Despite being widely recognized by foodies for their chocolate and waffles, and political aficionados for being the de facto capital of the European Union, Brussels - the capital of Belgium - is often not the first holiday destination considered by travelers going to Europe. Unknown to many, Belgium is actually much more than its chocolates and waffles.
A Rich European History
Belgium, having gained its independence from the Spanish empire just 200 years ago, is considered a relatively young nation by European standards. Its richness in history often eludes the tourist’s eye, many of whom are unaware of the historical significance of the different towns.
The port city of Antwerp (pronounced ant-werp), directly north of Brussels, was where trade flourished in the glorious days bringing in riches to the country. This was the place from which more than two million Europeans fled to America between the years of 1873 and 1934 to seek a better life, and to avoid persecution by Nazi Germany. It was also from this coastal city that renowned scientist Albert Einstein left for the United States where he would help to build the atomic bomb. The Red Star Line Museum at this port aptly captures and showcases these stories of desperation and hope.
You’ll find in the Northwest of Brussels, the quaint towns of Ghent (pronounced geh-ent) and Bruges (pronounced br-rouge). Nicknamed the Venice of the North, Bruges’ canals were important as it facilitated trade throughout of Europe in during the 12th and 15th century. The College of Europe in Bruges is the prestigious “Oxbridge” of European studies, owning the bragging rights for having educated many leading EU officials. In the center of Ghent sits the 12th century Gravensteen Castle surrounded by rows of preserved cobble brick houses and beautiful canals that bring you back to the centuries before.
A Comics Connection
Unbeknownst to many, Belgium is also the birth place of world famous comics like The Adventures of Tintin and The Smurfs. Belgians are as proud of their comic heritage as they are of their waffles, and you can stop by museums and comic boutiques such as the La Boutique Tintin that bring these childhood comics to life.
More than just chocolates…
Belgium is also the place where French fries really originated from, (yep, french fries aren't the least bit French!) but in Belgium, they’re called frites - its tastiness lying in the secret of being cooked twice. Separately, the rich beer-brewing culture in Belgium has produced world famous beers of Hoegaarden and Stella Artois, although it's a pity not many are privy to where they hail from.
When it comes to Belgian waffles, we think we know the yummy rectangles of dough but actually, there are two kinds of waffles: The Brussels waffles and the Liege waffles.
Brussels waffles are rectangular, crispy and have deep holes, while the Liege waffles tend to be chewier, and rounder in shape, with rather shallow holes. In Brussels, one can generally get plain waffles for just 1 Euro, but of course the price increases with your choice of toppings.
Although I was in Belgium for only one and a half weeks, it was a great discovery experience beyond chocolates and waffles. If you'll be travelling to Europe, be sure to make a stop in Belgium and take in not only the food, but the richness of this country and the historical significance behind every street and town to truly complete your European tour.