What's so great about the Belgians? Ask the British

Belgium is meant to be boring. But it is attracting a rising number of British visitors, who spend more there per day than in any other country. Terry Kirby and Stephen Castle examine the attraction
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The Independent Online

When it comes to Belgium, the old joke about only being there for the beer takes on a very special meaning. For there are 90 breweries making 400 different types of beer in Brussels alone. And it is one reason why Britons are now spending more money per day in Belgium - about £103 on average - than in any other country, according to statistics released yesterday.

When it comes to Belgium, the old joke about only being there for the beer takes on a very special meaning. For there are 90 breweries making 400 different types of beer in Brussels alone. And it is one reason why Britons are now spending more money per day in Belgium - about £103 on average - than in any other country, according to statistics released yesterday.

But while Belgium's glorious beers are a major attraction for British visitors, they are not the only reason why the country - which has an undeserved reputation for being boring - has become so popular.

Its gastronomy and its chocolates, its beautifully preserved ancient city centres and easy proximity to southern England all play a part in making this small country of 10 million a popular destination, mainly for weekends. According to the Office of National Statistics, Britons only spend an average of two nights per trip.

The figures also show that Iceland, a popular stag weekend haunt, was the second highest spending destination, with an average of £93 a day - possibly reflecting the high price of Icelandic alcohol.

On longer trips, the US was one of the highest-spending destinations for Britons. Holidays lasted an average of 14 days and they forked out £62 per day or £868 per trip.

Undoubtedly one of the main reasons we are all dashing off for high-spending jaunts to Belgium is that it is very easy to get to. Eurostar trains from Waterloo can make the trip in 2 hours, 20 minutes - about the same time it takes to get to Manchester - with weekend return fares as low as £59; from 2007 and the opening of the St Pancras terminal, the journey time will drop to 1 hour, 53 minutes. Eurostar tickets are now valid, with no extra cost, to all other Belgian towns, changing at Brussels. Although Ryanair no longer operates the Stansted-Charleroi service, there is still a range of budget airline flights from other British airports.

A Eurostar spokesman said 60 per cent of its passengers to Belgium were on leisure trips. He said: "Britons have taken to Belgium in a big way. They like the fact that it is easy to get to, the food and drink is good and there are towns that are both fashionable and picturesque.''

Britons can enjoy some of the best food in Europe in Belgium. While native cuisine is limited, some specialities such as mussels and frites, waterzooi, (a soup-stew), beef cooked in beer and braised endive are justly renowned. At the same time, the country has absorbed the culinary influences from all the countries that surround it, leading its advocates to claim that Belgian food has "French standards and German portions". Brussels alone has 2000-plus restaurants - including eight with Michelin stars.

Visitors to the capital say its reputation as a soulless home to vast numbers of freeloading Eurocrats is unjustified. As well as its eating out, the city is known for a vibrant culture, good shops, many museums - including one devoted to chocolate - and a wonderfully preserved gothic central square. Outside Brussels, other towns such as medieval Bruges, hip Antwerp and even small places like Chimay, home to the beer produced by Trappist monks, and Spa, which gave its name to spas everywhere, are also proving highly popular.

Another reason why Britons love Belgium is that English is spoken almost everywhere. But Belgium is also a country divided: in the Flemish-speaking north, where there is considerable enmity with the French-speaking south, anyone who doesn't speak French is particularly warmly welcomed.

"I shouldn't be saying this, but the British like to come to Belgium because I think they welcome you more than the French,'' said Giovanni Ciraulo, of the Belgium Tourist Office (Brussels Wallonia) in London. He added: "The food and drink is cheaper than France as well. And I'm Italian, so I'm unbiased about this."

And he pointed out that there was an additional reason for Britons to keep flocking to Belgium this year. It seems that 2005 had been officially designated, perhaps unnecessarily, as Beer Year.

THE PLACES...

Brussels

Steer clear of the modern brutalism of the EU district and the Belgian capital has much for lovers of architecture. The city's one spectacular sight is the cobbled Grand Place, most of whose ornamented buildings, which once housed trading and mercantile guilds, date from the 1690s. But Brussels is also famous for its art nouveau facades and traditional interiors which form the backdrop to many excellent drinking and eating places, from the mirrored bar A La Mort Subite to the exclusive Comme Chez Soi restaurant.

Antwerp

Europe's diamond capital and second largest port, Antwerp is the most vibrant city in Belgium. It is the home of a dynamic fashion business and many trendy shops, bars and clubs. But it is also an historic town; the home Rubens bought in 1611 is now a museum dedicated to the artist with 10 of his works on display including a self-portrait. Antwerp has a stronger identity than the more cosmopolitan Brussels, though this has manifested itself in one less attractive way: strong support for Belgium's far-right Flemish separatist party.

Bruges

Belgium's most beautiful city, Bruges was one of the most important trading centres north of the Alps between the 14th and 16th centuries. But it gradually lost its commercial dominance to Antwerp and was bypassed by the Industrial Revolution. This helped keep Bruges a sleepy waterside city. Now a mecca for tourists Bruges boasts more than 100 hotels and many fine restaurants. The historic centre is relatively small and can be toured by boat, horse-drawn carriage or - for those who want to work up an appetite - on foot or bike.

Battlefields

Once a Flemish cloth town, Ypres has come to symbolise the senseless slaughter of the First World War. The town is home to the Menin Gate which is inscribed with the names of almost 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died on the Flanders battlefields. Other important battles were fought on the soil of Belgium before the country came into being. Waterloo is a suburb of Brussels, where the battlefield can be viewed from a commemorative mound and Wellington's headquarters are open to the public.

Ardennes

Quaint towns, chateaux, monuments and hilly, wooded countryside draw thousands of domestic and foreign tourists each year to the Ardennes in the south. The area has parks, centres for outdoor activities, and the underground Grotte de Han - notable for stalactites and stalagmites. Also on hand are beer-producing abbeys and monasteries. The town of Bouillon is one historic centre while Marche-en-Famenne boasts Belgium's oldest (11th century) church and Bastogne has a memorial to the Battle of the Bulge.

... AND THE PEOPLE

René Magritte

Born in 1898 in Lessines, Magritte was to become the greatest figure of Belgium's surrealist movement. Magritte's family was poor and his mother died when he was 14 having thrown herself into the river Sambre. But, in contrast to the disturbing aspects of some of the images he produced, Magritte lived a bourgeois existence in the Brussels suburb of Jette and enjoyed a long and happy marriage. A whole room is devoted to Magritte's works in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. Or for atmosphere, his fans can visit Le Cirio, next to the Bourse - a traditional Belgian café frequented by the artist and other surrealists.

Hergé

Hergé, whose real name was Georges Remi, created one of Belgium's most popular cultural icons: the cub reporter Tintin. The comic strip character came into life in 1929 with the first episode of Tintin's exploits, In the Land of the Soviets. In the post-war period the strip charted Tintin's adventures around the globe with a cast of characters such as Captain Haddock, Bianca Castafiore and the Thom(p)son twins. According to legend, General Charles de Gaulle once said: "My only international rival is Tintin". Following his death in 1983 and the commercial exploitation of Tintin provoked criticism in Belgium, where some fans claim that tight controls on the use of images restricts the popularity of the work.

Adolphe Sax

The saxophone may epitomise the sound of American jazz, but the instrument is a Belgian invention. Patented in 1846, the saxophone was the creation of Antoine Joseph Sax, commonly known as Adolphe Sax. Born in Dinant, the son of an instrument inventor, Sax also came up with the sax-horn and the sax-tuba, though neither really caught on. The composer Hector Berlioz wrote approvingly of the new instrument when the entire range (soprano to bass) was exhibited in 1842. The invention of the saxophone not only ensured that Sax's name would become part of musical history, it also secured him a job teaching at the Paris Conservatoire.

Victor Horta

Victor Horta was one of the founders of art nouveau and the creator of some of the finest achictecture of that genre to be found in Brussels. Born in Ghent in 1861 he became a professor at the University of Brussels and the Brussels Académie des Beaux Arts, having designed some of the city's finest architecture of the period. Unfortunately much was demolished in the 1960s though there has been a campaign to renovate several buildings that fell into disrepair. Horta's home and studio - which he built in 1899-1901 in Rue Américaine in Brussels - remains a spectacular monument to the man and the period. It boasts a staircase of wrought iron, topped by a stained-glass canopy, and is open to the public.

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Nicknamed the "muscles from Brussels", he is Belgium's biggest movie star. Born Jean-Claude Varenberg in 1960, his father was an accountant, his mother a florist. Their skinny child took up karate but also studied ballet. It was the karate that won out and, having quit Europe for Hollywood, he featured in several movies before his big break came in 1986 with the film Bloodsport. Here Van Damme showed off his fighting prowess by combining shotokan, taekwondo and kickboxing. Van Damme quit Hollywood in 1996, settling in Monaco, creating his own company and remarrying his third wife (whom he had divorced before his fourth marriage).

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