A clueless tourists guide to Belgium

Let’s do a tourist’s guide for Belgium itself.

Belgium is a country that consists almost exclusively of a patchwork of vast tracks of farmland and forest, sparsely dotted with a number of villages connected by a spiderweb of roads of varying degrees of narrowness. The farmland itself alternates between fields of grass (for grazing cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep) and fields of corn (for further feeding the cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep). It’s very flat and frequently rainy, but also very, very pretty.

Belgian roads

Traffic in Belgium struck me as a compromise of American and Chinese attitudes towards driving. On the American side, there seemed to be a well-defined set of rules, signage, and rights-of-way, so that, for example, each lane on a road allows only one vehicle laterally across it at any time, or that cars merge with zipper-like precision, or that red lights mean stop, and so forth.

On the Chinese side, however, cars routinely drive at dangerously high speeds, zooming in and out of narrow country roads and roundabouts with suicidal abandon. A typical residential neighborhood might have a sign posting a speed limit of 70,* which is supposed to be interpreted as kilometers per hour (and which translates to a still-zippy 42 miles per hour), but which the typical Belgian interprets as miles per hour anyway.

* According to Cel, our resident Belgian, speed limit signs are a fairly recent innovation in Europe, and apparently he, like all Europeans, is convinced that they’re just a fad and will therefore simply go the way of pet rocks, hula hoops, and Vanilla Ice, so why worry about them too much?

Belgians also tailgate like crazy. It is clear there’s no 2-second-rule in Belgium; I’m not even convinced there’s a 2-picosecond-rule there. Typically speaking, a Belgian driver sits on the lap of the driver in the car immediate behind him.

It doesn’t help that Belgian roads are invariably very narrow, and frequently unevenly paved. Many roads are unmarked ribbons of dirt and asphalt barely the width of a single American SUV, yet freight trucks and vans whiz by in both directions as if it were a massive six-lane expressway. To call the first time I sat in our rental van as Cel rocketed towards an oncoming tanker truck on an unpaved country lane and zipped by it with only inches to spare a white-knuckle experience would be colloquially correct, although bladder-emptying experience might be more physically accurate.

Worse than the unpaved narrow roads, however, are the narrow cobblestone roads, which are pretty much mandatory in any city. Not only do you get the same hair-raising experience, but you get the added bonus of having all your fillings rattled out of your head in the process.

The narrowness of the roads might go some ways to explaining the unbelievably diminutive dimensions of the European car, which looks exactly like a Little Tikes Cozy Coup equipped with E.U. plates. An 8-foot wide road ain’t so small if you’re driving a 3-foot wide car… it’s all a matter of scale.

This also might go to explaining why so many Europeans ride bicycles: they’re probably withstand the impact of a crash a lot better than the typical micro-coupe.

Belgian villages

With the exception of its major metropolitan centers (such as Brussels, Antwerp, and Brugge), most of the “urban” centers of Belgium are its villages, small islands of people awash in a great green sea of farmland and forest. At the center of each village, invariably, a massive bell-tower that quite literally seems to scrape the sky, such as the famous belfry in Brugge:

More typically, however, this tower is a part of some massive Catholic cathedral, Gothic and ornate, with spires, buttresses, crosses, stained glass, and (more often than not) a bunch of creepy crypts scattered around its periphery. For example, here we see the cathedrals of Wuustwezel,

Brecht,

Loenhout,

Dinez,

or La Roche…

…and these were just the little villages. In the major metropolitan hubs, these cathedrals tend to be even more outlandishly tricked out, which I thought was a rather odd way to celebrate a religion that considers humility one of its primary virtues and vanity one of its deadliest sins. Potential ecumenical paradox aside, they are awe-inspiring feats of architecture, such as Breda’s bedazzled cathedral (in neighboring Holland)

or Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady with its golden clock.

The area around the village center is the business district, wherein one will find stores and shoppes and eateries and whatnot. Being Belgium, about 90% of these business were dedicated solely to the sale of some subset of bread, frites, chocolate, and beer; the remaining 10% are rarely open, as their proprietors have just stepped out for a drink.

One typical aspect of Belgian (and, more generally, European) design is that most of these businesses consist of multistory buildings whose ground floor houses the business and whose upper floors are residences, with two immediately distinctive traits about them.

First, each business resides in its own unique structure, but these structures always share a common wall. Hence, there is never any physical break between buildings, the architectural equivalent of conjoined, fraternal icosotuplets. The effect is as if someone had laid out several different buildings side by side, and then in some kind of Looney-Tunes burst of physics-defying strength, mashed all of the buildings together.

The other distinctive feature of Belgian (and, more generally European) architecture is that the buildings themselves are extremely, anorexically narrow. Many are only the width of a pair of windows, not much more than 10 feet wide. It’s hard not to anthropomorphize those poor buildings uncomfortably wedged in-between to larger buildings, and the combined effect of teeny-tiny roads lined with buildings packed like brick sardines can be rather claustrophobic.

Indeed, one is often given the impression that the buildings in a Belgian village were laid out not by an engineer or an architect, but by a dude who played waaaaaaayyy too much Tetris.

Surrounding the business section of the village is the outermost “annulus” of the village proper, the main residential hub. It consists of mostly multistory homes and apartments, with that same distinctive tall, narrow, fused-together look. Outside the limits of the city proper is patchwork countryside of small farms and pastoral lanes of quiet homes.

Having hiked through several of these villages, I deduced that the only two rules governing the construction of homes in north Belgian villages are:

  1. Every home must be made of brick, and
  2. No two homes can look alike,

so as you stroll along any country lane the houses on either side of the street become either increasingly ostentatious palaces or absurdly minimalist cubes.

In south Belgium, Rule 1 simply replaces “brick” with “stone and stucco.” And all the street signs are in French rather than Dutch, but that’s about the only difference.

Most homes have immaculately front yards, with various flowers and trees neatly enclosed by immaculately trimmed hedges arranged in intricate mathematical patterns. The trees themselves are often pruned into various mathematical shapes like segmented cones or rectangular prisms. Every yard is like a botanical garden designed my M. C. Escher.

Most homes only have a one-car garage, but then again, given the aforementioned microscopic dimensions of Belgian cars, there might conceivably be eight or nine vehicles actually parked in there. Many country homes have tile roofs, others red clay roofs, and some even have roofs made out of grass, which I suppose is a particularly European solution to increasing one’s yard space.

In fact, a lot of these observations apply to the neighboring countries of Luxembourg, Holland, and Germany. In fact, since the establishment of the European Union, checkpoints and border crossings are a thing of the past, and so I find that we’d crossed into a completely different country without so much as sign indicating so, much less a fundamental difference in architecture. Indeed, sometimes the only indication we’d have that we were in a different country was the sudden change of language on road signs and the occasional text message from Verizon indicating one helluva roaming charge. In fact, one day while the Ladybug and I were out on a walk looking to replace a fuse in one of our AC adapter converters, we accidentally found we’d crossed the border and were wondering around in Holland!

Of course, no tourist guide would be complete without talking about some of the touristy things to do… and I’ll do that next time.

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