You don't have to be mad to be Belgian - but it helps

In the rather unassuming town of Liege there is a curious little island that calls itself a republic. Adrian Mourby reports

Belgium is one of Europe's maddest places. Not the Belgium of chocolates, EU directives and statues of urinating youngsters, but the subversive and surreal Belgium, the Belgium of Magritte who painted bowler-hatted men raining from the skies, the Belgium of blue-skinned Smurfs and of Herge's Thom(p)son twins.

The Belgians are quite low-key about their endemic eccentricity but underneath that lugubrious exterior you may well find something quietly anarchic. Take the Belgian Carnavals for instance - Malmedy, Binche and Eupen - which are becoming bywords in Europe for state-sanctioned lunacy.

In Malmedy I met the mayor of the town who told me that every February he literally hands over the running of his town to the "Fat Policemen" - characters in Napoleonic dress who oversee the various assaults that Malmedians make on strangers in town to watch their Carnaval. It is not unusual for visitors to end up with confetti in their hair, legs clamped and bottoms massaged by men in bakers' costumes who claim to be kneading dough.

The city of Liege is pretty odd, too. I had arrived at the station to find the place dull and depressing - the walk down to the river Meuse was as bad as 1950s redevelopment can get - but then I arrived at what is known locally as the Independent Republic of Outre-Meuse - a mid-river island which redeemed the city.

I crossed the river on a footbridge, and noticed a playbill in a chemist's window advertising the fact that La Preretraite de Charlemagne was being presented that day by - you guessed it - La Republique Libre d'Outre-Meuse.

I'd booked myself into the Hotel Simenon on Boulevard de l'Est, but before I got there I caught sight of a statue in the Place de l'Yser, a typical Wallonian hiercheuse (mine-haulage girl) holding a puppet aloft. "That is Tchantches," a woman passer-by told me. "Who is she?" I asked. "No, Tchantches is the puppet. He is the oldest citizen of Outre-Meuse and this is the spot where he died." "The puppet died?" "Why yes, we were very sad. He is our president and our prince." "But he is a puppet!" "Yes he is a puppet and he is also 500 years old," she said. And with that, my friend picked up her shopping and was gone. There is something about the deadpan nature of Belgian fantasies which throws me.

My hotel was a very tall thin art nouveau building with a very wide owner. Pierre Hendrichs looks like a potato with a ponytail. No hair - just a ponytail. As if his appearance was not enough, Pierre has spent five years single-handedly converting his hotel into a tribute to Outre-Meuse's most famous son, Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret. "You're in Room 31, 'L'Ombre Chinoise'," Pierre said, giving me a key. "The Chinese Shadow room. Every room here is a tribute to one of Simenon's books."

I took the tiny lift, which was only possible once I'd stood on my luggage and breathed in.

I've not been able to trace the book on which Room 31 was based, but I assume it is all about a black, lacquered, dining table, two huge, black, comfy chairs, dark red curtains, a radiator painted red and one chinese lamp. Through an arch there was a simple bedroom with silk-effect sheets and bamboo-effect wallpaper, plus an enormous - but not very Chinese- looking - circular bath.

The next day, not having been mysteriously murdered in my sleep, I set off for the Tchantches Museum in Rue Surlet, but my host was keen that I should try his "Simenon Trail", which takes you round the writer's Outre- Meuse haunts.

Thus it was that I saw where the famous Belgian was born, where he went to school and did his military service, plus the cafe where he met his bohemian friends and the church doorway where one of them was found hanged, thereby inspiring Simenon's early novel Le pendu de St-Pholien ("The Hanged Man of St-Pholien"). Why the Belgians should dedicate a church to the Irish saint, Pholien, it would have taken a Belgian to explain and unfortunately there wasn't one to hand at the time.

In fact, Outre-Meuse was very empty the morning of my walk. The only people I encountered were several old rogues at the Tchantches museum. This building also houses a puppet theatre where the hero's adventures are enacted daily, but the only people present when I arrived were old Liegeois draped around the bar and drinking peket, a local gin, one sip of which left me with the impression that the top of my head had been burnt off. Laughing, my hosts explained that peket was the national drink of the free republic and that they were members of its government. "Our job is to uphold the traditions of Outre-Meuse." "And what are those?" I asked. They looked uncertainly at each other. "Drinking peket," they said.

Outre-Meuse is outwardly uninspiring. The magic is tucked away down arvos (alleys) in between houses. I found myself in another world. It became clear that the buildings I had been walking past formed a 17th- and 18th-century higgledy-piggledy agglomeration complete with potales (niches) for statues of the Virgin. Just as the true character of the Belgians is not visible on the surface, so it was only behind the facade that I came across tiny squares and chichi restaurants which I'd never have guessed at from the road.

By day, these arvos are quiet but at night they turn into a vibrant world of music and wild living, or so I was told by Bernd, a patron I met putting out the dustbins. "Come here in August!" he said. "At the Festival of the Black Madonna we decorate the potales, we carry her statue from the Church of Saint-Nicholas and everybody dresses up and drinks peket."

Back at the hotel, Pierre was keen for me to try one of the 14 Maigret ice-creams he has devised - each presented in either a replica of Maigret's hat or his famous pipe. As the master might have remarked: "Ces Belges sont bien bizarre."

OUTRE-MEUSE

GETTING THERE

A standard return fare to Brussels on Eurostar (tel: 0990 186186) costs pounds 99, or pounds 79 if you book in advance. The return journey to Liege costs pounds 10.

Sabena (tel: 0181-780 1444) flies daily from London to Brussels. Return fares cost pounds 60, plus pounds 23 tax. There are hourly trains between Brussels and Ostend.

WHERE TO STAY

The Hotel Simenon is on Boulevard de l'Est in Liege (tel: 00 32 43 42 86 90; fax: 00 32 41 44 26 69).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Belgian Tourist Board - Wallonian Bureau by phone (tel: 0171-458 2888), or visit the website at: www.belgium-tourism.net

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