Belgium, that anachronism of a nation comprising an uneasy marriage between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia is never to be found on the top of people’s must visit lists. To some if you mention Belgium they will ask you can you eat it. To others it conjures up images of Tin Tin, European bureaucracy and beer. However, it really is such a fascinating little country and even more so today.
At first Belgium seems like a little, quaint confectionary box you’d find in your grandmother’s house but with a fascinating secret layer that upon finding you will want to dive right in. It seems to have something for everyone. In one of the most urbanized countries in the world, it is its’ cities that shine brightly, especially in Flanders.
For a wonderfully Disneyland experience of canals and medieval turrets, you really can’t go wrong with Bruges. It flickered brightly in late medieval and early Renaissance Europe before the lifeblood of the city, it’s river silted up. This in its own way preserved some of the most beautiful architecture of the period. Bruges is achingly romantic but sadly bereft of any gay scene with only one gay bar in the Disney village called Bolero.
For fashion lovers, Antwerp is a must destination. Not only is it the centre of the world’s diamond market, it is also from here that the famous Antwerp Six blazed through world fashion over 25 years ago. Antwerp has a thriving gay scene and full of some delightfully shady gay bars such as Kinky’sthat you should try out. Close by is Ghent. Ghent is a hidden gem for music lovers. As the hometown of Soulwax and 100,000 students it can be quite the party town with excellent bars and clubs. Finally Brussels is a strange mish-mash of a place, an international bureaucratic entity full of odd architecture like the Atomium and whose most famous tourist site is of a little fountain of a boy pissing.
As a lover of politics Belgium has a way of surprising me. In 2002 Belgium legalized euthanasia and the following year gay marriage. How funny it is then to find Belgian politics has a history of being incredibly dysfunctional. Explaining the reasons why it is so would probably have you reaching for a large pint of Hoegarden but in simple terms it is to do with the French and Dutch speaking regions slowly drifting apart and finding it hard to form governments together. Indeed Belgium went over 500 days without a government until December 2011 and still managed to function, something that would make Michelle Bachmann wet. In the end all parties picked what they thought was a politically dull individual as prime minister but in person he is anything but.
Let me introduce you to the fabulousness of Belgian PM Elio di Rupo. Gay, atheist, socialist and wonderfully flamboyant, he would give Michelle Bachmann an aneurism. He was born in a squatters’ camp in Wallonia. Young Elio was brought up by his mother on virtually no money after his father was knocked down by a truck when he was only one. Nevertheless he rose up from humble beginnings to take the mantle of fractious Belgian government. Always sporting a dickie-bow, he has been known to frequent gay bars in Brussels so the next time you are in La Demence, watch out!
The thing about Belgium is that it shouldn’t work but it does. On a continent made up of nation states, Belgium seems like an unhappy marriage between Wallonia and Flanders but they nevertheless soldier on together. The French love to mock the Belgians, which is a bit unfair because those frogs are ripe for parody and Belgians actually have a sense of humor compared to their neighbors. Everyone is bilingual or trilingual or more. While having a historically deep-rooted conservatism embedded (or forced upon, depending on who you talk to) during centuries of Spanish theocratic rule, young Belgian adults are certainly not. While famous for beer and chocolate, it has a fantastic culinary scene worth dabbling in. It may seem geographically an in between place but I would implore you to take some time to check out funny little Belgium.