Welcome to the Kingdom of Belgium

The small country of Belgium hugs the coast of the North Sea in northwestern Europe. It is bordered by Germany to the east, the Netherlands to the north, and France to the south and southwest. The smaller Grand Duchy of Luxembourg borders Belgium's southeast corner. There, the dense forests and rolling hills of both countries constitute a region known as the Ardennes. Less than 70 miles (110 kilometers) to the west, across the narrow Strait of Dover, lies the island of Great Britain. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg together form a group of three countries referred to collectively as Benelux. Thus, two small kingdoms and a grand duchy are sandwiched together between the large and powerful republics of Germany and France.

Belgium occupies an area of approximately 11,800 square miles (30,500 square kilometers), making it not much larger than the state of Maryland. With a population of about 10 million people, its population density of 886 per square mile (342 per square kilometer) makes Belgium about twice as densely packed as Maryland as well. This density is not far behind that of the Netherlands, which is among the highest in Europe. The country is located at the heart of one of Europe's most highly industrialized and urbanized regions. One consequence of the dense urbanization in Belgium is that its highway network is tightly concentrated. In fact, it appears so brightly lit at night that astronauts orbiting in space can easily see it! The country's capital and largest city is Brussels (French: Bruxelles; Dutch: Brussel). This sprawling urban center has a population of slightly more than 1 million, with more than 2 million people inhabiting the metropolitan area.

Belgium's position on the borders of French-­speaking and German-­speaking Europe means there is considerable linguistic diversity. More than half of the population (59 percent) are Flemings who live mostly in the northern provinces, in a region known as Flanders. They speak a strongly localized variety of Dutch called Flemish. In the southern regions (Wallonia), the inhabitants, known as Walloons, speak French. The Brussels-Capital region in the center of the country is officially bilin-gual, but the vast majority of the people speak French, the first language for 40 percent of the country's population. German speakers account for just 1 percent of the population, mostly in the east.

map Belgium Europe

Before 1830, there was no such country as Belgium. This land was then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. During the eighteenth century, the region was ravaged by a succession of wars that resulted in claims of sovereignty by both the royal dynasty of Spain and that of Austria. In addition, parts of the Netherlands and the region that is now Belgium were invaded by the armies of France during the French Revo-lutionary Wars. Some years later, in 1815, the British and their allies defeated the French under Napoleon in the decisive Battle of Waterloo. Following this event, the Netherlands were united with the so-called Austrian Netherlands —­ the land that is now Belgium —­ by the Congress of Vienna. The Congress, however, failed to take into account conflicting interests and religions.

Just 15 years later, the Belgian Revolution of 1830 established an independent, politically neutral, and Roman Catholic Belgium. Thus, the modern country was born.

A government and national congress were established, and Belgium was set on the course of parliamentary democracy. On July 21, 1831, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was enthroned as king of the Belgians, a constitutional monarch. King Leopold I of Belgium, as he became, was considered a popular choice and a symbol of Belgian nationhood. Since then, July 21 has been celebrated as Belgium's National Day. The monarchy has continued to the present day, and, in 1993, King Albert II became head of state and sixth king of the Belgians.

Belgium was one of the founding members of the European Union (EU) during the second half of the twentieth century. Brussels, as the headquarters of most EU offices and activities, is effectively the unofficial capital of Europe. The European Parliament building and several other EU institutions are situated in Brussels. Brussels hosts the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Belgium and the United States are both members. The city also hosts several other international organizations as well.

The challenge for the European Parliament today is to reconcile the many national interests and national differences of EU members. It is essential that this be accomplished by democratic and peaceful means, rather than by the bloodshed and warfare that beset Europe during the previous thousand years. This is no small task. As the number of EU member nations increases, more and more national interests must be considered and respected while simultaneously catering to the needs of Europe as a whole.

Following World War II, Belgium joined NATO and, together with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, formed the Benelux group of countries. It became a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. In March 1957, all three Benelux countries, together with France, West Germany, and Italy, came together to form the European Community (EC)—initially known as the European Economic Community (EEC)—with the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

This later expanded to include other nations, such as the United Kingdom, and it was renamed the European Union in 1993. This movement toward a united and possibly even federal Europe has been the political direction of these European institutions for many years, and Belgium has played a leading role. In view of the terrible bloodshed and destruction that afflicted this small country for so many years, one could not dispute that unity, peace, and partnership in Europe was the only sensible way forward.

Despite the cosmopolitan flavor of Brussels and its modern and forward-­looking institutions, the Belgians are proud of their heritage and of their fine cities and traditions. This quickly becomes evident to foreign visitors to Brussels and Bruges (Dutch: Brugge), the capital of West Flanders, both of which are popular tourist destinations. At the heart of Brussels is the Grand-Place (Dutch: Grote Markt), a stunning historic square that is the focal point of the city's social and civic life.

Lined with ornate guildhalls built mostly in the seventeenth century and home to the great Gothic Hotel de Ville (City Hall), this square was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1998. This is where the people of Brussels gather for important ceremonies and festivals. It is also where people come to sit and have a beer and watch the world go by. If you are hungry, you can find restaurants here that serve, among many other dishes, oysters and mussels. Brussels is renowned for its marine delicacies.

A different exhilaration for the taste buds is Belgian chocolate, for which Bruges in West Flanders is deservedly famous. Its citizens must be connoisseurs of fine chocolate, for Bruges seems to have a chocolate shop on every corner. There is a seemingly endless supply of handmade chocolates of every
imaginable flavor to be found. Here again, the principal city square is the medieval Market Square (Dutch: Grote Markt), with its great 288 foot (83 meter) high Belfry Tower (Belfort) that dates from 1300. Like other belfry towers in Belgian cities, this one houses a sweetsounding carillon of 47 bells. A weekly market was held in Bruges from a.d. 985 until August 1983—almost 1,000 years— and the late medieval architecture around the square rivals that of Brussels.

Since the sixteenth century, Bruges has been a thriving center of trade and commerce. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was a major center for the lacemaking industry. Although it might be hard to comprehend today, this trade brought Bruges huge prosperity. Architecturally, the city has changed little since that time, and its canals and a fortified encircling moat give it a unique character that makes it one of the finest historic destinations in Europe. Everywhere in this city, one sees the steep stepped gables of the old houses that are so characteristic of the ancient town buildings in Belgium. Apart from the Belgian kings and political figures that have shaped this modern country as well as the European Union, one might ask, “Can you name a famous Belgian?” Actually, there are quite a few, as we shall see in a later chapter; however, most people are generally at a loss to name them. Instead, rather curiously, they have sometimes suggested two fictional Belgians whose names are evidently known worldwide: Tintin and Hercule Poirot.

The Adventures of Tintin (French: Les Aventures de Tintin) was a series of Belgian comic books created by Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907–1983), who wrote under the pen name Herge (or Herve). The series first appeared in French in a children's supplement to a Belgian newspaper in 1929. Set in a carefully researched world that closely reflects our own, The Adventures of Tintin presented a cast of characters in distinctive settings and continued to be a favorite of both readers and critics for more than 70 years. The comic strip hero, Tintin, was a young Belgian reporter and traveler. He was accompanied in all of his adventures by his faithful dog, Snowy. Later, popular additions to the cast included Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and two bumbling detectives called Thomson and Thompson. To commemorate Herge's fictional national hero, a giant plastic figure of Tintin stands on one of the buildings in Brussels.

The other fictional Belgian who is a universal favorite is author Agatha Christie's character Hercule Poirot, a private detective with magnificent waxed mustaches. In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot is portrayed as a brilliant but eccentric sleuth who invariably solves each crime by his powers of deduction and without much help from his assistant or the policeman assigned to the case. Movies and TV series about Hercule Poirot's exploits have been popular for many years.

We will return to the subject of famous Belgians in a later chapter, but let us finish this one with mention of two nonfictional Belgians who changed the world, each in his own rather different and special way. Adolphe Sax, a musician born at Dinant in Wallonia, invented and patented the instrument that bears his name, the saxophone (invented in 1840; patented in 1846). This musical instrument is quite simply unique, and the rest—­ as anyone who likes jazz and blues will tell you—­ is history.

Father Georges Lemaitre, a scientist and Roman Catholic priest from Charleroi, was first to propose the big bang theory of the origin of the universe in 1927. He drew conclusions from his own calculations that even Einstein was hesitant to infer. That same year, Lemaitre talked with Einstein in Brussels. Einstein, unimpressed, told him, “Your calculations are correct, but your grasp of physics is abominable.” However, this was one occasion when Einstein was later forced to eat his words. Today, Lemaitre's big bang theory, although somewhat modified, is accepted by scientists as the way in which our universe came into being.

In this book, you will learn about the physical, historical, and human geography of this small but fascinating country and its people. You will travel through its unique natural and cultural landscapes as you come to better know the country's land and people. Enjoy your trip!