For its small size, Belgium packs a large population and variety of cultures. One of the world’s first industrialized nations, it maintains an important role in international trade and politics as the headquarters of the European Union, NATO, and a host of other organizations.
Belgium derives its name from Gallia Belgica, the name the Romans gave its territory after conquering it in the first century BCE. A less flattering moniker, “the battlefield of Europe”, reflects its history as a prize fought over by various European powers. The Merovingians, the Burgundians, and the Spanish and Austrian branches of the Hapsburg family have all ruled Belgium at different times, which, along with its position as a crossroads between Germanic and Latin Europe, have encouraged the development of a diverse Belgian population. The modern Kingdom of Belgium was founded in 1830, after attaining independence from France; it comprises the Francophone region of Wallonia in the south, Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and the East Cantons, a small region populated by German speakers. It quickly became a wealthy state, due to the rapid development of industry in Wallonia. The 20th century was a time of change in Belgium, as the country struggled with the aftermath of occupation during both World Wars, the dissolution of its colonial empire in Africa, and uneven economic growth favoring Flanders. This has caused a measure of internal conflict, with some analysts even positing the dissolution of Belgium, despite repeated reassurances from the country’s government.
Belgium benefits from well-developed infrastructure and a location among some of the world’s largest economies, as well as strong regional and international ties. It is the world’s 15th largest trader, and ranks among the world’s top countries in education, health care, and human development. Culturally, Belgians make a sharp distinction between Flanders and Wallonia, but each has a lot to offer. The country has a huge number of traditional folk festivals relative to other European nations, as well as numerous concerts, both classical and popular. Regardless of personal taste, travelers are sure to appreciate Belgian cuisine; famous for chocolate and waffles, Belgium is also, oddly enough, the home of the French fry, and some of the most spectacular beers in the world. Whatever else is on your itinerary, do not forget to stop for a Duvel or the aptly-named Delirium Tremens.
Aside from other European countries, Morocco and Turkey provide the largest numbers of immigrants to Belgium. Work options are comparable to other developed Western nations, but jobs are more plentiful in Flanders. High taxes are made up for by the excellent quality of social services, and travel is both easy and inexpensive–backpackers and hitchhikers in particular will appreciate Belgium. Several great universities are present, and the cities of Ghent and Louvain-la-Neuve have a strong student culture.
Bilingualism (at least) is practically required for job-seekers in Belgium, but the country’s three official languages are seldom used outside their respective ranges. The local varieties of French and Dutch (or Flemish, colloquially) differ slightly from those of France and The Netherlands, but are mutually intelligible. If this weren’t confusing enough, Belgium is also home to several minority languages, including Walloon and Picard. Study hard!