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A Cinematic Tour of Beautiful Belgium

belgium-in-the-movies

...so many movies have been inspired by this tiny country...

From Brussels (and its mussels) to Flanders and its art, history, and, of course, fields—a visit to this small country leaves a big impression.

Beer. Chocolate. Waffles. Frites. In a nutshell, that was my total knowledge of a country that’s historical significance, especially when it comes to Canada, is huge. But now, while still a few pounds heavier, I know better. Belgium is French and Dutch, sweet and savoury. It has been fought over and invaded since the Middle Ages. It’s home to some of art and architecture’s most valued treasures, and it bears the scars of some of history’s greatest atrocities.

No wonder so many movies have been inspired by this tiny country.

 ...the unique mix of architecture and cultural influences makes Brussels feel different from other European capital cities...

Brussels

Brussels’ two most famous sons perfectly highlight the country’s unique humour and sense of place: Manneken-Pis and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Manneken-Pis is located just steps from the magnificent Grand Place square in central Brussels. The bronze statue is so tiny you’d likely miss him if not for the people crowding around. He has hundreds of costumes that alternate every few days, and he’s been stolen almost as many times as there are legends about who inspired this iconic piece— the most famous involving a two-year-old lord who peed on opposing troops during a 12th-century battle.

“The Muscles From Brussels” — aka Jean-Claude Van Damme — turned the spotlight back on himself and his hometown in the 2008 film JCVD. While it’s unlikely you’ll spot the action star fending off bank robbers on a side street, you will experience the unique mix of architecture and cultural influences that makes Brussels feel different from other European capital cities. The mussels from Brussels—the national dish—are known as moules in French and are in season from September to February.

The Ghent Altarpiece is just one of the reasons to visit this glorious Flemish town.

Ghent

It’s the world’s most frequently stolen piece of art, and some say it’s the most influential painting ever made: the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the Van Eyck brothers’ 1432 masterpiece also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. It opens The Monuments Men, and stars as one of the artworks retrieved by George Clooney and his band of art-historian brothers. Residing in its rightful home of Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, it now needs to get in line as just one of the reasons to visit this glorious Flemish town.

The centrepiece of Ghent is Gravensteen Castle—aka, the Castle of the Counts. The first part of the structure dates to before the year 1000. Philip of Alsace, the count of Flanders between 1157 and 1191, was behind the construction of the current castle that served as a council and court (with the gruesome relics of the torture chambers on display), a mint, a prison, and a cotton plant before its restoration in the early 1900s.

Enjoy local beer on a cruise of Ghent’s canals, and be sure to pick up some cuberdons—the traditional nose-shaped candy slightly reminiscent of a large jelly bean.

 “Maybe that's what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f-----g Bruges”

Bruges

It’s possible that 2008’s In Bruges was a cleverly disguised promotional film by Visit Flanders and the Belgium Tourist Board, in spite of lines like, “Maybe that's what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in f-----g Bruges” from Colin Farrell’s bumbling gangster character, Ray. Bruges is so beautiful that it’s hard not to feel like you’re wandering around on a movie set. Splurge on a horse-and-carriage ride to explore the canals and cobblestones of this UNESCO World Heritage Site—and rest assured your stay in Bruges won’t end in a shootout with Ralph Fiennes.

Canada suffered more than 15,000 casualties among its 100,000-member Canadian Corps

Ypres and Flanders Fields

The small white headstones—arranged in perfect rows—that populate the rolling hills throughout Flanders are incredibly moving. The region of Belgium known as the Ypres Salient saw some of the biggest battles of the First World War, and it’s the final resting place of thousands of soldiers and airmen in more than 100 British and Commonwealth military cemeteries.

Paul Gross was a frequent visitor to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 while researching his 2008 film Passchendaele. Filmmaker Peter Jackson also spent a great deal of time there preparing for his 2008 short film Crossing The Line, and the upcoming First World War commemorative museum exhibition he’s curating in Auckland, New Zealand. Combined, more than half a million Commonwealth and German soldiers lost their lives in the oozing mud and horrific conditions that were the result of months of trench warfare and torrential rains. Canada suffered more than 15,000 casualties among its 100,000-member Canadian Corps, the formation sent to Passchendaele to relieve the decimated Australian and New Zealand troops.

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 respectfully displays artifacts from the battlefields, and has replica underground tunnels that illustrate the truly awful living conditions of thousands of young men. Outdoors, among the placid pond and idyllic gardens on the museum grounds, reproductions of the trenches complete the immersive experience.

About a 10-minute drive from the Passchendaele museum is Essex Farm Cemetery, where almost 1,200 Commonwealth soldiers were laid to rest. It’s also the former dressing station where Dr. John McCrae, a Canadian working as a medic with the Canadian Field Artillery, wrote the iconic poem "In Flanders Fields" in 1915.

Visit the office where U.S. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe famously responded “Nuts!” to the German demand for surrender.

Bastogne

December 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge—the Second World War German offensive in which Hitler attempted to gain control of the Antwerp harbour by cutting off access through the densely forested Ardennes region. The picturesque town of Bastogne had been liberated by the Allies in 1944, but it was surrounded and attacked again by the Germans. Much of the story has been dramatized in the HBO series Band of Brothers, and the 1965 film Battle of the Bulge starring Henry Fonda. 

The 101st Airborne Museum showcases a remarkable collection of military artifacts from the “Screaming Eagles”—the U.S. Army infantry division dramatized by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in Band of Brothers. Famous photographs are brought to life in tableaux using authentic uniforms and weapons, and the basement bunker re-enacts a bombing attack in chilling detail. 

The Bastogne Barracks are maintained by the Belgian Army, which conducts comprehensive tours of the station previously used as U.S. military headquarters. Visit the office where U.S. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe famously responded “Nuts!” to the German demand for surrender. Even non-military history enthusiasts will be impressed by the collection of tanks and military vehicles on display—many restored to working order on-site.

 

Corinne McDermott is the editor of Movie Entertainment magazine.