Belgium is not only the land of waffles, beer, chocolate, and some of the best music festivals in the world but also of diamonds, surreal folk festivals, and a record-breaking political gridlock. Here, Culture Trip takes a closer look at 11 things that make the small country stand out from the pack.
Whether they’re making a fluffy Brussels waffle with a crunchy outside or a sticky Liège one with crystalized sugar clumps that melt in the mouth, Belgians sure do know their way around a waffle maker. Read ‘A Brief History Of The Belgian Waffle‘ to learn more about how the Belgian waffle – meaning a Brussels waffle – came into being.
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Jazz soirees and indoor electronic temples in winter, massive metal celebrations in spring, rock Valhallas in summer, and eclectic concert series in fall – no matter what the season, Belgium never leaves festival fans hanging. Looking at this overview, it’s clear that big hitters Pukkelpop, Rock Werchter, and Tomorrowland are just the tip of the iceberg.
Is it too hokey to say that diamonds are Belgium’s best friend? Well, they are. With port city Antwerp controlling a fourth of the rough market and more than half of the cut market, chances are the shiner on your finger has passed through the experienced hands of Belgium’s finest jewelers.
Complicated state structures and one whopper of a political impasse
This one isn’t quite as charming, but facts are facts: Belgium holds the world record for the longest time a democratic country has gone without an elected government. It took Belgium 541 days to form a federal government in 2010-2011. Most of the impasse was due to Flemish and Walloon parties not agreeing on policy, but those same differences are also the reason that the small country has six other governments – tied to geographical regions and linguistic communities – and was fine doing without a federal one for a year and a half.
There may be a bit of a silent vendetta going on between Belgium and France as to who exactly invented the ‘French’ fry, but no other country boasts as many frites stalls (or as much love for the snack) as the first. Frying the potato sticks twice is how this national treat gets crispy gold on the outside and soft on the inside.
The Belgian Trappists being voted into ‘best beers of the world’ lists again and again almost make this point by themselves. But besides the Rochefort 10 and the elusive Westvleteren 12, there are about 1,500 other original brewskis vying for your attention. Belgium has had a nose for great beers since the Middle Ages and has remained known for its exceptional specialties and thriving beer culture. Abbey beers, Trappist beers, gueuze, lambic, cherry, and other fruit beers – the choices seem endless.
Along with a passion for brewing their own beer comes a fondness for a night at the pub with friends. Even at hamlets lacking an ATM, you can bet that there’ll be a bar where everybody knows each other’s name. Pretty logical since there’s plenty of time to bond: Belgium is one of the only countries where pubs have no legally mandated last call. Closing times are up to the owners, and lots of them will stay open until the wee hours if the atmosphere is thriving.
If there’s one country in the world able to emulate the Swiss chocolate reputation, it’s Belgium. Belgian chocolate boasts high cocoa levels, contains 100 percent pure cocoa butter, and enjoys a longer blending process than most, making the end result smooth as can be. Neuhaus invented the praline in 1912, and fellow Belgian chocolatiers Jacques and Côte d’Or followed up with the first filled chocolate bar (with praline) and the first chocolate spread, respectively.
‘It is easy to love a country famous for chocolate and beer,’ Barack Obama once said, and we couldn’t agree more. But there are also things about Belgians one needs to learn how to love. Some call it modesty, while others call it a lack of confidence, but the fact remains that Belgians are some of the most unassuming people out there. This quality might make them seem a bit distant at first, but still waters run deep: once you’ve put in the effort to make a Belgian friend, chances are they’ll be in your life for a good long time – if not all of it.
Most travelers are familiar with Manneken Pis, the small statue of a peeing boy Brussels has endearingly adopted as one of its symbols to the world. Lesser known are his peeing companions, Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke. The peeing girl and peeing dog are hiding in other Brussels streets as further symbols of a capital and people not afraid to make fun of themselves.
Quirky ancient festivals
Venture into the Wallonian Ardennes for a summer or during carnival season, and you’ll likely be witness to one surreal sight after the other. Giants stomp about in Ath; a legendary dragon fight is staged in Mons, and in Binche, 1,000 strange and masked figures called ‘Gilles’ pelt oranges at the crowd. Back in Flanders, the mayor and councilmen of Geraardsbergen can be found downing a cup of red wine with live fish in it at the Krakelingen Festival.
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