Belgium is one of Europe's smallest nations, but also one of the most diverse and intriguing. Situated at the cross-roads of Western Europe, on the divide between the Germanic north and the Latin south, the Belgian territories have changed hands innumerable times over the centuries as feudal lords and warring nations vied for control of some of the most productive and cultured lands on the continent. The result is a modern, densely-populated patchwork nation filled with Medieval castles, stately 17th and 18th Century chateaus, Gothic and Romanesque churches, ornate formal gardens, vast forest parks, and numerous historical sites. Belgium also boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world, and the Belgian passion for the good life is reflected in its excellent cuisine and world famous beers and wines.
Belgium is formally divided into three autonomous regions: Flanders in the north, where the official language is Dutch, or Flemish; Wallonia in the south, where most people speak French; and the capital district of Brussels, which is officially bilingual but mostly French-speaking. Brussels is a modern cosmopolitan city that now also serves as the capital of the European Union. It has been an important centre of European culture for centuries, renowned for its museums, art galleries, and the 17th Century architecture of its historic city centre - as well as for its restaurants, cafes, pubs, and shopping. Daily life in Brussels has a relaxed and intimate feel, despite the city's somewhat dry reputation as a centre for commerce and government.
The enchanting and atmospheric city of Bruges is renowned for being one of the most beautiful in Europe - a labyrinth of narrow streets, canals and Medieval Gothic stone architecture. The ornate historic buildings of city centre date from the 13th Century, and give Bruges the appearance of a town from an impossibly romantic fairy tale. Among the most famous buildings are the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a relic said to contain drops of the blood of Christ that were brought to the city by a mysterious saint, Joseph of Arimathea. The 13th Century Belfry in the main market square is the city's most prominent landmark - a steep and narrow staircase with 366 steps takes visitors to the top of the 250 foot tower for a breath-taking view of the city. Bruges is also home to many fashionable restaurants and pubs, and a vibrant modern night-life scene.
The Meuse river valley in the southern Wallonia region is one of Belgium's most important tourism areas, famed for its many historic towns and Medieval castles that line the scenic river banks. Motoring tours of the area often begin in the city of Liege, and head up the valley to Huy, Namur and Dinant. Boat tours along the Meuse and its tributaries are also possible. Belgium's heavily forested Ardennes area, along the border with France, is famed for its beautiful natural scenery and distinctive local cuisine, as well as its unique military history during the two World Wars of the 20th Century.