Belgium. Wedged between France, the Netherlands and Germany, this fantastic country is one of Europe's favourite sons, bringing a touch of charm to our beloved continent, along with chips and waffles.
At Great Rail Journeys, we love Belgium too. It exudes a kind of sophisticated charm, reliable in its beauty and resilient in its determination to give both its citizens and its visitors a high quality of life. Its cities, equally quaint and grand, coupled with excellent cuisine, enchanting countryside and some superb railways make Belgium a classic destination to tick off the bucket list of any discerning traveller.
The 21st of July marks the Belgian National Day, celebrating all things waffles, chips, and everything Belgian really. With that in mind, we thought we'd come up with a top 4 things to come out of Belgium since the country came to be, after the Belgium Revolution in 1830:
You knew it would be first on this list, I knew it would be first on this list - let's not kid ourselves. Belgian chocolates are nothing short of magnificent, created with the utmost care and attention by the nation's army of chocolatiers. The Belgian's just get chocolate like very few other countries do, producing some of the tastiest and most indulgent chocolate the world has ever seen. Several iconic names in the Belgian chocolate world include Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas and Côte d'Or, all producing some of the finest varieties of dark, milk and custom-made chocolate in Europe.
The 18th century saw a sharp increase in the popularity of Belgian chocolate as a drink, particularly amongst the upper classes, and this played a role in the birth of the Belgian chocolate industry which truly took off in the following century. Belgium's African colony in the Congo, proved to be a reliable source of cocoa (thanks mainly to a slave force who were horrendously treated), and the easy availability of chocolate saw this popular treat enjoyed by the lower classes for the first time in the 1900s. Nowadays, it is enjoyed by connoisseurs across the world, cementing Belgium as an iconic player in international chocolate production.
Next on the agenda is the blue jumper, brown plus-fours and yellow quiff of that ever-popular purveyor of journalistic integrity Tin Tin. Created by legendary cartoonist Hergé, the pseudonym of Belgian citizen George Remi, Tin Tin is a spectacularly good character combining a simple, yet timelessly charming art-style with globe-trotting adventures which enthralled children and adult. Alongside his French cousin, Asterix the Gaul, Tin Tin was one of the leaders in 20th century European comics which offered a different, more grounded world to their American superhero rivals across the pond.
Accompanied by a memorable group of hilarious and loveable characters including his dog Snowy, friend Captain Haddock and hapless detectives Thompson and Thomson, Tin Tin has taken his readers across the world on a series of fantastic adventures. In his pursuit of a good story, the young Belgian reporter has taken him to the jungles of Africa and India in pursuit of drug smugglers, on a surreal sea voyage to the Arctic Circle, and even on a rocket up to the moon! His stories combine action-adventures aimed at children, but also feature nods to heavier subjects as well as contemporary satire and caricatures.
One of Belgian's biggest contributions to the world of culture has to be the indomitable presence of one Jacques Brel. A defining singer and songwriter, and one who commanded a huge influence on almost every singer who came after him, Jacques Brel was a breath-taking performer, turning every concert into an emotionally explosive affair, full of magnificent songs of heartbreak, triumph and scenes from European cities. His insightful and romantic lyrics combined perfectly with his bombastic vocal range to deliver performances which had never been experienced before, and which went on to form a background for iconic singers in Europe and beyond. Performers who sang his songs include Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Ray Charles and Judy Collins. He also directed and acted in films later in life, including Palme d'Or nominee Le Far West.
Born in Brussels, Brel performed throughout the continent, beginning in cabaret and continuing to such famous venues as the Olympia in Paris, the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York. He lead the charge in French pop and spearheaded the French-Speaking Chanson movement of music. My personal favourites are Amsterdam and the humorous Les Flamandes; Amsterdam is one of Brel's finest pieces, a seedy, atmospheric number which begins small and crescendos into a wheeling, snarling takedown of the filthiness of Amsterdam's port. His most famous by far however, is the heart-rending melancholic Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don't Leave Me).
Jean Claude Van Damme
The latter half of the 20th century saw Hollywood and American film goers fall in love with the martial art film. Alongside serious, beautifully choreographed films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Once Upon A Time in China, there would be the far cheesier fare, a mainstay of the eighties, which nevertheless won the hearts and minds of many consumers. One such film was the fantastic Bloodsport, which feature the iconic martial art skills of one Jean Claude Van Damme. Van Damme fully embraced the silliness of the era, and quickly became a mainstay for action flicks including Lionheart and Kickboxer amongst others. Not so much of an actor, his steely looks and fantastic martial arts abilities saw him embraced to his fullest potential by producers and directors. He was born in Brussels, studying kick boxing and Shōtōkan karate in the city from age 10.
As a sidenote on Belgium's cinematic contribution, while she identified as British and would be considered so for her entire life, sixties actress Audrey Hepburn was in fact born in Brussels to an Englishman and a Dutch countess.
So those are just some of the ways in which Belgium has contributed to the world. If you can think of any others, let us know in the comments below, and happy Belgian National Day on the 21st of July.