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Country of the Week: Belgium

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve arrived in Belgium. Centuries of history and a sometimes-uneasy amalgamation of two distinct cultures make this low country a truly fascinating one to discover.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Brussels
  • Population (2015): 11,239,755 (75th)
  • Total Area: 30,528 km² (140th)
  • Official Languages: Dutch, French, German
  • Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
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The famous Grand Place (or Grote Markt) in Brussels

History

Like many European countries, Belgium was inhabited by a number of tribal groups (Celtic and Germanic in this case) before the Romans invaded. From 100 BC to the later days of the empire, Belgium was under the sway of the Roman Empire. Following this, the country was ruled by the Merovingian kings, and later the Carolingian Empire.

Belgium remained under the power of nearby rulers for much of the Middle Ages. Sometimes this meant the French kings, while other times the Holy Roman Empire held the land. The Eighty Years War (1568-1648) divided the Low Countries into two separate entities – the United Provinces (mostly modern day Netherlands) and the Southern Netherlands (largely Belgium). The Southern Netherlands was generally ruled by the Spanish and the Austrian Hapsburgs.

Belgium once again changed hands when the First French Republic annexed much of the country in the late 1700’s. This too wasn’t meant to last as Napoleon’s defeat meant a reunification of the entire Netherlands – including Belgium –  in 1815. Just 15 years later however, the Southern Provinces seceded from the north, forming an independent, largely French-speaking Belgium. The coronation of King Leopold I in 1831 is generally recognized as the country’s national day and birth of the modern nation.

In the late 1800’s, Belgium (under King Leopold II) was granted control of the Congo Free State in central Africa. The country extracted many lucrative resources from the Congo, largely ivory and rubber. However, the wealth came at a cost barred by the native people due to the extremely harsh colonial measures instituted, which have been criticized to this day. The Congo was later granted independence in 1960.

Belgium suffered greatly in World War I, as the German Schlieffen Plan necessitated breaking Belgian neutrality in order to invade France. The excesses of the invasion are well documented; with the Second Battle of Ypres remembered as the place of the first full-scale deployment of chemical warfare (chlorine gas). At the end of the war, a small portion of Prussia was annexed by Belgium – adding a German-speaking region to the larger French (Wallonia) and Dutch (Flanders) regions.

The country was once again invaded during World War II, with the population suffering greatly at the hands of the Nazis. Following Belgium’s liberation by the Allies, King Leopold III was forced to abdicate as the populace accused him of collaborating with the Germans.

Since then, Belgium has sought to integrate itself with nearby and like-minded countries. Today, Belgium is at the forefront of many regional and international organizations. It is a founding member of NATO, and the home of the organization’s headquarters. In addition, Belgium serves as the de facto capital of the European Union, and is the home of many of its most important bodies. This has helped the country gain a strong footing in international affairs, and it will continue to be hugely important for years to come.

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Preserved trenches near Ypres – the site of some of some major conflicts in WWI

Culture

Belgian culture is tricky to define due to the strong political and linguistic divisions between the French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish. Indeed, Flanders finds most of its influences from the nearby Netherlands and English-speaking Europe, while Wallonia is more closely linked with France. That being said, there are many shared cultural elements between the two regions, both of which consider themselves strongly European in nature.

Belgian cuisine is well known around the world (particularly the waffles and chocolates), and the country does share many similar elements with nearby France. The country does have many of its own creations, with mussels and fries one of the national dishes. However, it’s the beer from the country that is truly internationally renowned. Trappist monks especially are historically known for producing their own styles of ale, and these beers are still drunk today. Only eleven breweries (i.e. monasteries) are allowed to produce Trappist beer, six of which are in Belgium.

Sport is popular throughout the country, though largely organized separately by the different language groups. Soccer is arguably the most popular, and is followed throughout Belgium. While the domestic league is good (though not one of the top in Europe), the country has recently produced a large amount of top-class players. While a recent quarterfinal exit in the last World Cup might be considered a disappointment, the Belgian national team appears to be poised to take on other European heavyweights.

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Beer from one of the famous Trappist breweries – Chimay

Geography

Plains, valleys, rolling hills, and dense forests largely characterize Belgium – though there are parts of the country with slightly higher elevations. Like other countries in the region, the weather is largely temperate, though there is a significant amount of rain. The relatively small coastline features sand dunes and numerous barriers, which enclose areas known as ‘polders’ and keep outside water from getting in.

As we mentioned, the country is divided into separate regions, though there are actually three. The Flemish Region and the Walloon region are the main ones, however the capital city of Brussels is a part of the smaller Brussels Capital Region. While the capital is predominantly French speaking, it resides in an enclave surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders (due to French being the historical language of the nobility and elite). Besides Brussels, other major cities include Antwerp, Ghent, Liège, and Bruges.

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The idyllic Maas River Valley

Did you know?

  • The film In Bruges was shot in Bruges
  • Some of the most well-known Belgian soccer players are Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin de Bruyne, Christian Benteke, and Vincent Kompany
  • One of Brussels most famous landmarks is the statue Manneken Pis, which depicts a urinating boy
  • Belgium has more castles per square kilometre than any other country in the world
  • Voting is mandatory
  • Antwerp is known as the diamond capital of the world, with almost 90% of the world’s supply going through the city
  • Napoleon’s last defeat at Waterloo was in Belgium
  • The famous comic Tintin is a Belgian creation
  • If you play billiards, odds are the balls used are made in Belgium
  • It’s claimed that French fries originally came from the country
  • The Belgian Congo inspired the novel Heart of Darkness (with the setting later moved to Vietnam and Cambodia for the film Apocalypse Now)
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One of many canals in Bruges, with the Burgher’s Lodge in the background

Last Word

While the country endured a difficult early 20th century, Belgium has since emerged as a centre of European politics. It is a popular destination for many thanks to classical cities, a unique mix of cultures, and its central location.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all here). Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.

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