Written by Linda Kaye on 29 Jul, 2003
Belgium is among the richest countries in Europe with a rapidly growing economy and a high quality of life. Approximately the size of the State of Maryland, you can drive across the country in less than three hours. It has a population of over…Read More
Belgium is among the richest countries in Europe with a rapidly growing economy and a high quality of life. Approximately the size of the State of Maryland, you can drive across the country in less than three hours. It has a population of over 10.2 million. Belgium is bordered by the North Sea, Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, and France and has been called the crossroads of Europe. The Province of Namur is actually the geographical center of the 15 countries of the European Union.
This country is more than chocolate, beer and great food. It is a beautiful country with breathtaking landscapes, steeped in history and culture dating back to the Middle Ages. Belgium is also one of the most overlooked destinations for travelers.
BELGIAN HUMOR & CUSTOMS
In its long history, Belgium had been occupied by the Romans, Spanish, Austrians, French, Dutch and Germans before declaring its independence in 1830 and thus establishing its own identity. One guide told us that armies of many nations had conquered, robbed and plundered his country, leaving them with only one thing- their sense of humor.
This humor is demonstrated in different ways. For example, in Brussels, they honor the Manneken Pis. It seems that no one really knows the origins of this little bronze statue, cast in 1619, that seems to have captured the hearts of so many Belgians. The most logical theory is that it was built as a public fountain where citizens could collect water. It is located on an obscure corner near the Grand’Place in the heart of old Brussels.
The fascinating thing about this statue of a little boy, doing exactly what the name implies, is that he has over 654 donated costumes from all over the world. There is actually a Costume Committee that reviews each new submission to make sure it meets the criteria of authenticity and proper structure. If so, the costume is accepted and added to the collection, which is on display at the museum. The costumes include Santa Claus, Elvis, Mickey Mouse, a Swiss Soldier and a Zulu Warrior. There are costumes from virtually every country in the world. Costumes are changed daily by an Official of the Museum and a program is posted on the railing around the Manneken Pis listing which costume he will be wearing in the coming days. The little statue is now a national treasure.
Not far from there, while walking along Rue Charles Buls, we noticed a group of tourist photographing a large bronze plaque, the image of Evard’t Serclaes, one of the city’s heroes. Each took a turn at rubbing the foot, leg, arm, hand, head and cloak of the figure, then touching the image of a child’s face and a dog. This ritual is to bring good luck; if you touch a particular figure, you will be blessed with great fertility. No- I wasn’t going to touch that one. However, our knowledgeable guide said that true Belgians simply touch the arm as they walk by for their good luck. As with the Manneken Pis, no one really knows how or why this tradition started, but it certainly draws a crowd.
While walking the city streets of Brussels late one evening, we saw the typical things happening as we have seen in other large cities in the US and Europe. Young people were doing young-people things, all in the spirit of fun; older people walking together, soaking in the night. We felt safe, a real tribute to a great city.
During our visit to Mechelen, 30 miles northeast of Brussels, we learned about its mascot known as Opsignoorke. The original figure of a rather funny looking man dressed in period clothing and a drunken smile on his face was carved out of wood in 1647. Opsignoorke is carried in a cloth stretched between many citizens of Mechelen and tossed high in the air during parades and festivals. Several times the doll was actually kidnapped by neighboring towns. The last known kidnapping was in 1949 by a group of Antwerp students; it was retrieved in 1950. For many years the doll was locked in a large trunk in the basement of a municipal building but now resides in the Municipal Museum for all to see. A statue of Opsignoorke graces the Town Center.
The Citizens of Mechelen also have a nickname: Maneblussers or Moon Extinguishers. The story goes like this: Back in 1687, a man was walking home one evening from a long night at the local pub. The moon was just rising behind the Tower of Saint Rombout’s Cathedral and cast a brilliant reddish glow on the Tower. Apparently the affects of the ale led him to believe that the Tower was on fire. He was the laughing stock of Mechelen after sounding the alarm and awaking everyone to put out the fire. The townspeople were climbing the tower, carrying buckets of water, when the moon rose above the tower –suddenly the "fire" disappeared and they all realized what had happened. To this day, the citizens of Mechelen are still known as the Moon Extinguishers.
One very gracious lady that will always be a good memory of our trip is Madame Gisele Vandenberghen, the owner of the Villa Gracia just outside of Dinant. After we had settled into our elegant suite, I had gone downstairs to look around and she was in the office. I inquired about the history of the villa and before I knew it, we were sitting together in the beautiful parlor talking not only about the property but how she and her husband had remodeled it, the guests they had return year after year and the romantic weekends she help plan for newlyweds. She was so interesting and an avid travelers herself. After about an hour of great conversation, I began to feel guilty keeping her from her duties. I think we could have talked all day.
Even though Belgians do not take themselves too seriously, they certainly do not take themselves for granted either. Their contributions and sacrifices to the civilized world are many. Belgians gave us a vaccine for whooping cough, the theme songs for the Midnight Cowboy, Sesame Street, and the Man of La Mancha, the saxophone and the Smurfs. Names known all over the world such as Victor Horta, the genius behind Art Nouveau Architecture; Jean-Claude Van Damme, actor; and Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour de France are Belgians.
Of all the people we met in Belgium, the group I will remember best were our guides. Without exception, each guide gave us a spectacular tour of his country. They were knowledgeable and passionate about the history of Belgium and wanted to make sure we felt the same before we left. The guides and all those we met were so gracious and made every effort to ensure that we left with an understanding and love of their country.
Others we will remember are Monsieur Maurice Caerdinael, Owner and Master Chef of the Hostellerie le Sanglier des Ardennes in beautiful Durbuy who took time to visit with us; Benjamin our traveling waiter at the Vismet in Brussels; and Sister Suzanne Vandecan of the Notre Dame Convent who shared with us the Treasures of Brother Hugo in Namur.
After seeing castles, museums, breathtaking vistas, precious treasures and works of art- what we will remember best are the PEOPLE OF BELGIUM.
The Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) has been described as the battle where the fate of Europe was sealed. It was one of the great turning points of European history and was Napoleon’s last desperate effort to regain power he had lost in Europe.…Read More
The Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) has been described as the battle where the fate of Europe was sealed. It was one of the great turning points of European history and was Napoleon’s last desperate effort to regain power he had lost in Europe. Determined to prevent this, Russia, the Netherlands, Austria, and Great Britain led by the Duke of Wellington, and Prussia, led by 72-year-old Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, set out to stop Napoleon.
The Battle of Waterloo culminated when 191,300 men converged on the farmlands at Mont-Saint-Jean. Wellington commanded 67,000 soldiers, Blücher 52,300 and Napoleon 72,000. Sadly, at the end of the battle 48,500 men had died or were severely wounded.
The one-day battle left Napoleon defeated. This drew to a close the 23 years of war that began with the French Revolution in 1789 through the Napoleonic wars beginning in 1803. He abdicated and was exiled to St Helena Island in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821. He was buried on the island. However, in his will, he requested that he be buried on the banks of the Seine, among the people he loved. In 1840 his body was brought to Paris and laid to rest at the Eglise de Dome (Church of the Dome) and today, it is a major tourist attraction.
The Battle of Waterloo was also last for Field-Marshal Blucher and for the Duke of Wellington. Blucher died on September 12, 1819 at the age of 76, at his beloved home. The Duke of Wellington returned home in 1818; he became Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830 and died on September 14, 1852 at the age of 83.
Napoleon’s right hand man, Marshal Michel Ney tried to flee the country, but was arrested for treason. He was sentenced to death by firing squad instead of the customary guillotine. In December of 1815, he was removed from his prison cell, taken to the Luxenbourg Gardens, where supposedly he was executed and his body buried in a hidden grave. However, in 1830 in rural North Carolina, a 61-year-old school teacher appeared by the name of Peter Ney. He bore a striking resemblance to the man who fought with Napoleon. He lived a solitary life, teaching and earning the respect and admiration of the entire community. In 1846 Ney became gravely ill and confessed on his deathbed that he was indeed Marshal Michel Ney, Prince de la Moskowa. He was 77 when he died.