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Photo top: Ghent. Creative Commons photo based on an original by Federli..
Bruges by night: photo C. Star.
Easily accessible by train from London, and from
its neighbouring countries - the Netherlands,
France, Germany and Luxembourg - Belgium is a small European country
that is often overlooked as a travel destination.|
As well as Brussels, one of the great historic cities of Europe, Belgium has a good number of attractive and interesting sites and sights, including other historic cities such as Bruges, Ghent or Antwerp, fine sandy beaches along its coastline, and the hills and forests of the Belgian Ardennes in the south of the country.
The northern half of Belgium, the region of Flanders, is an area that is largely flat, and characterised by slow-flowing rivers and canals; south of Brussels, the Wallonia region is an area of gently undulating hill country, rising to the hills of the Ardennes in the south and west. The highest point in Belgium is the Signal de Botrange (694 metres - over 2000 ft. above sea level), near Liège and close to the German border. The 2017 Tour de France will run through the hills and forests of the Belgian Ardennes on 2nd and 3rd July.
Bruges main square by nightLike French Flanders, lying to the southwest, Belgium has been for many centuries a pivotal area in the history of Europe. Its great markets and cloth towns were of enormous commercial importance in the Middle Ages for a large part of western Europe; it has been the scene of many great battles between warring factions, including the battle of Waterloo - which took place a short distance from Brussels - and some of the most bloody events of the First World War, in the Flanders fields around Ypres and Passchendaele. Southern Belgium also carries memories of the Second World War, particularly the town of Bastogne in the Ardennes, around which the decisive Battle of the Bulge was fought out.
Today, Belgium is home to the European Commission, based in Brussels, and to the headquarters of Nato, in the city of Mons.
A little history of BelgiumThe modern state of Belgium came into existence in 1831. Since the Middle Ages, "Flanders" and its hinterland to the south had been much fought over by rival European powers, notably France and the Hapsburg empire. For most of the time, the territory was part of the Hapsburg empire, the great pan-European empire that stretched from Austria to Spain.
From 1581 to 1713, today's Belgium was part of the "Spanish Netherlands"; but while the northern part of this area - today's Netherlands - adopted Protestantism, the south, more firmly under Spanish control, remained Catholic.
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht reaffirmed the Spanish Netherlands, as a largely autonomous part of the Hapsburg Empire. For the next hundred years, Habsbourgs and Bourbons continued to vie for control of the area, until finally, in 1815, the armies of Napoleon were defeated by the British and the Prussians at the battle of Waterloo, putting an end to imperial rivalries.
Following Waterloo, a "United Kingdom of the Netherlands" was set up, covering most of today's Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In 1830, Catholic Belgium seceded from the Kingdom, and in February 1831, following the Conference of London, was established as an independent kingdom, which it remains to this day.
Divided BelgiumIn administrative terms, Belgium is divided into three regions; but the divisions are greater than just administrative.
The smallest region is the Region of Brussels, with about a million inhabitants. The region of Brussels is a small enclave on the southern endge of the nation's largest region, called Flanders, with about six million inhabitants. To the south of Flanders lies Wallonia, with about four million inhabitants. The dividing line between the two regions runs virtually east-west across Belgium, at a level just south of Brussels.
The big problem for Belgium, however, is that Flanders is a Dutch-speaking region, while Wallonia is a French-speaking region. Brussels is officially bilingual, but although it is an enclave in Flanders, its population is increasingly made up of French speakers.
Tensions and mutual distrust between Belgium's two language groups have led to serious problems, including leaving the country with only a caretaker government from June 2010 to December 2011. Currently, the largest party - but by no means a majority party - in the national assembly in Brussels is the NVA Flemish nationalist party which argues for independence from Wallonia.