Belgium is typically low on the list of “must-see” countries for backpackers heading to Europe, but skipping Belgium means missing out on one of the world’s most uniquely bicultural countries.
Belgium is a tiny country, 11,780 square miles or roughly the size of the state of Maryland, with two strong societies. One is French and the other Flemish, a population that speaks a dialect of Dutch.
The usual path throughout Belgium usually stops at Bruges, Gent, Antwerp, and Brussels. To experience Belgium on a deeper cultural level, try straying off the regular trail and check out these two cities, each of which can give the traveler a sense of the French and Flemish way of life.
Rochefort is in the Wallonie region, close to the Ardennes. It is a beautiful French town with a different vibe compared to that of Flanders. First of all, life moves at a slower pace in the Wallonie. The French mentality prevails; and what you’ll notice as a tourist is their attitudes towards work and customer service. Be aware of this when visiting restaurants, and don’t be too quick to get angry.
Rochefort has worked hard to establish a well-developed tourist center making it easy to find events and locations to check out. There is a huge beautiful park for nature strolls and in the summer there is a heated public pool. I have found that the French encourage independent discovery. Embrace it; don’t be afraid to wander on your own and form your personal opinion.
Nearby, in the town of Han-Sur-Lesse, one can visit the ancient caves. There is also abbey of Saint Remy where monks brew the famous Rochefort trappist beer. Sadly, the abbey does not offer a brewery tour and only men are allowed to visit on special request. No matter, the region surrounding Rochefort is a driver’s dream for an afternoon ride, especially during the autumn season.
Lier is very old town in the region of Flanders, celebrating its 800-year anniversary this year. This gorgeous place has a lot of that old European character for those who are looking for a classic, romantic feel. The city has often been compared to Bruges but it’s not overrun with tourists. During your visit in Lier, you will notice the city is dotted with statues and emblems of sheep.
Why? In the beginning of the city’s history, the residents were asked to choose between establishing a university or a textile industry in their town. The residents chose textiles and began herding sheep. Look closely and you’ll notice the sheep are also wearing little socks, perhaps a nod to quirky Flemish humor.
A must-see in Lier is the Benguinage, a UNESCO world heritage site, where one will feel as if they have stepped into the middle ages. The Benguinage was once a home to a group of women who weren’t quite nuns because they didn’t take the vow but were a pillar of the community offering many social services.
Afterwards, head towards the main square to visit the Zimmertoren an intricate clock tower. The tower has an astronomical theme, featuring thirteen different faces that keep track of various aspects of time.
In the evening, stick around and check out Lier’s nightlife where you will be sure to witness a few jolly Flemish antics. Lier boasts many cool, alternative pubs for a memorable night of Belgian beer drinking.