Tag Archives: Ardennes

The biggest Small European Country

Back in 2015, I’ve written a post titled “How to choose a (small European) country“. I pondered on all the reasons I had to move, and on the challenges posed by choosing a new place. I won’t keep you in suspension – I did move. Out of Rotterdam. Not too far though – the municipal border of Rotterdam is about 500 meters away. But its a whole different country I am living in now. Since a few weeks, I live in  the biggest country in Europe – Suburbia. Here’s how it happened.

In the post I mentioned, I set down several criteria for a new place to live in. I was looking for a properly run country, with a pleasant climate, where I speak the language, in Europe, close to mountains and not too far from the family. After some though, and to my big surprise, I discovered I already lived in such a country, and the need to find a new one was rather less urgent than I though. As you perhaps recall, my test for a “properly run” country was the quality of the tap water. The Dutch tap water is the best in the whole world, so the country is obviously properly run. To determine whether the climate is pleasant I came up with the “wine test” – if the climate is good for wine, its good for me. While the Netherlands is best known for its beer, there are about 200 commercial wine yards spread throughout the country, so the Dutch score again. After 14 years spent here, I speak the language very well, so its another one for Holland. The country is obviously in Europe, so that criterion is satisfied, too. The proximity to mountains is a bit more difficult one. However, the Ardennes are just a couple of hours drive away, and the Alps are within a day’s drive. Sadly, the night train connection to Switzerland has been discontinued, but it’s not like I was using it every month or something. Finally, I wanted to live close to the family. Since we were pretty settled on remaining in the Netherlands, we though we might as well get the best of it – and grandma and the cousins are within cycling distance. I think we’ll be visiting them more often than I would visit glaciers, so its quite a good deal.

And so, I’m still blogging from a small European country – the biggest one of all – Suburbia.

 

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Adventure starts just across the border

One often hears generalizations about Europe and Europeans. “All Europeans are…” people go. Not all stereotypes are even negative – so, Europeans are supposedly all riding bicycles and are fit. Undoubtedly, some Europeans are, and maybe the average European is skinnier than the average American, but about half of the population of Europe is overweight nevertheless. Well, these stereotypes are just what they are – wild generalizations that may or may not be partially true.

Often, the same people that make generalizations about Europe are surprised how the EU members can’t agree on a common policy on this or that issue. Truth is, that Europe, even seemingly very similar countries, is far from a uniform place. Take the Dutch-Belgian border, for example. If you can find it, of course – it doesn’t even exist! Well, technically, it does, but the border is divided into two very distinct sections that take you to two completely different countries – Flanders and Wallonia.

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium - our first stop - are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

The High Fens peatlands in Belgium – our first stop – are a unique peace of Subarctic landscape on mainland Europe

Wallonia has been our first stop on the Grey Wave surfing trip. Every time I cross this border I am surprised how different two countries so close in geography and history can feel. Travel over the highway from the Netherlands into Flanders and you’ll have a hard time noticing you crossed the border. Cross into Wallonia, on the other hand, and even in the dead of night you’ll immediately notice you’re in a different country just by how your car is almost rattled to pieces by the dreadful Wallonian roads. Fortunately, the kind Wallonians notice you about the road perils by signs announcing that “Route dégradée”. Even in Spa, probably the wealthiest community in all of Wallonia, the roads look as if they were carpet-bombed just the other night.

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Of course, the language changes instantly to French, and due to the Belgian language divide you won’t find any sign in Dutch in Wallonia. Nor will you see any French in Flanders, by the way, even Lille is referred to as Rijsel on the highway. Furthermore, I am quite used to wide range of beers in Dutch stores, but the Belgian beer shelves are simply overwhelming, including local Spa beer, unknown to the rest of the world (for a good reason, I assure you). And the supermarket music is not the Top 40 drab I am accustomed to – no, its electronic music, and good one, too. Perhaps that’s the Belgian (or should I say Wallonian?) Top 40? Speaking of supermarkets and food – its tough enough being a vegetarian in the Netherlands, but at least they don’t label fish courses as vegetarian food on the menu, like they do in Wallonia. But the main difference is undoubtedly the landscape. Just across the border they have hills, and steep ones, too! In short, even in Western Europe, your adventure starts as soon as you cross the border.

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Belgium is the most dangerous small European country

I admit, we had no business being there. But then again, neither did he. And while our hike was a relatively mild trespassing, his actions were rather more… well, odd is probably the word I’m looking for. Judge by yourself – does the mere fact that you’re wearing the uniform of the Belgian army give you the right to fly your car around the bends of a dirt track across a military practice range on a Sunday? With your kids in the back seat? Armed with rifles and randomly shooting into the woods?

People, including myself, say that Holland has no wilderness. They say that all nature in Holland is cultivated and trimmed to a national standard. They are right. But Holland is a small European country and what a small European country lacks, there’s usually a neighbouring country not so far away that has it. So while there are no hills or forests in Holland, they are all present just across the border, in the Ardennes. Compared to Holland this region of Belgium is empty like the Australian outback. Also present in the relatively sparsely populated Ardennes are military practice ranges, on one of which me and my buddy were hiking that Sunday, thinking they won’t be shooting on their off day. We forgot it was Belgium, where the rules of logic are fuzzy at best.

Ardennes

The Ardennes

There we were, eye to eye with the plump fellow in a grey-green uniform, fuming with rage behind the wheel of his Renault, angry mostly with himself for being caught in such obviously irresponsible and illegitimate act. He must have thought to himself that attack is the best defence and started shouting “C’est impossible! Terrain militaire!”, or something along these lines. My French is rather non-existant, so I was not sure what he was saying. Trying to speak Dutch was not going to earn us more points here in Wallonia (Belgium is a prime candidate to split into two, even smaller European countries and the two parts, Wallonia and Flanders are at odds with each other) and we were scratching our heads for French words. All I could come up with was “Je suis un camion”, which I learned from The Tom Green Show and which is the most useless phrase in any language. My buddy attempted to explain that “nous sommes touristes”, but that just triggered more angry French from the plump grey-green fellow.

The situation was growing more awkward, then in a split second it burst in a blaze of silent agreement. Without any further communication, we all knew we have agreed to pretend we haven’t seen anything and weren’t there at all, anyway. The plump grey-green fellow shouted “Allez!”, stepped on the gas and the Renault flew past the bend, leaving us in a cloud of fresh dust. I heard renewed gunfire. Belgium is definitely the most dangerous small European country I’ve ever been to.

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BeNeLux – first bite of Europe

In a previous post, I’ve divided Europe for travelling purposes into “bite-sized” regions, areas you’d be able to thoroughly travel in several weeks. I’ll start with the BeNeLux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) – the most bite-sized region, consisting of three of the smallest countries in Europe.

  • Why go there?
    No, not just because of Amsterdam. Nor only for Brussels. Outside the crowded and expensive capitals a whole world of classic windmill landscapes, plenty of cheese and Trappist abbeys breweries awaits. The short distances of the BeNeLux mean you can enjoy museums in The Hague, modern architecture in Rotterdam and shopping in Antwerpen in one day. But why would you rush? Take your time in the “low countries, pay attention to small Medieval cities like Delft, Ghent and Brugge, enjoy nature and peace of mind on the pristine beaches of the West Frisian Islands or the rolling forested hills of the Ardennes. Well, OK, do yourself a favour and visit Amsterdam, but leave the best for last.
  • What’s it best for?
    Travelling with children – safe, small, plenty of entertainment – the BeNeLux is ideal for introducing kids to Europe.
  • When is the best time to go?
    April and May are the driest (on average), the tulips fields are in blossom, and it’s festival season. This year make sure you’re in Holland on April 30th! It’s going to be a hell of a party.
  • How to get around?
    The railway grid is dense and connections are excellent, and parking costs are sky-high. Take the train.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Real wilderness is hard to come by here, and the prices are spiky.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Go to Limburg, the hilly area where the borders of Germany, Belgium and Netherlands meet and greet in a common dialect. In and around the cities of Maastricht, Liege and Aachen you’ll find the best of the German, French and Dutch culture as well as great cycling and accessible hiking routes.

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