A Quick Look at Brussels

On several occasions in Flanders, I asked what is perhaps the most toxic question in Belgium: Is Brussels actually originally part of Flanders? On every occasion, I got exactly the same response. The friendly Flemish smile was replaced with an odd, hesitant expression which immediately conveyed, “Should my answer be honest or politically correct?”

If you look at a map, Brussels is a geographic island surrounded by Flanders. The city and its surrounding districts form a separate political division, a solution designed to minimize tensions between the Flemish and French halves of the country.

Architecturally, Brussels looks Flemish and it’s quite stunning, but French is clearly the dominant language. The difference in the city vibe is VERY noticeable. It’s hard to determine just how much of this difference is due to the Walloon influence and how much is a result of the large foreign presence. (Remember Brussels acts as the de facto capital of the European Union.)

Whatever the reason, the people of Brussels feel somewhat more distant and there seems to be less of that quirky humor that I’ve enjoyed throughout Flanders. The one exception might be the enormous Smurf statue just outside the train station. Belgians don’t want you to forget their, or perhaps I should say Pierre Culliford’s, world-famous contribution to children’s programming.

Either way, the city still qualifies as one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. And there’s enough chocolate, candy, waffles, stoofvlees (carbonade flamande), and moules frites to feed the army of travelers that bounce through on the classic European tour. But remember, if you just visit Brussels, you’re not really visiting Flanders – so think twice before you pass through Belgium too quickly.

5 responses to “A Quick Look at Brussels”

  1. avatar AmyJek says:

    Did you not like Brussels? Were the people unfriendly?

    • avatar Tony says:

      No, no, Brussels was wonderful. It wasn’t that the people of Brussels were rude or unfriendly, it was more that they simply were noticeably different from the people in cities in Flanders. The purpose of this post is simply to highlight how different the vibe of Brussels is from other towns in Flanders and to encourage people to look beyond a quick visit to the capital.

      Visiting Brussels and saying you had been to Belgium would be like visiting New York and saying you had visited the United States. Technically, it’s true, but the cultural experience is entirely different from what you would experience in more representative parts of the country. In my experience, I felt that the feeling of Antwerp, Ghent, Mechelen and even tourist-oriented Brugge was warmer and quirkier than Brussels. (I use quirky in a very positive sense here.) I love Brussels as well, but it’s a very different experience. And actually, if you are comparing Brussels to a larger European experience (rather than Flanders), I think they still qualify as quite friendly.

  2. As a Flemish person living in Belgium, I feel indeed a bit like an expatriate in my own country. But on the subject whether Brussels is part of Flanders, one can say, for example:
    – Brussels is the capital of the region ‘Flanders’ in the Belgian state.
    – Brussels never belonged to the historic county ‘Flanders’, which precedes the formation of Belgium by almost a thousand years.
    – Culturally, there is a soft wall between Brussels and Flanders. Cultural associations active in Flanders tend to have very limited activities in Brussels.
    – Although Flemish people in Brussels represent around 10% of population, 25% of children in Brussels go to Flemish schools.

  3. avatar Tony says:

    You know Hans, not one person actually told me that the capital of Flanders was Brussels. They just referred to it as the capital of the country. Isn’t that strange? I just looked it up and see that it is listed as the capital of Flanders with an interesting side note that “this is a suprising fact as Brussels is in a different federal region.” How bizarre. I’ve never heard of a capital not actually being in the place it is the capital of.

    And no wonder there was such a tense response if only ten percent of the people in the “capital” of Flanders speak Flemish.

  4. avatar John Williams says:

    As Brussels is the capital of Flanders a lot of commuters from Flanders arrive to work in the city each day. I’m sure there is a lot more than 10% of the population speaking Flemish during working hours.
    Belgium is very, very complicated. You could live here for 10 years and not grasp the politics of the country.

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