Belgium is often overlooked on the average European itinerary but it is a mistake to miss out this tiny but culturally significant territory in the North of the continent.
The country has seen the production of some of the finest works of art the continent has ever seen. Artists like Breughel, Van Dyck and Rubens were all masters in their day and Belgium's art galleries are filled with their fantastic and moving works.
Many of Belgium's cities are works of art in their own right. The simple beauty of historic centres such as Ghent and Bruges is matched by few cities in Europe.
Meanwhile a Brussels city break will give you the perfect opportunity to witness a masterpiece of Renaissance art and architecture and a refinement not found in many cities of its size. Steeped in history, it is also home to the European Government and has a distinctly cosmopolitan and modern outlook.
The people too are an interesting mixture of French flair and taste and Dutch devil-may-care. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brussels's centre where you can enjoy a sumptuous meal in a Michelin starred restaurant, or eat a paper cone of fries within yards of each other. Elegant coffee shops sit harmoniously with dance-clubs and you can hear any of the languages of Europe in a single turn around the magnificent Grand Place.
Being sandwiched between the Netherlands and France, Belgium is in many ways a combination of the two, with a twist of Germany thrown in for good measure. This intriguing mix has created an amazingly diverse people and a varied culture that is surprisingly refreshing for visitors. The country is remarkably cosmopolitan as well. One in ten citizens are foreign immigrants, and in Brussels the percentage is markedly higher.
Food and drink
Given its geographic position Belgian food is, not surprisingly, a blend of French, Dutch and some German influences, but also includes particularly Belgian ingredients - such as the endive (chicory leaf). This has been a characteristic ingredient in many Belgian dishes since the 19th century, and is normally served hot (not cold in a salad as in the UK or the United States).
Other important ingredients include the gorgeous mussels and other shellfish found mainly in the north of the country near the North Sea coast. There are also the gamey flavours of Ardennes venison, boar, trout, freshwater lobster and so on.
Belgian cookery is of a high standard in most restaurants - expect to be treated to some excellent food, since as far as gastronomic trends and quality go, Belgium has long followed close in the culinary footsteps of France. In fact the country has been so successful in emulating its gastronomic neighbour that there are now more Michelin-star rated restaurants in Belgium than in France itself!
There is a huge variety of brands of Belgian beer, which all fall somewhere in a bewildering number of categories and flavours. If there are "bits" at the bottom of your bottle or glass - don't take it back complaining about your "cloudy" pint. Some beers are supposed to be unfiltered.
Belgium has been the unlikely backdrop for some of the most important events in European history. It has seen armies of all the major empires come and go and its flat landscape hides the battlefields of Waterloo, Ypres and Passchendale, events that changed Europe forever.
Did you know?
There are more castles per square mile in Belgium than anywhere else in the world and that Antwerp, the world's fourth largest port is one of the world's main centres for diamond dealing, cutting and polishing.