August 2003 issue

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Sandwiched between France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands, the federal country of Belgium is divided into three largely self-governing regions of Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia, which differ from each other greatly in terms of culture, language and landscape.

Belgium has been used as a battleground by many of its warring European neighbours throughout history and a lasting influence of this can be seen in the country's three official languages of French, Flemish and German. Flemish is largely spoken in Flanders in the north - by roughly 60 per cent of the Belgian population - while French is spoken by the Walloons in the south and German is the first language of a few pockets of the population in the east. The capital city of Brussels is officially bilingual, with both French and Flemish being spoken, although most of the inhabitants also speak English.

The country's strategic importance within Europe is reflected by the fact that Brussels is home to the European Commission and the Council of Ministers of the European Union, as well as Nato. The city boasts many buildings and monuments of historical importance, including the Grand Place in the centre of the city that originated in the 12th century as a market, selling German beer, French wine and English wool at the cross roads of the trade routes through Europe. Ornate buildings such as the gothic town hall and guild houses now surround the square and every two years, it becomes a huge flower garden, when local flower growers create a flower carpet using over 700,000 begonias.

Many of Belgium's major cities grew up from small sea and river ports. The city of Ghent was once one of Europe's largest producers of wool cloth and the Ghent-Terneuzen canal, which connects the city to the sea, means that the city is still an important trading port. The city's bloody past is reflected in the nickname for local Ghent inhabitants, known as stoppendragers or noose bearers. This originates from the time of Emperor Charles V, who suppressed a riot by the city's inhabitants protesting against high taxes by hanging the city council members.

Canals are a common feature throughout Flanders, which is characterised by flat, tree-lined avenues that are perfect for cycling enthusiasts. However, visitors looking for more challenging terrain might be tempted by the rolling hills of the Ardennes in the south of Wallonia, which provide opportunities for skiing, hiking, mountain biking or kayaking. There are also a number of prehistoric limestone grottoes and caves in the area, near Han-sur-Lesse, Rochefort and Dinant.

Food and drink feature heavily in the culture of most areas of Belgium and in the Ardennes they have even greater prominence. The area is famous for its local cheeses and beers that are produced by monks in the area's abbeys and monasteries, and also its sausages that are a blend of smoked veal and pork. Venison, wild boar, duck, hare and trout feature heavily on local menus while different towns and cities are known for specialities such as Liège waffles from the Liège region and gingerbread biscuits in Dinant.

Belgians are also keen to point out that French fries, or frites, actually originated in Belgium. Special ingredients used in the frying process mean that the fries don't contain as much fat as other chips and they are popular with locals and tourists who buy them from local fritures and eat them with mayonnaise, mustard or a meat sauce.

Fish of all types are used in local Belgian dishes and in certain fishing towns on the coast, traditional fishing methods are still used. In Oostduinkerke, shrimp fishermen on horseback drag their nets through the shallow waters behind the horses catching shrimp that are served fresh in the local pubs and restaurants.

Links with tradition are keenly preserved in many areas and in the town of Binche, this can be seen in the carnival held every year. For three days, various processions take place with music, costumes and dancing. The local people dress up as Gille, a carnival character, who has a costume decorated with lions, crowns and stars that is stuffed with hay and belted with heavy jangling bells. The Gilles also wear a white-feathered headdress, which can be four-feet tall and weigh seven pounds, and on the third day they congregate in the centre of town to throw oranges to the crowds.

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