For three years, Scandinavia has reigned at the top of the cultural charts. From TV drama to trendy, uncomfortable furniture, if it’s got a ‘Made in Sweden’ tag on it, there’s a good chance you’ll find a fawning article on it in the design mag of your choice. But, fickle souls that we are, Esquire Weekly’s head is now being turned by a nation less than an hour away from the UK by train, ferry or plane: Belgium.
The catalyst is Salamander, a crime series that’s replaced Borgen in the hearts of the BBC Four foreign-drama crowd. Following maverick cop Paul Gerardi’s quest to uncover the truth behind the robbery of a private bank, it’s got intrigue and murder in spades.
The show, which climaxes this weekend, isn’t the only thing this country of 11 million should be proud of, because Belgium – despite the difficulties between the Flemish-speaking north and the francophone south – has a cultural output that puts its bigger neighbours to shame. Don’t believe us? Here’s six reasons why Belgium is making the rest of Europe look, well, a bit like Belgium.
1 | Fabulous cities
You know that east London thing with bikes, craft beers and moustaches? Belgium cities were doing that decades before the first Home Counties hipster pitched up in Shoreditch and began to price the locals out of the area. The capital, Brussels, a French-speaking island in the Flemish north, has a reputation for bureaucratic drudgery, but according to Nicholas Lewis, editor of The Word magazine and the This is Belgium guide, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Brussels is a city that boasts a ton of hidden gems,” he says, “a town that lives below the radar with more substance than style.” It’s not all about the capital, either. Ghent is home to the brilliant SMAK museum, the legendary Music Mania record shop and La Fille d’O, a super-chic lingerie boutique. Antwerp, meanwhile is Belgium’s style city, but also, says Nick, famous for its “record stores, museums and good-looking, open and entrepreneurial people”.
You’ll find them around the eight-spoked hub of Marnixplaats on Friday and Saturday nights. Oh, and if you’re hungry, beautiful Bruges “serves the best lobster in Belgium”. Take that, Norway!
2 | Serious menswear
Belgian designers have been making aserious splash ever since the Antwerp Six – including Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs – graduated from the city’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1981. Alongside more recent stars like Raf Simons, Cedric Jacquemyn and Kris van Assche (now at Dior), they’ve made Belgium synonymous with menswear. Brussels-based fashion writer Philippe Pourhashemi says the quality of the shops matches that of the clothes.
“I love Louis in Antwerp, while Stijl in Brussels is great for established names as well as newcomers. For trendier shoppers, try Hunting and Collecting, also in Brussels.”
And why is Belgium so prolific? “The schools provide students with excellent teaching,” he says. “Belgians also appreciate luxury and elegant clothes. Comfort and practicality are important, as well as rebelliousness and a sense of irony.”
3 | World-class beers
Belgium’s reputation for producing fantastic – and dangerously strong – ales is unrivalled. Whether it’s the dark, strong “tripel” beers brewed by monks in one the country’s six trappist breweries or light, drinkable ales like De Koninck and Orval, Belgians take their brews every bit as seriously as the French do their wine.
Durham Atkinson, owner of specialist pub Hops and Glory in London’s Islington, is a regular visitor to Belgium’s breweries. “Strong beer isn’t considered something to be scared of there,” he says, which explains the conviviality of pubs like Brussels’ Le Corbeau and Kulminator in Antwerp.
“There isn’t really a ‘craft beer scene’ to follow, it’s more just a part of their culture to enjoy, appreciate and drink great ales regularly. Before you die, try the Westvleteren 12, which I’d consider to be the best beer in the world.”
4 | Super-talented footballers
The country may not have the reputation for “total football” artistry enjoyed by its neighbours The Netherlands, but a quick scan of the most exciting players in Europe will turn up plenty of Belgian (though not Belgian-sounding) names, many of them now playing in the Premier League.
As a result, the much-hyped national side is expected to make an impact at the World Cup this summer. Gabriele Marcotti, World Football Correspondent of The Times, says: “The great thing about Belgium is that all the top footballers, apart from Vincent Kompany, are between 20 and 25 years old. Players like Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen have played together since they were kids so they’re very settled. People put this generation’s emergence down to the quality of Belgian coaching, but they’ve always trained on little pitches and played small-sided games. I think it just comes down to luck. There are more to come, though — Yanick Ferreira-Carrasco is a regular in the Monaco midfield, while Eden Hazard’s younger brother Thorgan is also excellent.” Get those bets on now.
5 | Its vibrant music scene
As the enlightening The Sound of Belgium documentary showed last year, Belgium – along with Chicago – pretty much invented electronic dance music as we know it with the “new beat” sound of the Eighties. John Power, who worked on the film, and now manages Belgian bands, says its legacy can’t be underestimated.
“This tiny country made a big sound that influenced the world before imploding as the government and police cracked down on it.” Over the last ten years the disco-Balearic sound championed by Eskimo records has soundtracked many of the country’s cool clubs, but today you’ll also find a thriving underground electronic scene.
“In Brussels you have FUSE, one of the oldest and longest-running techno clubs in Europe,’ says Power. “If you want it a bit sexier or trendier, there’s Libertine Supersport, which hosts DJs like Erol Alkan and Simian Mobile Disco every month.”
And when the weather warms up, things get really interesting. “Brussels comes alive in summer: the streets are full of people drinking and relaxing after work, there are loads of markets on and there’s always a party happening on the roof of a car park or in the woods.” We’re sold.
6 | Quirky art and great photography
It should come as no surprise that the country that gave us the surrealist Magritte has an art scene that’s almost impossible to pin down.
Owner of the Alice Gallery in Brussels, Alice van den Abeele, says that at the moment photography is really strong. “My favourite artists are Belgian photographers Nicolas Karakatsanis and Lara Gasparotto. In terms of actually seeing art, Brussels is probably the strongest place for galleries, but I like the Tim Van Laere gallery in Antwerp best.”
Like the country’s fashion designers, Belgium’s artist are defined by their free-thinking spirit. “There’s no such thing as Belgian art,” says Alice. “There are Belgian people making art and they’re all unique in a very different way.”
This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.