The Countries Today
The Countries Today
At the heart of Europe in every sense, Belgium and Luxembourg have now stepped out of the cultural shadows of their larger neighbours. First-time visitors will be surprised and delighted by what they find: green open spaces and bustling cities, a treasure-trove for art lovers and paradise for gourmets!
Belgium is a parliamentary, representative, constitutional monarchy. Its constitution dating from 1831 has undergone several amendments, the last in 1993.
The king chooses the prime minister, who then forms his own government. Legislative power is exercised by the Senate (71 senators) and the Chamber of Representatives (150 deputies). Every four years, parliamentary elections are held by direct, universal suffrage. The federal parliament is responsible for national finance, foreign policy, defence, justice, social security and the federal police force.
Three communities, Flemish, French and German, are each responsible for cultural matters, the use of language, education and inter-community cooperation, and individual matters like health and welfare. Except for the eastern German-speaking area, the communities are not territorially defined.
The country is also divided into three regions, Flemish, Walloon and the bilingual Brussels-Capital area, each responsible for the economy, housing, employment, environment, agriculture, rural regeneration and nature conservation, planning and public works.
The Brussels-Capital Region comprises the 19 communes of the city of Brussels; the Wallonia Region the five Walloon provinces of Hainaut, Namur, Liège, Walloon Brabant and Luxembourg; and the five provinces of the Flanders Region are Antwerpen, Flemish Brabant, West Flanders, East Flanders and Limburg.
Each community and region has a council or legislative assembly and an executive, except Flanders, where power is exercised by the council and the government of the Flemish community.
Belgium is divided into ten provinces, each with a capital and seat of the provincial council.
The constitution dating from 17 October 1868 has been revised several times, most recently in 1999. The Grand Duke holds executive power and is responsible for choosing a prime minister, who appoints ministers and forms a government. Legislative power is exercised by the Chamber of Deputies, whose 60 members are elected every five years by direct universal suffrage
The economy of Dutch-speaking Flanders was traditionally based on agriculture but is now characterised by a concentration of light industry, petrochemical interests and investment projects financed by multinational companies. French-speaking Wallonia, once the industrial heart of Belgium (the first country on the continent to undergo an industrial revolution), underwent an economic depression towards the end of the 20C from which it was slow to recover. Today, industrial productivity remains significantly higher in Flanders, although Wallonia is showing signs of recovering from its economic ills.
The new government that finally emerged in 2008 promised to concentrate on national economic issues and not to let constitutional wrangles over devolution for Flanders distract it from this task. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen but there are grounds to be optimistic about the country’s economic climate. Belgium’s gross domestic product (GDP) remains at a high level and the country is one of the top 20 developed nations in the world. Although not blessed with valuable natural resources, Belgium imports large amounts of raw materials and processes them before sending them back out of the country as exports in the form of motor cars, tractors, bridges, machine tools, heavy machinery, munitions and petrochemicals. Agriculture only accounts for 1% of GDP. Around three-quarters of Belgium’s foreign trade is with other EU countries and this provides a secure base for its economy. in 2002 a UN study credited Belgium with having the fourth-highest standard of living in the world.
The economy of Luxembourg is dominated to some extent by banking (there are over 150 banks in this small country, one of which is the European Investment Bank) and multinational financial companies. There is also, mainly along the border with France, a small but significant iron and steel industry.
Between North and South
Belgium and Luxembourg have been the meeting point of Roman and Germanic Europe for over 2000 eventful years. Creative and ever-evolving, their culture is one of diversity and finds its truest expression in the nations’ three official languages – Dutch, French and German in Belgium, Lëtzeburgesch, German and French in Luxembourg. While the delicate balancing act between two distinct language communities in Brussels has made the “compromis à la beIge” a national metaphor, the Grand Duchy’s own language, born on the banks of the Moselle, combines echoes of both French and German. In these outward-looking countries, tradition and local pride still run deep, and it was this spirit of openness and unity in variety which made Brussels and Luxembourg the natural choices for Europe’s twin capitals of justice and government.
Young nations with a glorious past
Though it was only in the I9C that Belgium and Luxembourg became nations in their own right, their history has been filled with the illustrious ring of great names. This was the birthplace of the Crusader Godefroy de Bouillon, the “perfect Christian knight”, and the mighty Charles V, who laid claim to the empire “on which the sun never sets”. Here, too, Julius Caesar won glory and crossed swords with “the bravest of all the Gaulish peoples”. Tourna, Brussels, Bruges and Ghent were the prize possessions of the Burgundian lords – opulent trading towns built on matchless linen, lace and tapestries which were the envy of Europe. Habsburgs, Spanish, Austrians, French and Dutch all fought for this vast fortune and strategic position, and each dynasty added to a wealth of culture and history.
An abundance of art and culture
Belgium’s cities of art are a true revelation: Bruges’ romantic canals and convent, Ghent’s mighty towers, Antwerp’s Gothic cathedral and charming old town, and, above all, the magnificent Grand-Place and Art Nouveau heritage of Brussels. These were the towns where Van Eyck, Brueghel and Rubens captivated kings and emperors with the richness and refinement of Flemish art. Nowadays, these fabulous treasures are no longer the privilege of princes, and the perfectly preserved medieval towns are as breathtaking as ever. But why stop there when historic Liège, the citadel of Namur, Tournai cathedral, Luxembourg’s Grund and the castle of Vianden are all waiting to be discovered? Home to the world’s finest Art Nouveau and Art Deco design, Belgium also fostered the painters of the Modernist avant-garde, firing the imaginations of Magritte, Ensor and Delvaux.
Sport and nature in perfect harmony
Between the North Sea sands and the highland forests of the Eifel, there is a huge variety of landscapes to explore. The well-known “flatlands” of dunes and polders, celebrated in song by Jacques BreI, give way to picturesque “Little Switzerland”, the rolling landscapes of the Pajottenland and the unspoilt valleys of Wallonia. The great outdoors beckons: hire a bike and explore the coast, the pretty Limbourg countryside or the villages along the banks of the Scheldt; try rock-climbing at Marche-Ies-Dames; head for the Hautes Fagnes ski slopes; fish the lakes and streams of Luxembourg or strike out along one of the charming walking trails which criss-cross the countryside.
A love of the good life
On both sides of the border, enthusiasm and imagination come to the fore at the dinner table, dispelling any myths that the Belgians and Luxembourgeois don’t know how to enjoy themselves! Finely balanced dishes combine high culinary art with rich flavours from the medieval banquet, leading you off on a tour of regional delicacies in all their brilliant variety. Who could resist the sweetest, crispiest waffles from Brussels and Liège, delicious pralines from the world’s best chocolatiers, a brisk shot of genever in a local bar, an effervescent abbey beer, overflowing with scents and flavours, or a cool, sparkling Moselle? Mussels are a must, and so too are authentic, twice-fried Belgian chips from a “friterie”, with mayonnaise for the real connoisseur. But be warned: as with so much on offer in Belgium and Luxembourg, you may find yourself going back for more!
Food and Drink
The Belgians are fond of the good life and appreciate the merits of a well-laden table. The famous “mussels and chips” are far from being the whole story; the country’s cuisine offers an array of succulent, refined specialities, among them hearty “hochepot” stew, tasty Ardennes ham, delicious Flanders asparagus, spicy Herve cheese, divine “pralines”, and waffles from Liège and Brussels – who could resist such temptations?
For connoisseurs, the diversity and quality of Belgian food is no longer a secret. The country’s culinary traditions have long been recognised as belonging to the finest in Europe, and while in many respects Belgian cuisine resembles that of France, its regional specialities lend it a special distinction.
Vegetable broth or clear beef or chicken soups known as bouillons are common starters to a meal, and are served with bread and butter. Ardennes ham or sausage, cold fish, seafood with mayonnaise, delicious shrimp croquettes or eels in a herb sauce, may also feature as hors d’oeuvres.
The main course offers a choice of many regional specialities, including waterzooi from Ghent (chicken or fish stew), Flanders hochepot (casserole of pork, beef or mutton), oie à la mode de Visé (goose with a garlic sauce), or in the hunting season, a sample of the game in which the Ardennes abound.
Those who like fish and seafood will enjoy sole, trout, mussels or anguille au vert (eel sautéed in butter with finely chopped parsley, chervil, sorrel, sage, citronella and tarragon). Fried to perfection, potato chips are a matter of national pride and may accompany virtually any main dish, particularly mussels.
To end the meal on a deliciously sweet note, be tempted by a mouth-watering mixed fruit, rhubarb or sugar tart.
Meat, Fish and Poultry
The country’s famous beers also feature in a number of dishes, among them the carbonades of Flanders (beef braised in beer with onions, spices, vinegar and sugar), and rabbit stewed with prunes. Other meat dishes include choesels (offal with madeira sauce or mushrooms), filet américain (chopped raw beef), filet d’Anvers (smoked beef or horsemeat) and potjesvlees (terrine made from veal, rabbit or chicken). Coucou de Malines – Mechelen cuckoo – is a type of chicken. Escavèche is fish fried and conserved in a marinade of herbs and spices and is related to the Spanish escabeche; another speciality is Friture de la Moselle, small fried freshwater fish.
The country’s tasty vegetable dishes include hop shoots in a mousseline sauce, a March speciality; chicory or Brussels witloof (endive) with ham, au gratin or braised; Brussel sprouts and Flanders asparagus, served with parsley or a chopped hardboiled egg.
The country produces more than 80 delicious varieties of cheese. The best known are Herve, which since 1996 has had the status of an Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP), Maredsous, Passchendaele, Chimay, Nazareth, Orval and Brussels. Delicious cheesy snacks include doubles (pancakes with a Herve or Masedous filling), together with potkès or boulettes de Huy (salty cheese from Huy).
Bread and Cakes
Belgian chocolates and pralines (chocolates with creamy or nutty fillings) need no introduction, but Brussels and Liège waffles are appreciated just as much.
The country’s bakeries offer a great variety of different kinds of bread and a number of regional specialities. They include couque (sugary, spicy bread from Brussels and hard spiced bread with honey from Dinant), craquelin (sugar-filled brioche), nœud (butter biscuit with brown sugar), cramique (milk bread with raisins), pistolet (small round loaf) and mastel (rusk bread with aniseed).
There are plenty of tasty tarts, among them Lierse vlaaikens (from Lier), tarte au maton (made with fromage frais, buttermilk and almonds), flamiche (made with local cheese and served hot), djote (with whitebeet, cheese, eggs, lardons and cream, served hot) and tarte au stofé (fromage frais, eggs, almonds and potato). Served with tea or coffee are speculoos (plain biscuit made with brown sugar), kletskoppen (fine butter biscuits with almonds and hazelnuts), mokken (macaroons flavoured with cinnamon or aniseed), spantôles (dessert biscuit perpetuating the name of a famous cannon) and lukken (small round buttery waffles). Also worth trying are manons (chocolates with a crème fraîche filling), babeluttes (hard toffees made with butter) and baisers de Malmédy – Malmédy kisses (meringues filled with Chantilly cream).
Beer is Belgium’s national drink (Tsee also The Land of Beer) though most restaurant meals are accompanied by wine. A number of spirits and liqueurs are produced, notably Elixir d’Anvers (Antwerp elixir, a sweet and spicy liqueur), and Spa Elixir (rather like the chartreuse liqueur of France). Fruit (lemon, apple, gooseberry) and plain gin is distilled in Hasselt, while Liège gin is known as péket. The Maitrank from Arlon is an aperitif with a distinctive flavour.
Among the gastronomic specialities of the Grand Duchy are suckling pig in aspic, smoked and cured ham from the Ardennes, and other smoked meats. The national dish is Judd mat Gaardebounen, smoked neck of pork with broad beans, which makes a hearty meal in itself. Game is eaten in season and freshwater fish are delicious fried or poached in Riesling.
These dishes are washed down with Moselle wines or with beer, the most popular drink. The liqueurs of Luxembourg – made with a variety of plums, blackcurrants, pears, elderberries and marc – have a good reputation.
In September, plum tart is eaten, and, in season, the little puff pastry crowns known as Veianer Kränzercher. Kachkéis is a salty country cheese.
The Land of Beer
Top or bottom fermented, pale or dark, sweet or bitter, light or heavy, fruity or spicy, clear or cloudy, Belgian beers offer the drinker an unrivalled variety of tastes and textures.
Some 98 litres of beer are consumed by the average Belgian in the course of a year. The country boasts more than 100 breweries, the biggest being Stella Artois, Jupiler (part of the Interbrew group) and Alken-Maes. But in Belgium beer also comes from a number of abbeys, which continue a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Production was one of the privileges accorded to monasteries and for centuries beer was a far safer and more drinkable beverage than water.
The Brewing Process
Malt is obtained from barley, grown in huge quantities in northern Europe. The barley grains are germinated by soaking them in water; they are then dried and roasted in a kiln and milled, the whole process being known as malting; the resulting malt is the raw material of beer. Different kinds of malt are produced by variations in the drying process and it is these that give a beer its distinctive colour.
Brewing consists of transforming the finely milled malt into a porridge-like mash. This is the most important stage in the process, involving the soaking of the mash in hot water and the consequent conversion of the starch in the malt into fermentable sugars. The type of beer obtained depends on the length of the period of infusion and the temperature chosen. Most breweries still use copper vats for this part of the process. The addition of hops gives beer its characteristic bitter taste.
The hop is a climbing plant which grows to a height of between five and seven metres. Hop-picking is carried out in September, the harvest consisting of the female flowers known as cones or strobiles. The main areas of hop- gardens in Belgium are around Aalst and Poperinge.
Once the mash has cooled, fermentation begins, thanks to the action of yeast placed in the big fermentation vessels. The operation takes several days, during which alcohol is produced and carbon dioxide released. Depending on the temperature and the length of the fermentation process, three different kinds of beer are produced.
Types of Beer
These are the pale beers commonly referred to as lagers or as “pilsener” beers, “pils” for short. Fermentation takes place at a low temperature (around 9°), as does storage, or “lagering” (at 0°). The best known Belgian lagers are Stella Artois, Jupiler and Maes.
These beers, or rather ales, are fermented at a relatively high temperature (around 24-28°) and then undergo a kind of secondary fermentation in the cask or bottle (at around 13-16°). Most so-called “special” beers are of this type.
Spontaneously fermented beers
In the case of these beers, which are unique to Belgium, fermentation is allowed to take place at its own pace, without the addition of yeast. The beer is matured over a long period, as much as three years, in old wine barrels, and is known as lambics. According to the specialists, it is this process which produces the purest, most natural beer in the world.
There are more than 400 different beers in Belgium, promoted under more than 800 names. Make sure you never just ask for “a beer”, but specify what it is you want, perhaps one of the almost infinite number of “specials”.
Lambic is used in the brewing of other kinds of beer. After being kept for a long period, the beer is drawn off into bottles in which a secondary fermentation takes place. The result is gueuze, a bubbly beer with a sharp taste. The red beer known as kriek gets its colour and its fruity taste from the cherries added to the lambic. Framboise is produced in a similar way, using raspberries. The best-known lambics are Belle Vue, St Louis and Gambrinus.
Trappist and Abbey Beers
The beers of Belgium’s Trappist abbeys need no introduction. The six brews include Rochefort and Westfleteren, as well as Orval, Chimay, Westmalle and Achel, which enjoy a worldwide reputation. But there are other abbey beers as well, among them Corsendonk, Leffe, Maredsous, Grimbergen and Affligem.
Other Special Beers
So-called white beers (Hoegaarden, Brugs Tarwebier) are light in colour and cloudy. Red beers (Rodenbach, Petrus) are typical of western Flanders and are bitter in taste. Brown beers (Liefmans) are rather sweet and are much used in cooking. Saisons de Wallonie are local craft brews, usually presented in wine bottles. Palm and De Koninck are amber ales, while the best-known ale in Wallonia is La Vieux Temps. Outstanding among strong beers are Duvel, Hapkin and Delerium Tremens. Then there are numerous local beers such as Brigand, Kasteelbier and Kwak in Flanders, Bush Beer and La Chouffe in Wallonia, to mention only a few.
The administrative and political organisation of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has been greatly influenced by the multilingualism of both countries. In the case of Belgium, this has led to state and local structures of considerable complexity.
A Trilingual Country
Belgium has three languages: Dutch (nederlands) in Flanders (60% of the Belgian population), French (français) in Wallonia (39%), and German (deutsch) in the Eupen area (slightly less than 1%). While dialects are spoken in Flanders – known as Flemish (vlaams), and the Dutch vocabulary and pronunciation differ between the Netherlands and Flanders, there is no Flemish language as such. Walloon dialects are distinct from standard French, but generally only spoken by older people. The linguistic border between Dutch and French corresponds roughly to the boundaries between the provinces of Flanders and those of Wallonia. Brussels is an enclave within the Flemish region, being bilingual with a French-speaking majority.
The Linguistic Quarrel
The linguistic divide dates back to the 5C, when the Romans left the north of the country to the Germanic tribes. The Gallo-Roman language in the south resisted Germanic influence despite occupation by the Salian Franks. The Germanic term “Walha” (the origin of the words “Walloon” and “Welsh”) meant “foreigner” to the Franks.
Literature in Dutch developed in Flanders from the 12C, but disappeared almost entirely after the break from the Netherlands at the end of the 16C. Spoken mostly by an uneducated rural population, Flanders Dutch degenerated into a jumble of local dialects. Its sudden elevation to an official language when Belgium formed part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,1814-30, proved unpopular, and educated, ambitious Flemings continued to use French, the language of the court, government and high culture. The fraught, complex relationship between Belgium’s two main linguistic communities has affected domestic history, with advances in the status of Dutch bitterly contested by French speakers and equally fiercely defended by adherents of the “Flemish Movement”.
The key dates marking the evolution of the relationship began with the 1898 Equality Law (the Coremans-De Vriendt Law) which decreed that all laws be promulgated in both French and Dutch, making the latter the country’s second official language.
In 1932 regional monolingualism replaced bilingualism for administrative purposes, except in Brussels.
Language laws in 1962-63 divided the country into Flanders (Dutch-speaking), Wallonia (French-speaking), a German-speaking eastern district, and the Dutch- and French-speaking Brussels-Capital area.
Violent demonstrations, typified by the slogan “Walen buiten!”: “Walloons out!”, led in 1968 to the University of Leuven/Louvain splitting with the French-speaking section and migrating to a new foundation at Louvain-la-Neuve.
The 1970 reorganisation of the state confirmed the four linguistic regions and recognised the existence of three cultural communities: French, Dutch and German. Subsequent legislation has transformed what used to be a unitary state into a federation.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has three languages. In 1984, Lëtzebuergesch, a variant of German like the Moselle valley Frankish dialect, became the official language. High German is used for general purposes and for teaching. French is the literary and administrative language, taught in all educational institutions.
Festivals and Traditions
From the colourful Fête des Chats in Ypres to the world-famous Carnival in Binche, popular festivals and local traditions play an important part in Belgian life. (TSee also Calendar of Events in the Planning Your Trip section.)
The religious or secular origin of these popular festivals dates back centuries and recalls legends or ancient mysteries. The mixture of people of diverse origin adds to the heritage as ancient customs are revived and new festivals added. In Flanders, the guilds’ influence was strong; in Wallonia, nearby Picardy played a role. Though non-locals are welcome to look on, visitors should remember that the festivals reflect an old civic order, celebrate and reinforce the bonds of communities, guilds and associations and, as such, retain a private character and significance.
Everything is organised by the members of different “societies” or brotherhoods, who prepare months in advance. On the big day, their members dress up in costume, meet old friends, have a meal and let the beer flow. Today’s festivities would offer few surprises to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who painted the rollicking citizenry of the 16C with such verve.
Carnival is celebrated in much of Belgium. Probably of pagan origin, it takes place around Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, presented by the Catholic Church as a symbol of rejoicing before the period of Lenten fasting and penitence.
The three most famous carnivals in Belgium take place in Binche, Eupen and Malmédy. At Binche, festivities last three days, with the celebrated Gilles only making their appearance on Shrove Tuesday. Only native-born males can wear the extraordinary Gilles costume as they parade around the streets to the beat of the drum. In the afternoon, a huge procession takes place, with the Gilles hurling oranges at the spectators. The festival ends with a rondo in front of the town hall.
The German-speaking town of Eupen is known for its carnival, which resembles those in nearby Rhineland. On the Monday (“Rosenmontag”) before Shrove Tuesday, costumed revellers dance through the town, with the figure of Prince Carnival at the rear.
At Malmédy, the Cwarmêdiffers from other towns’ carnivals with its satirical set-pieces performed in the local dialect. Best avoided are the town’s infamous Haguetes, who take great pleasure in pinching spectators’ ankles with their long wooden pincers. Flanders’ festivals include those at Aalst and Ostend. On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday Aalst’s procession of giants and floats with tableaux make satirical comments on the year’s events. Monday is marked by Ajuinworp, a great throwing of onions, while Shrove Tuesday is dominated by the grotesquely costumed “Voil Jeannetten” (“mucky Janes” – men in drag). The carnival at Ostend takes place on the first weekend in March, with a procession of a thousand lamps (Cimateirelichtstoet), a fancy-dress ball (the Dead Rat Ball), and a clog-hurling contest (Kloefenworp).
Mid-Lent, the Thursday of the third week in Lent, marks a break in a time of austerity and denial. It is celebrated enthusiastically at Stavelot with the Blancs-Moussis, droll figures in huge white hooded garments with long red noses, who hark back to the participation of the Stavelot Abbey monks. They process through the town, scattering confetti and beating spectators with inflated pigs’ bladders. The elegantly attired Chinels, irresistible Punch and Judy characters, parade in Fosses-la-Ville tickling girls with their sabres and whipping the cigarettes from smokers’ mouths. Mid-Lent is also celebrated with great gusto in Maaseik.
Every Sunday during Lent, Ligny stages a Passion Play, a modern series of tableaux inspired by the Gospels. On Good Friday, Lessines sees the famous Penitents’ Procession; the participants, cloaked and hooded, carry the body of Christ and the Instruments of the Passion through the streets.
In the provinces of Antwerp and Liège, a Lenten custom is the beheading of a goose by horsemen. Other towns light great bonfires on which a guy is sometimes burned. The most famous is at Geraardsbergen, the Tonnekensbrand where a barrel is burned and Krakelingen biscuits are thrown.
Giants and Puppets
Many festivals and carnival parades in Belgium feature giants. The number of giants has increased since the beginning of the 20C, but they began in the 5C. The tradition started in Belgium and, through the Spanish occupation, spread to Spain. The first giant probably appeared in a religious procession or an Ommegang, symbolising Goliath or St Christopher. Goliath is still present at the great ducasse festival in Ath, where he is nicknamed Monsieur Gouyasse.
Secular characters gradually appeared at these events. Even Bayard the horse came to be included, ridden by the four Aymon sons (in Aalst, Dendermonde and Brussels). Giants appear also in Nivelles (Argayon, Argayonne, their son Lolo and the horse Godet), in Geraardsbergen, in Lier and in Arlon.
Famous characters include Polydor, Polydra and little Polysorke in Aalst; Cagène and his companion Florentine in Belœil; Pie and Wanne and their son Jommeke in Tervuren; Count Baldwin IV the Builder and Alix of Namur in Braine-le-Comte.
Puppet theatre was a huge success in 19C Liège due to Tchantchès. The wooden, carved puppet, painted and covered with cloth, is moved by a rod fixed to the top of its head. The repertoire draws as much on history as on legend and modern life, and is aimed mainly at adults. From the same time, the theatre founded by Toone in Brussels features the character Woltje, who speaks a wonderfully broad city dialect. Classics like The Four Aymon Brothers and Thyl Uylenspiegel are complemented by newly written items. Other dialect puppet theatres flourish in Antwerp, Ghent and Mechelen.
Processions, Plays and Pageants
In the Middle Ages few people could read, so processions were used to spread knowledge of the Bible. As well as Apostles, Prophets and Angels, floats with tableaux illustrated biblical themes. Today, the processions often feature colourful episodes from secular history, losing something of their original, strictly religious character.
The most impressive such spectacle is undoubtedly the Holy Blood Procession in Bruges. Equally important is the festival of the Virgin Virga Jesse at Hasselt, held only once every seven years. Other festivals are more rustic, with the faithful following the statue or reliquary of the saint across the fields for long distances (over 30km/19mi in Ronse), praying and singing hymns.
Plays and Pageants
Religious and medieval in origin, and resembling medieval mystery plays, these re-enact old legends. Among the best known is the one in Rutten, which evokes the death of St Evermeire in the 7C. In Mons, the Chariot of Gold (Car d’or) procession involves various guilds carrying figures of their patron saints. The Chariot of Gold itself, containing the relics of St Waudru, brings up the rear. Once the procession is over, the historic spectacle known as the “Lumeçon” represents the struggle of Good with Evil.
At Ellezelles, the annual Witches Sabbath recalls the execution of five witches in 1610. In Viesalm the Macrâlles, spell-casting witches, star in a comic celebration, while in the Fête des Chats at Ypres, it is the witches’ feline familiars who play the most important role, with toy cats being hurled from the town belfry to ward off witchcraft and the devil. In Wingene, the Brueghel Festival illustrates paintings by the great master.
Ducasses, Kermesses and The May Tree
The Ducasseand the Kermesse
The words ducasse (from the Walloon dédicace) and kermesse ( “solemn Mass” in Dutch) both designate a fête held in honour of a town or a village’s patron saint. This holiday has retained some religious aspects (Mass and procession) but now includes traditional games, competitions, and sometimes a fair and market. Mons and Ath both hold well-known ducasses.
The May Tree
On 30 April, 1 May or in May, towns like Hasseslt, Genk and Tongeren solemnly plant a May tree as a symbol of renewal. In Brussels this tree is called the “Meyboom” or “Tree of Joy”, and is planted every year in August.
Pageants and Military Parades
These vividly re-enacted pageants breathe new life into past grandeur. In Brussels, the annual Ommegang was first presided over by Emperor Charles V in 1549, while in Bruges, the quinquennial Golden Tree Pageant recalls the reign of the Dukes of Burgundy.
The military parades in the Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse region, which begin at the end of May, date back to the 18C and were probably started to protect processions in troubled times. The strict ceremonial and the Napoleonic uniforms are very impressive. Best known are the marches at Gerpinnes (35km/21.7mi), Ham-sur-Heure and Thuin.
Festivals and Folk Customs
Belgium‘s folk customs and festivals include the Fêtes Gantoises in Ghent, the Fêtes de Wallonie in Namur, and the Fêtes d’Outremeuse in Liège. For several days, the town is turned upside-down; strolling players and performers, marches, concerts, processions, puppets, stalls and stands, all create an extraordinary atmosphere. A number of seaside places have Blessings of the Sea, while Koksijde stages an annual Shrimp Festival where shrimping is done in the traditional way on horseback.
Popular activities include pigeon-fancying and cock-crowing competitions, skittles, balle-pelote and archery. Finally, the biggest children’s event takes place on 6 December, when St Nicholas, accompanied by Bogeyman and his birch, brings them their presents.