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Belgium Cruises

About Belgium

Often considered the political hub of the continent for the central role that Brussels plays in the European Union, Belgium has long been an economic powerhouse for a country of its diminutive size. Much of its prosperity has been driven by its strategic location on the North Sea and at the mouth of a complex river system that stretches into Germany and beyond. Romans, Huns, the Dukes of Burgundy, and the Spanish and Austrians all recognized the trade potential that Belgium’s geography afforded, and so each occupied the region for a time. Yet despite all this outside influence, Belgium has remained very Belgian through and through.

In medieval days, Bruges and Ghent took center stage in Belgium’s commerce. Nobility turned to these prosperous cities for the finest textiles, lace and other products. Bobbin lace, in particular, drew the interest of the elite for its intricate patterns that were created by a process that, still today, has not been commercially replicated. Belgian artists of other types also gained renown. The nation’s famous painters included Rubens, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Anthony van Dyck; the former was knighted by the kings of England and Spain for his brilliance.

During the Napoleonic era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the French and the Dutch oversaw Belgium. With its independence in 1831, the new nation was divided into two regions that took their shape from the languages spoken by the people over the previous decades: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North became the agricultural center, while French-speaking Wallonia in the South took shape as the political and commercial hub. Since then, Belgium has witnessed two world wars and emerged as the capital of the European Union and the headquarters of NATO, once again asserting itself as a leader.

Belgium Lifestyle and Culture

Despite the major role Belgium plays on the global stage, Belgians are as enamored by the charms and traditions of their nation as visitors are. History seems to live on every street corner here, from the medieval cobblestone lanes of Bruges and Ghent to the cosmopolitan boulevards of Brussels. Finely wrought lace is still meticulously crafted in quaint lace shops and some of Europe’s finest artwork hangs in hushed halls of galleries and churches in towns large and small. In Antwerp, diamonds are inspected with a careful eye in the city’s renowned diamond shops and fine truffles and pralines are prepared and proudly displayed in the boutiques of chocolatiers.

Belgium’s cuisine, particularly in Brussels, enjoys a friendly rivalry with the more renowned menus of Paris. Indeed, some food critics have hailed the Brussels restaurant scene as far superior to that of its neighbor to the south. But Belgians also savor simpler fare: The country claims to have invented french fries, perhaps another point of contention with France. But there is no culinary contest when it comes to Belgian waffles topped with fresh fruit, Belgian beer, of which there are 1,100 varieties, and the simply prepared national dish of steak and fries with salad.

Festivals play an important role in Belgian cultural identity. For a nation of its size, many parades and processions throughout the year celebrate the country’s folklore and religions. The Carnival of Binche, for instance, with its clown-like costumes and handmade masks intended to ward off evil spirits, brings the streets alive each year during the three days preceding Ash Wednesday; its significance has earned it a place as one of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible History of Humanity.

Belgium Sights and Landmarks

For such a small country, Belgium is rich in cultural and historic landmarks that celebrate a long and storied heritage. Perhaps its most visited city, Bruges is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval textile towns, frozen in time after the Zwin River that linked it to the sea silted up. This open air museum is a treasure trove of cobblestone streets, stunning guild houses and charming canals.

Ghent also enjoyed a heyday as a major commercial center for textiles. Medieval merchant houses still line its quaint streets. Spread over several islands where the Leie and Scheldt Rivers meet, it was once one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities.

Brussels, the capital of Belgium and of the European Union, offers all the sophistication and rich history of a major city. Tree-lined boulevards lead past elegant Art Nouveau buildings and splendid parks. As host to the EU and NATO, it boasts one of the most diverse populations in Europe, an international crossroads whose centerpiece, the Grand Place (Grote Markt), invites endless people-watching from outdoor cafés.

In Antwerp, diamonds and chocolates literally line the streets in shops that are both elegant and sweet. This city, too, embraces its past in the narrow streets of the Old Town with its Renaissance guild halls. The ornate mansion of the renowned Belgian painter Rubens showcases the artist’s masterful work and family life.