The 29th country of my trip saw me hop the border into Belgium. I was happy to see that at least in Flanders, the northern part, the fantastic cycling network system continued so I only had to see cars when I was trying to find the sign marking the border which wasn’t to be found on the bike path. Belgium is not a large country, but has Dutch, French and German as national languages. The country is split into 4 main parts, Flanders in the north, Wallonia in the south, Brussels as the capital and a small German-speaking part in the east.
In Flanders they speak Dutch, as it used to be part of a larger Netherlands. Even though this is the case, they are definitely happy to not be part of the Netherlands and the idea of it is quite ridiculous to those that I spoke with. I had asked, because the regions have quite strong, and independent, identities but the Flemish feel much more Belgian than they do Dutch even with the language situation. I was told that the Dutch are much brasher and blunter than any Belgian could possibly be. There was a quite similar feel to the Netherlands, but farming seemed more prevalent at least by the border.
I only really visited a small part of the country, with Antwerp as the only major city, but a beautiful city it is. Plenty of old buildings to look at, including a spectacular train station. The name means hand throw and refers back to the story of a giant that terrorised the city, demanding high taxes from the people, until one day a local guy chopped the giant’s hand off and threw it into the river. A vivid and wonderful origin in my mind. There is a quite glorious statue of the giant in the centre of the city, which I spent a very long day walking around.
The other highlight for the city was going with Sien, my host, to a free concert to see a group called Box Collective which she just so happened to have an extra ticket for. The fusion of Icelandic and Belgian music was quite lovely, and being invited to the after party where there was copious amounts of free wine didn’t hurt either.
My leg in Europe has got a bit more of a gastronomy focus to it, only in the way that I am going to make sure I eat the most typical dish in each country. Honestly it’s something I quite probably managed to do in every country I went through just by being there, but I’m now putting more thought into it. For Belgium this of course meant a waffle, with the idea that it’s the most Belgian of foods. Apparently no, well at least not in the way I had thought. They are definitely easy to find, but the Belgians I asked don’t eat them that frequently, maybe a few times a year. It’s not like the French addiction to croissants for example. The one thing that they definitely do eat a lot of however are Belgian Fries. Yes, Belgian Fries, definitely not French Fries. No-one that I spoke to seemed to know the story of why although they are from Belgium but called French Fries, but alliteration and a larger country are the two ideas that sprang to mind.
It’s not just potatoes that Belgians like to fry, in fact they seem to fry pretty much everything and you see frituurs (fast food places that fry everything) everywhere, each one offering a mind-blowing number of sauces that we tourists have no way of really deciphering. Thankfully my host picked his favourite one and we chomped away at the incredibly greasy, but quite good, food. Thankfully, they also have Trappist beers which are delightful and often win prizes for best beer, perfect to wash away the grease.
My main other experience in Belgium, was riding down the Vennbahn. A bicycle route that from Aachen in Germany to Troisvierges in the north of Luxembourg, passing mainly through Belgium. It saw me go past the Signal de Botrange, which although the highest point in Belgium was not tall enough at around 693m tall so they built a mound on top and put a monument there at exactly 700m – slightly ridiculous. I went past several camp sites, but come nightfall I found it raining and was by a small village. It was the German-speaking part of the country, but thankfully I found an old farmer whose son could speak French and welcomed me to stay in their cow shed, lovely of them. The only downside being the cows spending all night trying to eat, which lead to them shaking the metallic collars that they had on and caused a sound that can only be likened to crashing plates – not conducive to a good sleep.
Highlight – Bicycle routing network,
Things to work on – Stereotype of the waffle, non-fried foods