Belgium, the many-faceted youngster of Europe
This diversely populated region has a history dating back to the campaigns of Julius Caesar
DRIVING through the snowy wastes of the Ardennes forest in Belgium last week, that marvellous quote of former French President Charles de Gaulle came to mind: “Belgium is a country invented by the British to annoy the French.”
Well, “mea culpa” you could say. Every proper Briton keeps a tickling stick in his cupboard, ready to flick it under the nose of the nearest Frenchman.
Just for sport, you understand.
But then, de Gaulle may have had his own reasons for making derogatory remarks about Belgium, a country of many unusual traits and apparent inconsistencies. De Gaulle, you see, knew it rather well. He was sent there to school at the age of 17, to a college of French Jesuits in exile, to study for improved mathematics qualifications. He spent just over a year there, in the castle at Antoing, from 1907. Could be, the experience scarred him for life.
Belgium is a curious place. One of Europe’s most popular jokes is: “Name five famous Belgians”. Most people can’t get past two and one is Hercule Poirot.
It is one of the newer countries of Western Europe, gaining its full independence as recently as 1831. Yet the history of this region is ancient. Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul brought him in contact with people of this region who were named the “Belgae”, one of the many Celtic tribes of Gaul. Thus, the Romans named this new province and outpost of the Roman Empire “Gallia Belgica”.
From Roman times up to the 20th century, the area we now call Belgium was one of the most popular battlegrounds of Europe. Just about any renowned conqueror or military figure, including Louis XIV, Napoleon, Wellington, Kaiser Wilhelm and then Adolf Hitler, spread out maps and apparently salivated at the prospect of over-running this comparatively small region of Europe.
Belgian place names such as Waterloo are synonymous with great military campaigns. Rival powers and countries have been trying for centuries to take a slice of this place like we now take a slice of Belgian chocolate cake.
In the midst of a Belgian winter, it can be tricky to discern just what the appeal of the place actually is. In the capital, Brussels, a weird mix of EU-money-driven, modern architect designed offices – the myriad departments of the European Commission – and shabby late 19th and early 20th century buildings dominate the centre. European politicians on healthy expense allowances certainly dictate the outrageous prices at the better restaurants and hotels.
Out in the country, up in the cold hills of the Ardennes forest, the heavy snow and deep grey skies provide a winter blanket of gloom.
If you live here, you get your central heating system serviced and your log store filled up to the brim long before the colours of a northern hemisphere autumn have finally fallen to earth. The winters are long and cold in this part of northern Europe.
But if the climate is cool, so too are the relationships between the different Belgian peoples. There are three official languages among the 10 million-plus population; Dutch, French and German. Until 1973, Belgian Dutch was called Flemish.
Dutch is the first language in the north (Flanders), where nearly 60 percent of the population lives; French in the south (Wallonia). About 20 percent of the people speak both languages.
Belgians who speak French as their first language are called Walloons, from the collective name for three French dialects spoken in the south. Just to complicate matters, German is spoken by several thousands in the east.
On a motorway journey from one end of the country to another, Brussels can be spelled “Bruxelles” (the French spelling), “Brussel” (the Dutch) or “Brussels” (English version).
Disputes between the two predominant language groups, who also have different traditions and customs, have caused social and political tensions.
There has been talk of each region becoming autonomous, a move which Belgium as a whole needs like a hole in the head.
Brussels, although located in the Flemish region, is officially bilingual; but French, long the traditional language of government and commerce, is predominantly spoken.
Belgium remains a great place to visit. Bruges, known as the Venice of the north, is one of the great gems of Europe, Antwerp is a mighty city and port while the woods, forests and taverns of the remote Ardennes are a treasure to unearth for the discerning traveller.
Europe’s many attractions come in all kinds of regions and packages.
SHIVER: Europe has been blanketed in early winter snow for the past week. Workers remove the snow from the pitch ahead of a soccer match in Ghent, Belgium. PICTURE: AP