In Belgium, you better be ready to explore whatever depths of duplicity you have. Within its relatively tight perimeter, this nation has two quite distinct parts that differ in areas as major as religion, language, traditions, and folklore. First up: Flanders. The northern section of the country that speaks Dutch but with a Flemish dialect. It's where most of Belgium's urban settings reside amongst its flat-as-a-pancake topography. And in this corner: Wallonia. The southern region that speaks French. Its small villages nestled into the countryside of the rolling, low-lying mountains of the Ardennes. Although my home here is in western Flanders, it quickly became apparent that it would be sacrilegious not to experience Wallonia in order to get the whole Belgian picture.
Two distinct regions, three governments (Brussels has its own), and three official languages (Dutch, French, and German). You've gotta be on your game here.
So, with a sheepish presentation to the train conductors of my tattered Rail Pass Gone Wild, I've been tearing up the tracks for the past 10 days. (Side note: Heed my advice fellow train travelers. Pay attention to the scrolling marquis inside the train cars. The front half of one train I was on was going to where I was headed; the back half was not. Guess who was in the back half. Thankfully in the nick of time, I asked the conductor who ever-so-politely told me to book it up to the front of the train before the next stop. Bottom line: Ask questions when in doubt. If the digital screen does not say its stopping at your specific stop, it’s not.)
With a Global Rail Pass, it is required to document every leg of train travel and present to the conductors.
Man, am I glad I did. It truly was like a different country. And FELT very French. Totally French speaking. Signs in French only. Leisurely disposition of locals. People in berets biking around, wearing striped shirts, and carrying baguettes in their bicycle baskets... Well, I jest with that last part but it just feels very French. Talk about needing to flip the switch in your brain from one mere train stop to the next.
And ohhh the countryside. Having put my inner Lance Armstrong (minus the performance-enhancing drugs by about 1000x) to the test with a few rides through the peaceful Flanders scenery, I was curious to experience the Ardennes; the hilly part of Belgium's south with a high point of 2200 feet. Verdant, cow-dotted, rolling hills. Dense forested slopes in the brightest of green hues. Perfectly manicured farmland. The occasional rural village burrowed in. Exposed limestone walls. It was as if the trains effortlessly glided through these landscapes. An equally beautiful complement to the north's atmosphere.
Did you see those animals at the end? They scared the crap out of me. I've never seen anything like them but, from research, I believe they're called Highland Cattle.
The countryside also produced another limited-time-only experience for me: The blooming of alluring bluebells in Hallerbos. There are very few places where bluebells grow naturally en masse. For a short period of time in spring, this Belgian forest is one of them; where blankets of them cover the forest floor. Strolling the winding trails on a crisp day was great. Strolling the winding trails on a crisp day enveloped by fragrant, delicate, bluish-purple blossoms was magical. I’m so glad I got to see it.
The bluebells of Hallerbos
While the locals say there's some natural head-butting that surfaces at times between the two sides of Belgium, it's commendable that this cultural double standard instead enhances life.