.

 

Getting into Belgium

 

Belgium is a member of the European Union and part of the Schengen Agreement, which allows member nations to travel across borders without the need for a visa. For Americans coming to vacation in Belgium, you only need a passport that’s valid for three months beyond your stay. This allows you to stay in Belgium for up to 90 days.

 

Additional entry requirements include a plane ticket for your return destination and enough money to enjoy your stay, although minimum cash on hand requirements are not explicitly stated. You can enter Belgium with up to €10,000 without having to declare it.

 

Belgium does not have any required vaccinations, but you should be up to date on the standard vaccinations, which include the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), chicken pox, and polio vaccines. Optional vaccines include ones for Hepatitis A and B, and a rabies vaccination, which is only necessary if you plan on enjoying the underground delights in the Wallonia region, where you may be exposed to bats. Before you travel, check with your local physician to see which, if any, vaccines are right for you.

 

If you bring electric or electronic devices, keep in mind that the voltage requirements are different in Belgium than they are in the US, as are the plugs. You will need a plug adapter as well as a transformer if your devices are not compatible with 220 – 230V 50Hz requirements.

 

Travel expenses in Belgium

 

When you travel to Belgium you will want to have plenty of money on hand to sample all the gastronomical delights, shop for the latest high end fashions, and excellent hotels. You can get by in Belgium on a budget. There are numerous activities that you can do without denting your wallet, such as camping, hiking, and bicycling. If you stay in hostels, eat at sandwich, kebab, and frites (French fries) shops, use public transportation or hitchhike, and spend modestly on sightseeing, you can enjoy a Belgian vacation for as little as $60 a day.

 

If you want to enjoy more midrange hotels and eat out at restaurants, which is highly recommended since Belgian food is much like French food in its richness and variety of flavors, and much like German food in the size of the helpings, you should budget to spend around $150-$200 a day. Even with these choices, you can stretch your money and still experience a fun and comfortable vacation. Belgian restaurants in general are excellent, but you can save a little money by eating out in smaller towns and villages rather than in the larger, more expensive urban centers. Also, keep in mind, particularly if you are eating in restaurants frequented by tourists, that bread as an appetizer is not free as it would usually be at restaurants in the US. Taking advantage of bed and breakfasts for lodging not only provides a cheaper alternative to hotel accommodations, but also gives you the opportunity to meet new people. In lieu of buying individual bus trips around Belgium’s various cities, you can get good value in buying day passes.

 

Since Belgium is a small country in terms of area, travel is fairly cheap and doesn’t take a long time. One good resource to use for all manner of travel throughout Belgium is http://www.infotec.be/index.aspx?Language=english. Also, if your travel style is more of the backpacker type, Belgium is a perfect place to hitchhike safely. Setting up near bus stations with a cardboard sign to indicate your destination can get you a ride in no time.

 

Tipping is not required in most situations, although small amounts are appreciated. There are a couple of situations in which it is common to tip that are different from tipping practices in the US. It is customary to tip theater and cinema attendants (usually around €1). Another person to tip is the bathroom attendant at public restrooms.

 

Changing money at banks will give you the best rates and the smallest service fees. However, banks tend to close around 3:30 in the afternoon. You can also use money changing booths, but these will be more expensive. While ATMs are ubiquitous in the larger cities, you’ll find them less available in the smaller towns and villages. Many shops, hotels, and restaurants will take credit cards, particularly in the urban centers, but this isn’t universally the case, so it’s a good idea to carry around a reasonable amount of cash.

 

The traveler’s tongue

 

In keeping with the cultural crossroads nature of Belgium, the country is divided into three regions: the metropolitan area around Brussels, the northern half of the country known as Flanders, and the southern half known as Wallonia. There is not one official language in Belgium; there are three: Dutch, French, and German. Furthermore, each of these languages is not official everywhere, but official in their respective regions.

 

In Flanders, the official language is Dutch. In most of Wallonia, the official language is French, but in parts of Wallonia, particularly along its southern and eastern borders with Luxembourg and Germany, the official language is German. In Brussels, the official languages are both Dutch and French, although the language of business is French.

 

Here’s where it gets complicated. The language spoken in a particular area is a thorny issue among Belgians. Speaking the wrong language in an area is considered highly offensive. Thus, if you speak Dutch in Wallonia, you will probably rub people the wrong way and vice versa in Flanders. Each region takes its cultural identity quite seriously.

 

English has been taught in school recently, so that many younger generation Belgians speak it. In fact, in Flanders and Brussels, English speaking is not uncommon, and most people who approach you there will likely do so in English until you switch languages. However, in Wallonia, even though younger people have studied English, they speak French as a point of pride.

 

In keeping with this sensitivity towards their cultural identity, Belgians also do not like emphasis being placed on their membership in the EU. They identify themselves regionally first, as Belgians second, and, in a distant third, as Europeans. One final point of etiquette is to avoid talk about religion, money, or politics. This is not to say that Belgians are by nature prickly. They tend to be rather friendly, albeit often shy. Remain sensitive to their cultural identity and you will do fine relating to them.

 

Things to do and see

 

In the movie In Bruges, Colin Farrell constantly bemoans that Bruges, a beautiful town that’s wall to wall medieval architecture, is a hellish place, and Belgium has had the undeserved reputation for being a boring place. Nothing could be more inaccurate. Belgium offers numerous attractions to highlight your vacation.

 

  • Sample the frites, chocolate, waffles, and beer. Belgium, not France, is the inventor of French fries, and there’s no beating the original. If you do not like mayonnaise, make sure you let your vendor know because it’s the condiment of choice. Belgian beer is world famous and there are numerous Abbeys that specialize in amazing beers. You can even sign up for the Belgian Beer Tour to sample many of them without having to worry about driving yourself. Chocolate and waffles are two other delights for which the Belgians are famous.
  • Visit a museum (or many museums). Brussels has over 80 different museums itself, ranging from fine art museums such as the Magritte museum to a museum for comic books. The Belgians, incidentally, are very big on comic books and have brought us many famous comic book characters including Asterix the Gaul and Tintin. Since Belgium was the sight of many great battles from the Napoleonic Wars to WWI and WWII, there are numerous commemorative museums for these throughout the country.
  • Visit Waterloo. The fabled sight of Napoleon’s great defeat features a memorial statue of a lion that looks towards France and the Wellington Museum.
  • Hike the Ardennes Forest. Not only are the hiking trails excellent, but there are also resorts for skiing both downhill and cross country, as well as numerous places to sample more exotic meats such as venison and wild boar.
  • Explore the caves of Wallonia. If your idea of a vacation veers towards the adventurous side, the many caves in Wallonia can scratch that itch. You will have to purchase insurance and rent equipment (ropes and a headlamp), or bring your own. If you are new to caving, there are opportunities to get in on the ground floor (literally) with lessons and groups to help you gain experience.
  • Castles, castles, castles! There are approximately 3000 castles in Belgium, more per square mile than anywhere else. Jehay Castle in Liège and Ravenhof Castle in Torhout are two highlights.
  • Wander through the Labyrinth of Durbuy. Located in Ardennes, this maze of tall, sculpted hedges is a great place to wander and if you make it to the center, there’s a bar where you can toast your success.
  • Visit the fountain of Mannenkin Pis and Jeanneken Pis in Brussels. This famous fountain is an odd but popular attraction that features sculptures of a young boy and young girl filling up the water in the fountain in a strange and shocking manner.

 

These are just some of the many attractions waiting for you in Belgium. Enjoy a vacation that’s anything but boring.