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Belgium Gap Year

Modern cities, medieval architecture, world-class chocolate and long traditions make this a fascinating Gap year destination.

Why visit Belgium during a Gap year?

We should try and avoid the – 'name a famous Belgian' line, because there are many: Audrey Hepburn, Georges Simenon, Cesar Franck, Georges Remi, Jackie Ickx – and that’s without recourse to Google.

Given the population (just shy of 11 million) and its recent nationhood (1830) it has as many famous people as anywhere else.

De Gaulle is supposed to have quipped (not something he did a lot of) that Belgium was invented by the English to annoy the French.

So, having not avoided the famous Belgian trap and related a joke about its existence; where does that leave us?

Personally I have found Belgium, along with Sweden to be the most friendly and helpful country I have visited.

A restaurant owner in Bruges was (probably still is) of the opinion that Belgium is not really a country, it is three areas: Flanders in the north which is really part of the Netherlands, Wallonia in the south which is really part of France, and Brussels, which is part of the European Union!

Controversial, no doubt (late night, a few excellent beers) but with a ring of truth. The country certainly has a different feel depending on the region you are in.

Let’s concentrate on some of the main centres.

Where to go and what to do on your Belgium Gap year

During the Middle Ages the cities of Ghent and Bruges in Flanders had major trade connections with England and Scotland based on the woollen industry.

John of Gaunt, founder of the line of Lancastrian Kings: Henry IV, V and VI, was born in Ghent (Gaunt being an anglicized version of Ghent) in 1340.

Both cities relied on their access to the sea to facilitate their wealth creating activities.

The silting up of rivers, the decline of the wool trade, and numerous wars were all partly responsible for their decline as trading centres.

Belgium is known as 'the cockpit of Europe' to reflect the numerous conflicts that occurred in the area.

In 1695 Louis XIV instructed the Duke de Villeroi to bombard either Ghent or Bruges, instead his artillery flattened about a third of Brussels. 

In contrast Bruges and Ghent have had a charmed life; battles to the left, battles in the right, in the middle they have remained pretty much intact.

To see Bruges a trip on the canals that enclose the heart of the city is a good move, however the boats are open, so if it rains ...

You can get an overview, and stay dry by climbing to the top of the Belfry via its 366 steps.

When you have your bearings you could consider a visit to the Groeninge Museum, to witness examples of Flemish Art: Van Eyck, Memling (fifteenth century) through to contemporary offerings.

More details of this and other museums via www.museabrugge.be including Belgian Fries Museum (French Fries, Freedom Fries; it’s potatoes to me).

From art to the art of brewing; Belgium is famous for its beers.

The Half-Moon Brewery (De Halve Maan) has an informative tour, including parts of the original nineteenth century building (mind your head!) ending with glass of Brugse Zot. More information can be found at www.halvemaan.be

The most popular visitor attraction in Ghent is Gravensteen Castle.

Built in the twelfth century it had fallen in to disrepair, but has been restored with the tourist trade in mind. It has its own guillotine; so carry on, don’t lose your head.

Saint Bravo Cathedral built and rebuilt in the Romanesque/Gothic style, houses a major piece of European Art – the Ghent Altarpiece.

Started by Hubert and completed by his brother Jan Van Eyck in the early fifteenth century it is seen by art historian Ernst Gombrich [and others, no doubt] as marking the transition to a more naturalistic form of representation.

The cathedral also boasts a Peter Paul Rubens painting, and was the site of the baptism in 1500 of one of the movers and shakers of the fifteenth century the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Brussels, the capital, houses several of the institutions of the European Union; no doubt there are aficionados who come to tick them off the must visit list, but it’s a minority sport.

Most people probably think of the Manneken Pis, the statue of a little boy urinating in to a fountain (let me make clear, there is no connection between the European Union and urination).

There are several stories as to the significance of the statue; mostly around lost boys found urinating after going missing or little boys extinguishing fires or fuses.

Throughout its time (from 1619) there has been a history of dressing the boy in a variety of costumes.

The City Museum has a display of some of these costumes through the centuries.

It is important to note that the equal opportunities issue has been addressed; the female equivalent Jeanneke Pis can be found off the Rue de Bouchers.

Belgium has a tradition of producing cartoonists. Other than Herge, through his creation Tin Tin, most are not that well known outside continental Europe.

However, to help you learn more there is the Brussels’ Comic Book Route, where you can see forty plus murals from Herge, Goscinny (Asterix) Morris (Lucky Luke) amongst others.

A tour, either on foot or by bike is a good way to see more of the city.

If you are really in to comic strips then there is the Comic Book Museum (warning – also contains The Smurfs) with life size figures, and if you want to read the text as well as enjoying the artwork, it is available in English, as well as French and Dutch. More information at www.comicscenter.net

As a bonus the museum is located in a former department store designed by one of the main figures in Art Nouveau, Victor Horta (1861-1947) – another famous Belgian. He has a museum on the Rue Americaine (www.hortamuseum.be).

For the more highbrow art, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium contains works by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1400-1464) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569).

It also boasts over twenty works by Rubens (for the fuller figure). See www.fine-arts-museum.be

Rene Magritte (1898-1967) one of the more thought provoking modern artists has a museum at the neo-classical Altenloh Hotel. See more at www.musee-magritte-museum.be 

Magritte has become fashionable, however, apparently he was voted eighteenth most popular Belgian in The Greatest Belgian [De Grootste Belg]. Which either means there are more famous Belgians than you think, or he really isn’t that popular!

There are over seventy museums in Brussels; more details on all attractions at http://visitbrussels.be

While we are here and as we have mentioned the rubenesque figure, we should mention those Belgian favourites’ - beer and chocolate.

My personal favourite [apologies to non-beer drinkers] is Westvleteren, brewed in the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus at Westvleteren neat Ypres.

Officially only available for purchase at the Abbey, you have to work hard to buy some. Do drink responsibly – it’s very strong.

Chocolate, well – manufacturers like Godiva, Neuhaus and Leonidas are all world class chocolatiers, with worldwide outlets, that originated in Belgium. Bon appétit.