A federal country, with three official languages and an intense regional rivalry, Belgium has a cultural diversity that belies its rather dull reputation among travellers. Its population of around ten million is divided between Flemish-speakers (about sixty percent) and French-speaking Walloons (forty percent), with a few pockets of German-speakers in the east. Prosperity has shifted back and forth between the two communities over the centuries, and relations remain acrimonious. The constitution was redrawn in 1980 on a federal basis, with three separate entities: the Flemish North, Walloon South, and Brussels, which is officially bilingual (although its population is eighty percent French-speaking).
The north and south of
are visually very different. Marking the meeting of the two,
, the capital, is a culturally varied city at the heart of the European Union. The
, made up of the provinces of West and East Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg and much of Brabant, is mainly flat, with a landscape and architecture not unlike Holland.
is the second city, a bustling old port with doses of high art, redolent of its sixteenth-century golden age. Further south and west are the great historic cities,
, with a stunning concentration of Flemish art and architecture. Another enjoyable inland Flanders town is the cathedral city of
, halfway between Brussels and Antwerp. The southern reaches of
are French-speaking, and merge into the Walloon province of
- rich agricultural country, scarred by pockets of industry and boasting the historic city of
. East of here lies Belgium's most scenically rewarding region, the
, an area of deep, wooded valleys, high elevations and dark caverns.
The Ardennes reach across the border into the northern part of the
Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
, a verdant landscape of rushing rivers and high hills topped with crumbling castles.
are perhaps the three best centres for touring the countryside, and
itself is at least worth a stop, although its population of around 80,000 is tiny by capital-city standards.