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Belgium's big-gun neighbours France, Germany and England (across the North Sea) long favoured this little nation as a nice spot to kill each other. Conquered by German tribes, Christianised by the 7th century and carved up during the Frankish Empire in 1100, much of Belgium enjoyed a golden age of prosperity and artistry under the French Duke of Burgundy during the 14th century. This was a boom time for the cloth-trading Flemish towns of Ypres, Bruges and Ghent. With the demise of Bruges due to British competition and a silted river, Antwerp soon became the greatest port in Europe.

The golden age began to tarnish in the mid-15th century when the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) were inherited by Spain, igniting a long battle against Catholic Spanish rule. The fanatically Catholic Philip II of Spain sent in the Inquisition to enforce Catholicism. Thousands were imprisoned or executed before full-scale war erupted in 1568. The Revolt of the Netherlands lasted 80 years and in the end Holland and its allied provinces booted out the Spaniards. Belgium and Luxembourg stayed under Spanish rule. Napolean's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo near Brussels led to the creation, in 1814, of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, melding Belgium and Luxembuorg into the Netherlands. But the Catholic Belgians revolted, winning independence in 1830.

Despite Belgium's neutral policy, the Germans invaded in 1914. Another German attack in 1940 saw the entire country taken over within three weeks. King Leopold III's questionably early capitulation to the Germans led to his abdication in 1950 in favour of his son, King Baudouin, whose popular reign ended with his death in 1993. Childless, Baudouin was succeeded by his brother, the present King Albert II.

Postwar Belgium was characterised by an economic boom, later accentuated by Brussels' appointment as the headquarters of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Belgium of today is home to a vast army of diplomats, and with them has come a rampant form of internationalism - followed closely by bland skyscrapers and intimidatory restaurants. While the country's number one city is being busily groomed to suit the rest of Europe, the Belgians themselves remain nonchalant - the true spirit of Belgium will always emanate from its people and its past.


Belgium's tangled tongues date back to when Christ was a toddler and Franks were forcing Celts and Gauls into the land's southern regions, making an early form of Dutch the norm in the north. And so it remains, with French the accepted language in the south. Brussels, stuck in the middle, is one of the world's few officially bilingual capitals. The vast majority of Belgians are Roman Catholics, and despite a decline in church attendances, religious traditions still flavour much of Belgium's daily life.

Early Belgian artists are credited with inventing oil painting, so it's no wonder the place has produced more than its fair share of masterpieces. The Flemish Primitive Jan van Eyck started it all in the 15th century, Pieter Brueghel followed with his portrayals of peasant life in the 16th century, and Pieter Paul Rubens dominated early 17th century art as the leading light of the Baroque period. In Antwerp, Rubens set up a highly productive studio of painters and turned out sensational religious allegories such as his famous Descent from the Cross.

At the turn of this century, the sinuous architecture of Art Nouveau started in Brussels led by Henri van de Velde and Victor Horta. Horta was famed for his interiors which avoided straight lines - ceilings simply became curved continuations of walls. Stained glass and wrought iron were much used to accentuate this whiplash of lines. Comic strips are another Belgian forte and while there are many local favourites, Hergé, the creator of the quiffed reporter Tintin, is the most widely known.

Belgian food is highly regarded throughout Europe - some say it's second only to French. Combining French and German styles, meat and seafood are the main raw ingredients. The Belgians swear they invented frites (chips, or fries), and judging by availability, it's a claim few would contest. And though they didn't actually invent beer or chocolate, they may as well have.

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