A jester throws toy cats down from the belfry of Ieper on the second Sunday in May. Meanwhile in a parade, dozens of floats and 2,000 actors explore and present the role of the cat in history, literature, and folklore. This is the famous Cat festival of Belgium, an event which happens every 3 years. It is just one of the surprises awaiting the visitor who expects simple normality in this country which is often perceived as straight-laced as befits a city at the heart of EU sobriety.
You get the best of two worlds in Belgium. The north of the country is Flemish, while the south is French-speaking. Small wonder it’s the heart of the EU. Here, you can cut through the European red tape to sample beer, chocolate and other Belgian delights.
Here are 10 great reasons to visit Belgium to help start your holiday planning.
Cities: Brussels, with its stunning Grand Place and art nouveau heritage, and picture-perfect Bruges, with its pretty canals and medieval buildings, are the shining stars – but it’s also worth discovering trendy Antwerp, historic Liege and quaint Ghent.
Chocolate: Forget the diet and enjoy some of the richest, smoothest chocolate to be found anywhere. Wherever you go in Belgium, you won’t have to look far. The country has more than 2,000 tempting chocolate shops.
Beer: Tickle the taste buds with more than 400 different types of beer. Some of the best is made by Trappist monks.
Dining: Local favourites include waffles, mussels, and chips with mayonnaise. Gourmets are spoilt for choice. Belgium boasts more Michelin star-rated restaurants per head of population than France.
Battlefields: Famous battlefields such as Passendale and vast cemeteries such as Tyne Cot are sober reminders of the Great War. The Last Post is sounded every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres, where the excellent In Flanders Fields museum tells the story of the region’s role in World War I.
Beaches: Have some family fun at more than a dozen seaside resorts along the Belgian coast. Top spots include Ostend and Knokke.
Art: Belgium’s great artistic heritage stretches from grand masters to famous cartoon characters. Rubens and Van Dyck lived in Antwerp. Brussels has museums dedicated to Magritte and comic-strip heroes such as Tintin.
Fashion: Funky Antwerp is Belgium’s capital of cool. Home to one of Europe’s leading fashion schools, the city boasts designer boutiques as well as stylish restaurants, bars and clubs.
Countryside: Head for the hills of the Ardennes and explore dense forest and deep valleys. Hike or bike wooded trails or get an adrenalin rush from canoeing and paragliding.
Festivals: Belgians love to party. Few events are more unusual than the colourful Cat Parade, staged every three years in Ypres to celebrate all things feline.
Continuous availability of bargain flights to Belgium – plus rail too – is another good reason to explore this great country of constant surprises. A holiday in Belgium offers you a place that buzzes with cutting-edge design and a contemporary lifestyle, while retaining age-old traditions. You can be sitting in an old-fashioned coffee shop one minute and admiring the latest fashions in a trend-setting boutique the next. Belgium also has a quirkiness that never ceases to amaze – from cheeky statues to weird and wonderful festivals.