Belgium is curiously underrated, despite some very attractive scenery, many excellent roads, some beautiful cities, superb food and some of the best beer in the world. Possibly the best chocolates, too. Oh; and it's very handy for England.
Perhaps it's too handy: it's seen as somewhere to go through, rather than somewhere to go to. Or perhaps again it suffers from lacking a clear image in many people's minds; there's the famously unkind observation, "I have never seen an ethnic Belgian." And in all fairness to its detractors, there are some pretty dire parts in the north. The A3, one of the main through roads, is potholed and overloaded, and runs for a long way through flat, bleak countryside where the main points of interest are the whores in their little shop windows, sitting on chrome bar-stools and either waving to passers-by or reading paperbacks. And as everywhere else, motorways are best avoided.
But then you think of Spa. It's a superb racing circuit, but perhaps more to the point, all the roads around it are superb too. The woods of the Ardennes, in the south-east of the country, are delightful and they are also handy for Luxembourg, another underrated motorcycling destination. Even the dead-flat Netherlands manage to work up a small wiggle -- the Dutch Alps -- to the north of the Ardennes, and that is where the Dutch spas are too.
Spa, for that matter, gave its name to thermal resorts the world over -- and following a major makeover in 2003, the thermal springs at Spa itself are now leisure-oriented rather than cure-oriented, and a lot more affordable to boot.
For a long week-end, you could do a lot worse than to explore central and southern Belgium. This is equally true whether you are coming from London, Paris or north Germany: Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen.
You probably wouldn't want to spend more than about a week there, it's true, but that's not so important. The point is, it's foolish to zap straight through it, because you really will be missing something. And if you like cities, Bruges (or Brugge) is extremely attractive, and very affordable.
For that matter, I haven't even started to talk about the Belgians yet. They are extremely friendly and welcoming, especially to those who have a word of praise for their country, and they seem to have more of a gift for languages than any other nation on earth -- though that may be because there are three official languages in Belgium, French, Flemish (which resembles Dutch) and German to start with. But I remember once a Belgian cheerfully translating three ways between English, German and (of all things) Romanian. None of these three was his native language.
It's true that many Belgians are truly lousy drivers: there are still plenty of people on the road who never took a test, because they didn't need to. You just bought a driving licence the same way you bought a dog licence or a TV licence. It's also true that the French-speakers and the Flemish-speakers hate each other in an abstract sort of way, to the extent that there are perennial warnings about the country splitting in two. But this hatred doesn't seem to come down to a personal level, and it certainly doesn't affect their relationships with foreigners.
It does however affect their tourist offices. Believe it or not, these are duplicated, with one for Flanders and another for Brussels and the Ardennes. This dichotomy continues across a whole range of things, such as the youth hostel associations, and may be one of the things that retards the development of tourism in the country. On the other hand, www.visitbelgium.com is a pretty good web-site for the whole country and you can get addresses and phone numbers for further queries. The national headquarters of the Belgian National Tourist Office is Grasmarkt 63, B-1000, Brussels, Belgium, phone +32 2 50 40 39 0, fax +32 2 50 40 27 0.
When it comes to maps, I mostly just use the Michelin Europe Atlas, which is really too small a scale for detailed exploration, at 1:1000 000 (1cm = 10km, near enough 16 miles to the inch). But then, I don't much mind being lost for a while. For more detail, there are several maps at 1:300 000 (IGN, Insight/APA and Geocenter); this is 1cm = 3 km or about 4.7 miles to the inch. Some of these are 'Benelux' maps that also include the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The biggest scale I know of for a general map is the IGN map at 1:250 000, 1cm = 25km or near enough a quarter inch to the mile. After this you are down to detailed maps made for hikers and bicyclists.
As already noted, some Belgians are really awful drivers, so you need to be wide awake. One of my most bizarre experiences on the road was in Belgium in 2003. There were two motorcyclists riding together, a middle aged couple. They were about 40 or 50 metres apart, she behind him, miles from anywhere in the Ardennes. They were riding very slowly, maybe 60 km/h, 35 to 40 mph. Both were well away from the crown of the road.
I signaled and overtook her perfectly safely, at about 70 or 80 km/h, 40 to 50 mph, with lots of room to spare, and continued accelerating to overtake him. Suddenly he veered to the left and stopped dead, two feet from the crown of the road, nowhere near a junction, and fortunately with no other traffic around. I had to swerve to get around him. Bear in mind that I was doing 50 mph at this point!
What was he doing? Who knows? I can't imagine that even he did. But I was well frightened.
Admittedly, this was an extreme case. Admittedly, too, bad Belgian drivers are rarely aggressive, and not even particularly fast: just very, very unpredictable. But it does illustrate that you need to be very wide awake when you ride in Belgium.
Apart from this fellow, Belgian motorcyclists are generally a lot more skilled than Belgian car-drivers (they have to be, if they want to live) and they are friendly enough; but I have to confess that although I have passed some very pleasant times in Belgium, I can't say that I've ever had the kind of extended conversations with Belgian riders that I have with (say) Bavarians or Poles. This is probably pure happenstance, however. Powerful, late-model machines are surprisingly common: this is an affluent country.
Crash helmets are compulsory, while a first aid kit is recommended but not required. Daylight riding lights are now compulsory; a spare bulb kit is merely recommended. Although Belgians are fond of the horn, its use is officially discouraged after dark or in all built-up areas.
Most Belgian roads are not too bad, whether you are talking about motorways or back-roads, but there are plenty of exceptions and the Belgians seem much given to patching roads up, sometimes for decades, rather than re-surfacing them properly. You won't find the kind of wheel-swallowing potholes that you will in India or Greece, or even the kind of sunken manhole covers that are so common in Poland and the Czech Republic, but if your bike has stiff suspension, some of the roads may rattle your teeth a bit.
The dreaded pave -- really chunky cobbles, which also get very slippery when wet -- is much less common than it used to be, but you can still encounter it from time to time.
There are no toll roads, though I seem to recall that there are one or two toll bridges or tunnels.
Priority is to the right, of course, with trams and emergency vehicles always having priority. Unexpectedly, it is illegal to enter any junction unless your exit is clear. NEVER try to insist on your right of way in Belgium, though: the Belgians just don't drive that way. As the old saying goes, "He was right, of course, dead right; but he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong."
Belgians tend to treat all speed limits as guidelines rather than absolute limits, and if you obey the law strictly, you will be overtaken by just about everything on the road. The actual limits are 50 km/h (31 mph) in built up areas, 90 km/h (56 mph) on the open road, and 120 km/h (75 mph) on four-lane highways including motorways. All unless otherwise signposted, of course. There is a minimum limit of 70 km/h (42 mph) on motorways.
Obey 'no overtaking' signs, of course. Apart from that, don't overtake on the right except to pass a vehicle that is turning left; or at intersections, unless there are traffic lights or a policemen or the road that you are on has clear priority (the yellow lozenge sign); at level crossings; or where visibility is restricted. An insight into Belgian driving is afforded by the fact that you are not allowed to overtake when the person in front is about to overtake the person in front of him. Nor should you overtake where there is oncoming traffic, though this is all but universally ignored.
Parking on the sidewalk (pavement) is illegal unless there is a marked motorcycle bay. There is an interminable list of parking restrictions, most of which come down to common sense, such as not parking on railway crossings. Then again, the very fact that they feel the need to make so many prohibitions argues that if they didn't, the Belgians would park anywhere -- as in fact they tend to do, so you can often find somewhere to stick your bike alongside a few others, even if you're not totally sure it's legal.
Some of the main parking restrictions are: on cycle tracks or in cycle lanes; opposite another vehicle on a one-way street; in any street where it might cause an obstruction; under bridges; on roads crossed by tram or railway lines; within 5 metres (16 feet) of an intersection; within 12 metres (40 feet) of a bus or tram stop; within 10 metres (33 feet) of a road sign, except one regulating parking or stopping; within 1 metre (39.4 inches) of another vehicle (!); on corners; on the brow of a hill unless there is an unobstructed view of 100 metres (330 feet) on the open road or 20 metres (66 feet) in town; in gateways; on portions of roadway having lane markings; or where a pedestrian might be forced to leave the sidewalk in order to avoid an obstacle. Some of these are a bit obscure, but don't blame me, I didn't write them.
The climate is extremely variable from day to day, though without any real extremes except in the Ardennes in the south, where snow can lie for an average of 50 days in the winter as compared with an average of 10 days in the north. Because the Ardennes is probably the best motorcycling terrain in Belgium, I'll begin with that and then go on to the rest.
It never gets really hot. Average daily temperatures equal or exceed 21 degrees C, 70 degrees F, only from late May to late September, and in the hottest months, July and August, they are only 22 degrees C, 72 degrees F. The summer, therefore, is probably the best time, despite being moderately wet -- though the rain is spread pretty evenly through the year, the wettest months being August and December.
But equally, spring and autumn have their charms. From March to June are the driest months, and (like all forests) the Ardennes is particularly attractive in autumn; October is one of the driest months, though by the end of October it is getting quite cold, with average daily maxima of around 10 degrees C, 49 degrees F.
Elsewhere the climate is even less extreme, but only a degree or two warmer in winter. Winters can be misty or foggy everywhere, so all in all, winter is a time to avoid.
Christian holidays observed as public holidays are:
Even before the Schengen Accord, the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) had minimal border formalities, and now, the only real notice you have that you have crossed the border is a road-sign. You are requested to slow down a bit at some of the border crossings, but even that seems to be falling into disuse.
You'll need a passport, or from some EU countries, just an identity card. Visas are not normally required for stays of up to 90 days from most European countries, though Russia is one of the exceptions, and among non-European countries both Australians and Indians do need visas.
National driving licences are normally fine: indefinitely for EU, for up to 90 days for most others. An International Driving Permit is advisable only if your domestic licence doesn't have a photo or if it's in a non-Roman script (for example, Russian, Arabic or Tibetan). The minimum driving age is 18, even if you can drive at 17 (or younger) at home.
Otherwise, carry your registration document, a letter of permission from the owner (if the bike is borrowed), proof of insurance and a constat a l'aimable.
Note that under Belgian law you are required to carry some kind of identification at all times. A passport is ideal, but a picture driving licence should also be acceptable.
There are the usual reciprocal health agreements with all EU Countries and many non-EU countries, though obviously Americans have to fend for themselves. There are no special health requirements for entry and the water is safe everywhere.
Customs are the normal EC rules plus the following:
From the restrictions on cameras and portable typewriters you can see that the Belgian legislature does not always bother to remain up to the minute.
When leaving the country by air (and presumably by sea as well), non-EU residents can recover VAT (sales tax) on single purchases over 125.01 euros. Tell the shop you intend to do this when you buy the goods, as you will need the paperwork to get the money back.
Currency is the Euro. Credit cards are only moderately useful, though they should be accepted in most larger establishments, at motorway petrol stations, and the like. There are quite good numbers of hole in the wall machines (autotellers).
Shops are mostly open 1000 to 1800 Monday to Saturday; lunch breaks are ever rarer.
Banks are normally open from 0900 to 1530 or 1600, Mondays to Fridays, sometimes with a lunch break. They are closed on Saturdays and Sundays.
A 16 per cent service charge is apparently built into all Belgian bills, so there is no need to tip more -- though if you feel like it, 'rounding up' is always appreciated.
Attendants at public toilets are normally tipped a fairly generous 25 to 50 cents: it's 10 to 20 cents in most of Europe.
Two grades of lead-free petrol (gasoline) are universally available, 91 and 95 octane. Credit cards are widely but not universally accepted, and many petrol stations are open only from 0800 to 2000.
I'm afraid I didn't check oil but I'd be surprised if it were not cheaper in supermarkets than at petrol stations.
Belgian mechanics can repair almost anything, whether you're riding a vintage bike or a state of the art whiz-bang that goes bang instead of whiz. Labour rates are not too disastrous, though like everywhere else they tend to be a lot higher at official concessionaires than at back-street garages.
The best I can come up with here is www.2wheeltravel.co.uk, who say they can arrange motorcycle hire in Belgium. Alternatively you can hire in the next-door countries: the Netherlands, Germany, or France.
The Belgian police are amiable enough, and although they do not have to be called to an accident unless there is injury or more than minor damage, it is usual to call them anyway. They can request blood samples from all parties, and everyone is required to stay at the scene of the accident until the police decide they have finished, so it is up to you (and the other party) to see if calling the police is to your advantage.
From a mobile phone, call 112 for all emergency services.
For breakdowns call Touring Secours on +32 70 34 42 77. The Royal Automobile Club of Belgium offers breakdown assistance from 7 am to 11 pm, and I think it's also available (as a matter of courtesy, for minor breakdowns) to members of foreign clubs, but I'm not sure and I couldn't find out from their website, www.kacb.be, which is in French and Flemish.
Belgians like to eat. One of my friends swore he once saw a party of Belgians arrive at a restaurant and ask for a plate of frites (chips, French fries) each while they were reading the menu and deciding what they wanted. Mind you, I've done the same myself at the old Friends' Corner in Dharamsala in the Himalayas in the 80s, but that was because the service was so slow you could die of hunger while you were waiting.
Moules frites -- mussels steamed with garlic and other flavouring agents, and served with chips (French fries) -- are perhaps Belgium's greatest contribution to world cuisine, but as fast food, they are unbeatable and they're a bargain in most places. Mayonnaise and frites, sometimes cruelly described as Belgium's national dish, is surprisingly good too, especially when you are cold and hungry.
Go to a 'real' restaurant, though, and standards are akin to neighbouring France; which is to say, among the best in the world. Prices are comparable with France, too, though it's somewhat easier to find expensive food and somewhat harder to find cheap food.
There are also plenty of ethnic restaurants: Chinese, Greek, Balkan, Indian, South-East Asian and the inevitable Italian. Competition helps keep prices down and quality up.
Belgian beer is a strong contender for the best in the world -- and it certainly offers more variety, including some awesomely strong beers with 8 per cent (and more) alcohol. There are white (wheat) beers with a yeast sediment; 'doppel-bock' beers; triple-brewed beers; monastic beers; top-fermented and bottom-fermented beers; beers brewed with cherries; and beers brewed with wild yeasts, though the last is a bit of a con because the buildings in which they are brewed tend to be infested with precisely the wild yeast they want. Beer prices tend to be high, though, especially for the more exotic beers, and there is often less variation in flavour than you might expect.
The drinking age is 18. There is a graded drink-drive penalty: a blood alcohol level from 0.05 per cent to 0.08 per cent attracts an on-the-spot fine and withdrawal of the licence for a few hours, while going above 0.08 per cent brings much more serious penalties.
There are plenty of hotels all over the country, at a wide range of price levels. Except in the big cities and tourist honeypots you should be able to find a double room, with bath (and it probably will be a bath, rather than a shower) for 60 euros or less. I don't know if it's still the law, but reputedly, it is (or was) a criminal offence for an unmarried couple, either or both of them under the age of 21, to share a hotel room or a tent.
The hotels themselves are inclined to be anonymous, but pleasant enough. Breakfast is often (though not always) included in the price, which is normally quoted per room, not per person.
As already noted, Belgian youth hostels are split between the Vlaamse Jeugherbergcentrale (Flanders) and Les Auberges de Jeunesse (Brussels and Wallonia). The latter has a good web-site, www.laj.be. For lone travellers they are quite fair value: a bed in a dormitory-style room in Malmedy, for example, started at 13 euros in late 2003. For couples, the savings are minimal: a double room without private facilities in the same place was 36 euros. Of course, there are fewer and fewer real hotels now that don't have private facilities.
There are hundreds of official camp sites, and 'wild' camping is permitted if you have the permission of the land-owner. I believe that wild camping on public land is permitted up on the northern shores, too, but I cannot swear to it.
As already noted, there are three official languages, French, Flemish and German (though the last is spoken by very few as a first language), and so many Belgians speak English that it's almost a fourth language.
An unexpected problem is that many Belgian towns and cities have different names in the three languages; sometimes very different, at that. You could probably guess that Ghent-Gand-Gent are all one place, or Yeper-Ypres-Ieper; but (for example) Mons and Bergen would almost certainly fool you, as well might Liege-Luttich-Luik. Always check your atlas carefully for alternative spellings, or you might miss somewhere simply because you didn't recognize the name.
You get both French and Flemish roadsigns, and some that are bilingual, so here is a selection French ones -- the most useful -- to be going on with. You'll only need most of them quite rarely, because international road signs will take care of most things.
This is largely a matter of politeness: you'll very seldom actually need to speak either French or Flemish, and indeed, for Flemish and German I have cut the vocabulary right down to 'Please' and 'Thank you' which it is always polite to say in someone's own language. You really shouldn't need German at all.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
last updated: 11/12/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks