Belgium: On Exchange

Guest blog post by Steven Riddell- someone who knows a lot more about Belgium than I do!

A sea of faces greeted me as I passed through immigration and customs. The arrivals hall was packed with people waiting for loved ones, friends and newly arrived exchange students from Australia. Those waiting for timid and hesitant exchange students were brandishing placards with names to bring them forth into the arms of a happy new family for the next year. My host family had no such placard but I managed to recognise a man jumping up and down from the back of the pack, my host father for the coming 12 months.

So began my year as an exchange student in Belgium a travel destination that is somewhat misunderstood with tour companies crossing the country in the obligatory two hours, perhaps with a stop in Bruxelles to find the statue of a small boy taking a “piss” (Mannequin Pis) and the Grand Place (I use the French spelling) which are essential.

Are these the two things I would want to see if I was visiting Belgium for the first time. No chance. After spending a year there and many return trips, these tourist attractions are mundane and boring.

I lived in the small village of Dolembreux which is 20 km south of Liege. Liege is the largest city in Wallonie- the French speaking part of Belgium. In general, the population of Belgium is densely packed around city dwelling- Bruxelles, Liege, Antwerp, Brugge and Charleroi, among others. Within 10 km of leaving a city in Belgium you are thrown into evergreen country side, much of which is amazingly picturesque regardless of the time of year.

The two places in Belgium I would recommend to visit are Durbuy and Ghent. Many have never heard of Durbuy which is the smallest town in the world and a wonderful place to spend a day. Located on the Ourthe River approximately 45 minutes from Liege, small cobblestone streets wind through alleyways and around the castle which sits on the bank of the river. I visited Durbuy on a more recent trip to Belgium and was amazed that I had never been there before.

Likewise, much enthusiasm is pushed towards Brugge as the place to visit in Belgium. And while Brugge is a beautiful place (it also holds the only Michelangelo statue outside of Italy), head to Ghent- a similarly beautiful destination but without the tourists and tourist traps.

Geographically, Belgium is in an enviable position due to its centraliy and ease of access to other countries. Within a month of arriving in Belgium in 1996, I was taken on a day tour which started as breakfast in Liege, morning tea in Maastrict (the southern most city in the Netherlands), lunch in Aachen, a quick stop in Monchau (both located in Germany) and afternoon tea in one of my favourite ciites in the world to visit- Luxembourg.

So if you are new to Europe and have never been there before, tick off four countries in one day using Liege as your base. These places will not disappoint.

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