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A week in Belgium: Bruges, belfries, & 2000 types of beer...

25th April 2012

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If I were to ask you who holds the record for the longest period of time with no formal government, would you be able to tell me the answer?

It may surprise you, for it is not a war-torn third world African state, or an ex-authoritarian regime struggling with democracy in the Middle East or South East Asia, but it is in fact a country which lies two-hundred miles from London. Have you guessed it yet? No, well the answer is Belgium. Home of the European Union, a wide selection of fantastic continental beer and at 541 days, the world record holder for the longest period of time with no formal national government.

Four nights in Brussels, two nights in Kortrijk, and a day trip to Bruges hardly makes me an expert on this often overlooked country, yet what I am about to say will hopefully encourage you to take the short trip to a country which epitomises the diversity of Europe.

Belgium is, for those who are unaware, a country which has historically become used to being invaded. So much so that a Belgium student I met in Kortrijk said, in all honesty to me, that when the big European powers argue, Belgium “hides under the debating table and hopes no-one notices”. Not surprisingly then that it plays host to a number of EU institutions (having never offended any of the big powers) and has three different official national languages (French, Dutch and German). Leaving politics to one side though, let me draw your attention to what Belgium has to offer tourists.

Although not the chief reason to visit Belgium, the sheer range of local brews which are on offer throughout the country was certainly a highlight for me. Forget about the cheap, watered down substitutes which plague British pubs, for within Brussels you will find a three-story building named Delirium, and on tap alone it has over one-hundred beers, and if you include bottled beer, it sells over two thousand different brands of beer. Sacrebleu! That is a lot of beer. Naturally, myself and the other twenty or so students from the University of East Anglia who had accompanied me to Delirium spent far too long browsing the bar, yet we finally settled on a 12.5% beer, known as Rader Ambree. It was delightful, just remember that you are drinking the equivalent to a weak bottle of wine...

Nevertheless, when in Belgium, do what the locals do and sample the mind-numbing range of beer. Of course, if you are interested in the political aspects of Brussels, the various EU institutions which are housed within the city can more than satisfy your thirst for knowledge. While walking around the corridors of the European Parliament (which holds plenary sessions in Brussels, and main sessions in Strasbourg) and the European Commission, you quickly get a sense of just how remarkable the EU really is. The Gothic architecture surrounding the grand plaza is a visual feast for your eyes as you traverse the cobbled streets in the cities old quarter, and despite the wind and the rain, the streets contained plenty of small stores and entertainers, selling their wares to the passing tourists.

Yet how about Bruges? The romanticised city featured in the film, In Bruges, was unfortunately lost under the torrential downpour which I had to suffer through. Yet even through the haze and the rain it is plain to all that Bruges really is a lovely city, the history, the culture, and the sheer number of chocolate artisans up for grabs, the city attracts a mixed crowd from elderly couples celebrating anniversaries to families with young children (after all, everyone loves a boat ride through the city's canals). One thing to look out for though: Bruges is geared towards tourists, and thus prices reflect this, yet you can enjoy a high quality meal without breaking the bank. The Belfry of Bruges offers unparalleled views of the city, and the Madonna of Bruges, resting in the Church of Our Lady, is a notable sculpture as the only work of Michael Angelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. If history and art is your thing, then Bruges is the city for you.

Last, and unfortunately least, is the city of Kortrijk. Although acting as a stereotypical Belgium city, it does not offer the diversity of Brussels or the history of Bruges. Rather, what it offered myself was an opportunity to sing karaoke, be filmed, and have it placed on YouTube. I am not ashamed that I took that opportunity in my stride.

Belgium is a small country, situated well below sea level, divided by politics, language and history. Yet through all of this it best represents Europe's diversity. The array of cultures and languages which call Belgium home is a welcome break from the 'oneness' of culture which often encapsulates countries throughout Europe. Besides, who can really turn down a refreshing chocolate flavoured pint?

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