1 Antwerpen, Anvers, Antwerp…
Antwerp is quite simply one of the world’s great cities. It has terrific inspiring architecture, it’s the diamond retail capital of the world and it has a fascinating port area with a lively nightlife and music scene. Some of the best bars and restaurants I have ever been to are in Antwerp, including one that sells 300 different bottled beers, all Belgian (see point 2). The dramatic cathedral even has a bar attached to the outside wall – an excellent idea.
The English Teaching Theatre first arrived in Antwerp in the autumn of 1974, and we went back once or twice a year for the next 25 years, so we probably did more shows there than in any other city in the world.
Although it looks a bit bourgeois on the surface, Antwerp is a great party town, with a terrific art and music scene. I don’t know about now, but in the 80s, there seemed to be an endless supply of local bands with a singer who looked like Morrissey and a guitarist who played like Johnny Marr, long before the Smiths burst onto the scene. And all the bands sang in English – of course!
According to folklore, Antwerp got its name because of a mythical giant called Antigoon (I’m not making this up, I promise) who lived near the River Schelde. Anyone crossing the river had to pay a toll. If they refused, he cut off one of their hands and threw it into the river.
Eventually, the giant was slain by a young hero named Brabo, who cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river. Hence the name Antwerpen, which basically means ‘Hand-throw’.
2 Belgian beer
Belgium produces more beer per capita than any other country in the world. There are about 125 breweries producing about 800 different types of beer. If you include special one-off beers, the total rises to more than 8,000. A lot of them are brewed by monks, including one called Duvel, which means ‘devil’. I think that’s quite a funny joke if you’re a monk. Trappist monks produce some of the strongest beer, which probably explains why they never speak.
In the humble opinion of this blogger, Belgian beer is the best in the world.
3 Brugge (Bruges)
Antwerp is my favourite place in Belgium, but Brugge is a very close second. It’s an absolute jewel of a city, with breath-taking architecture wherever you look. It’s only a hop and a skip from Dover, so if you live in England and you haven’t been there, go as soon as you can.
An added advantage is the proximity of Blankenberge, an extremely tacky seaside town, which is the nearest place I’ve ever found in Europe to Blackpool, where I mis-spent a lot of my free time when I was a teenager.
4 Belgian chocolates
Belgian chocolates, especially the cream-filled ones, are the best in the world and the really good news is that chocolate shops are happy to sell them to you one at a time. You’d get a quizzical look if you tried asking for a single Belgian chocolate in Harrods!
5 Eddy Wally
I imagine most of you have never heard of Eddy Wally, a Flemish singer who died in 2016 at the age of 83. Eddy modestly called himself ‘The Voice of Europe’. He hailed from East Flanders and sang (if that is the right word) in both Flemish and French. His most famous songs are Chérie and Ik spring uit een vliegmachien (I jump out of an aeroplane).
Eddy used to wear a pink suit and matching cowboy hat, and his kitschy performances were reminiscent of Liberace (google him if you don’t know who I’m talking about). He had his own disco-bar, Chérie-Paris Las Vegas, usually referred to as “Eddy Wally’s Texas Bar”.
The reason why I love Eddy Wally is that for 25 years, just the mention of his name in an English Teaching Theatre show brought gales of laughter from generations of Flemish teenagers. For that alone, dank u wel, Eddy!
The photo of Eddy Wally was taken by Bert Heymans. Bert publishes some of his work under a creative commons license. The link to the license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en_GB This is the link to this photo of Eddy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/heymans/2168050661/
6 Pommes frites med mayonnaise
Belgians make the best chips (French fries) in the world. At least, that’s what it feels like when you stumble out of a bar onto a cold Antwerp or Brussels street at 1am. You will always find someone selling frites, freshly made and lathered in mayonnaise. Oh, the memories…
And now four more serious reasons why I love Belgium:
7 Cultureel Centrums
I don’t really want to talk about the Flemish-Walloon divide in Belgium, but there is one thing that became glaringly clear to us when we toured the country: the northern Flemish half of the country has spent a lot of money on social amenities. For example. in just about any town or city of a reasonable size, you will find a beautifully-appointed Cultural Centre, with at least one top-class theatre space. The English Teaching Theatre had some of its most memorable shows in Flemish Cultureel Centrums.
And this is the nice bit. If you didn’t want to do compulsory military service, you could do community service working in your local Cultureel Centrum. Which meant that the bright, helpful backstage staff during our shows were there because they didn’t want to be in the army.
8 The Ardennes
Belgium has a reputation for being so flat that, if you stand on two Oxford English Dictionaries, you can see the entire country. Whoever made that gag never visited the Ardennes, where you can find some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Europe.
9 The Menin Gate at Ieper (Ypres)
The memorial opened in 1927, ten years after the third battle of Ieper, the campaign which ended with the capture of Passchendaele by Canadian troops.
Carved into the panels of the Menin Gate are the names of 54,896 members of the commonwealth forces who died in the area between the outbreak of war in 1914 and 15th August 1917 and who have no known graves. The Gate, immense though it is, was not large enough to hold the names of all the missing. The names of a further 34,984 missing soldiers and ancillary staff, those who died between 16th August 1917 and the end of the war, are recorded at Tyne Cot Cemetery on the slopes just below Passchendaele.
As soon as the Menin Gate was completed, a bugler stood beneath it and played the Last Post. Now, more than 80 years later, every night at 8pm, as many as six buglers STILL play the Last Post. The gate is built over the road and traffic stops when the buglers play. Local people and visitors stand together in silence to remember the victims of that conflict.
There may be other moving tributes to war dead in other places and if there are, I would love to know about them. Personally, I have never experienced anything to compare with this nightly ritual at Ieper. It makes me want to cry just writing about it.
10 Famous Belgians
The other canard regularly heard is – “Apart from Hercule Poirot, can you name three famous Belgians?” The ‘joke’ being that Poirot is a fictional detective and .. er… there aren’t any other famous people from that country.
Well, there are LOTS of famous Belgians. Here are a dozen people who were born in Belgium: Audrey Hepburn, Jacques Brel, Eddy Merckx, Adolphe Sax, Georges Remi (Hergé, the creator of Tintin), Liz Claiborne, George Lemaitre, Peter Paul Rubens, Rene Magritte, tennis players Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters and footballer Steed Malbranque.
And finally, if you don’t know who Steed Malbranque is, he’s a footballer who played for my local team Fulham FC in the early part of this century, by far the best player in our humble team for three or four seasons. And guess what? His parents named him after a character in an English TV show, The Avengers. How perfect that he should end up plying his trade in the English Premier League. If you DO know who Steed is, you’re probably wondering why I included him in a list of Belgians, when he’s actually played international football for France. He was born in Belgium, and grew up in France.