There isn't a country on earth quite like Belgium. It's one of the smallest nations in Europe, yet it has a federal system, three official languages, and is intensely regionalized, to the extent that northerners frequently demand secession from the south. And its cuisine, manifest most famously in its marvellous array of different beers and a sumptuous reputation as a producer of fine chocolate, is startlingly diverse. For a small country with an identity problem, Belgium is anything but dull.
The country has its scenic highlights, too, most notably in the rolling hills of the Ardennes, which continue down into the connected but entirely independent Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Though known as a tiny refuge of bankers and diplomats, this too has surprises in store: its capital, Luxembourg City, is one of the most striking capitals in Europe, and the rest of the country - small though it is - is a beautifully green and hilly landscape of castles, steep wooded valleys and slate-roofed villages.
Both Belgium and Luxembourg are underrated as a destination for holidaymakers: for the British at least, they are viewed as a perfect weekend break or home of the EU but not much else. This is a pity, as this is historically one of the most complex and intriguing parts of Europe. Squeezed in between France, Germany and Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg occupy a spot that has often decided the European balance of power. It was here that the Holy Roman Empire shared an important border with the Germanic tribes to the north; here that the Spanish Habsburgs finally met their match against the Protestant rebels of the Netherlands; here that Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo; and here, too, that the British and Belgians slugged it out with the Germans in World War I. Indeed so many powers have had an interest in this region over the years that it was only in 1830 that Belgium and Luxembourg became separate, independent states, free from all colonial rule.
It's perhaps partly because of this messy history that Belgium and Luxembourg have never become homogenous nation-states, like most of the rest of Europe. Belgium divides between the Dutch- or Flemish-speaking north of the country, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. There's a small German-speaking community in the east, and in the centre lies Brussels, which is officially bilingual. The tenacity of regional (and linguistic) feeling is such that Belgium is a federal state, with much power devolved to the regions. In Luxembourg there has been a slightly different outcome. The people here are at ease with the linguistic ebb and flow of their European neighbours, switching comfortably between French, German and their own language, Letzeburgesch, a dialect of German - all without so much as an intercommunal ripple.
Where to go
There's more to the Flemish-Walloon divide than just language: the north and south of Belgium are visually very different places. The North, made up of the provinces of West and East Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg and the top half of Brabant, is mainly flat, with a landscape and architecture not unlike Holland. Antwerp is the largest city, a big, sprawling, bustling old port with doses of sleaze and high art in roughly equal measure. Further south, in the Flemish heartland of Flanders, are the great Belgian historic cities, Bruges and Ghent, tourist attractions in themselves, with a stunning concentration of Flemish art and architecture. Bruges especially is the country's biggest tourist pull, and although this inevitably means it gets very crowded, you shouldn't miss it on any account. Beyond lies the Belgian coast, which makes valiant attempts to compete with the seaside resorts of the rest of Europe but is ultimately let down by the crassness of its development and the coldness of the North Sea. There are a couple of appealing seaside spots, for example De Haan, and the beaches and duney interludes along the coast are delightful. But you might be better off spending time in some of the other inland Flanders towns, not least Ieper, formerly and better known as Ypres to the English-speaking world. Every year veterans and pilgrims come to visit the stark sights of the nearby World War I battlefields and the vast, sad acreages of cemeteries.
Marking the meeting of the Flemish and Walloon parts of Belgium, Brussels, the capital, is central enough to be pretty much unavoidable. It is more exciting and varied than its reputation as a bland Euro-capital would suggest and, because Belgium is not a large country, it is also useful as a base for day-trips. Bruges and Ghent are easily accessible from here, as is the old university city of Leuven to the east, or even the cathedral city of Mechelen, halfway to Antwerp.
Flemish Brabant encircles Brussels, but to the south of the capital it narrows into the slender corridor of Wallonian Brabant, which is distinguished by the splendid church at Nivelles and the elegaic abbey ruins at nearby Villers-la-Ville. West of here, the solely Walloon province of Hainaut is rich agricultural country, dotted with ancient cities like charming Tournai and industrial centres like Charleroi and the more appealing Mons. East of here lies Belgium's most scenically rewarding region, the Ardennes, spread across the three provinces of Namur, Lige and Luxembourg: an area of deep, wooded valleys, high elevations and heathy plateaux and caverns that, beyond the main tourist resorts, is very wild indeed. Use either Lige or Luxembourg as a jumping-off point, before heading into the heart of the region at St-Hubert, Han-sur-Lesse or La Roche-en-Ardenne.
The Ardennes reach across the Belgian border into the northern part of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a green landscape of high hills topped with crumbling castles overlooking rushing rivers. Vianden and Echternach are perhaps the two best centres for touring the countryside - quiet, small towns with little life outside the tourist industry. However, the country's status as European nonentity is quite unjust; in fact it packs more scenic highlights into its tight borders than other more renowned holiday spots. And while its southern reaches are much more ordinary, Luxembourg City at least is worth a stop. Dramatically sited, it's about the closest the country gets to a proper urban environment, although its population of 75,000 people (around a fifth of the Grand Duchy's total) is still tiny by capital city standards.