A lot can be said about Belgium, that weird and sometimes surrealist little country next door, with relaxed beer loving inhabitants who speak Dutch, French or German, but mostly uncomprehensible local dialects.  Good to know is that virtually everyone speaks or at least understands English! However, we will limit ourselves to some general facts you should know as a rallydriver or fan.

How is Belgium organised?

We will not waste much time on politics. To explain it all one would need another, much more extensive website, however the country still works quite well despite having five governments (yes). Economically and socially, Belgium is still regarded as one of the best countries to live in worldwide. In brief, there are four parts in Belgium:

-          Flanders, the Dutch speaking North, population of nearly six million

-          National and European capital Brussels (central), some one million inhabitants

-          Wallonia, the French speaking South, population of nearly four million

-          The East, German speaking, some 400 000 inhabitants

The regions above all have their own Parliament with their own powers, however social security, defense, railways and traffic, national services like treasury, post and medical care,are still the domain of the Belgian National Government. So there you have your five governments. On a lower level there are also the County Councils and the Community Councils but here we stop.

The National Police is always around somewhere, although not on a massive scale. Only if you do really stupid things you will get into trouble, however good old fashioned gentlemanship can even solve most of those problems. Policemen virtually all speak English and are usually very friendly, Belgians are generally happy people so you will find daily life easy going, just like the Police. Only big cities with their hectic lifestyle and international citizens can be a bit dodgy sometimes but if you avoid certain suburbs at night you will be ok. There is very often CCTV in operation too, but not as widespread as in the UK.

How are rallies in Belgium organised?

Rallywise, it is all a bit easier, there are only three Championships. First of all there is the BRC or Belgian Rally Championship with well known events like Ypres Rally, Omloop Van Vlaanderen, Spa Rally, Rallye du Condroz. BRC is the international FIA sanctioned Championship organised by RACB (Royal Automobile Club of Belgium).

Alongside the BRC, also Flanders and Wallonia have their own and very lively Championships with somewhat shorter events. The Flemish Championship is organised by VAS (Vlaamse Auto Sportfederatie or Flemish Motorsport Association), the Walloon Championship is organised by ASAF(Association du Sport Automobile Francophone or the French Speaking Motorsport Association). Both VAS and ASAF championships are open to Belgian drivers only, FIRC (Flanders International Rally Challenge) is the international section that is run in both championships in selected events , exclusive for non-Belgian drivers. Apart from Rally, there is also Rallysprint (single venue events), Hill Climb, Rallycross, Autocross (=Grass Racing), Speedway, Touring Car Racing and GT Racing + loads of Clubman Series. Least to say Belgians love motorsport!

How to organise your driving in Belgium?

Being a very small country with a strong economy, Belgium is actually one big city, with the most dense motorway network in the world. It is virtually impossible to find a spot where you cannot see houses or roads, unless you are in  the middle of a forest. However, as long as you manage to avoid the national ‘triangle of trouble ‘ in rush hour, you will find very smooth traffic. That very triangle is the one you can draw between Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels, and this also explains why there is no rallying in the centre of Belgium: no space, totally impossible! Or is there a rally of London?

Detours due to the occasional road works never take too long since there are more than enough roads to divert traffic. If you want to prepare yourself, check the following website: http://wegenenverkeer.be/werken/regio . All in Dutch but very practical and easy to use. Belgians in general have a relaxed and courteous driving style, road quality is very good and signing is mostly clear also. Speed limits are 120kph on motorways and most dual carriageways, 90kph on national roads with a lot of of sections of 70kph, 50kph in town centres... and 30kph in school areas, of course only checked during school hours.

Talking about speed checks, apart from  the traditional fixed radars (unsigned!), most are done by unmarked cars alongside the road, a trained eye quite easily spots an inconspicuously parked car with a policeman in it, usually quite recent models of the VW group or Volvo. However, the national law enforcer also uses other makes of cars, and are happy to deploy miniature radars too, usually very well hidden. Speed checks are lot more severe in Flanders compared to Wallonia, but it still is a good idea to drive relaxed when entering or leaving a town or even a village. If you get caught and you are unlucky enough to meet the reception committee, you will have to pay immediately in cash. Plastic is warmly accepted too. If you ‘just’ get flashed, await the official form being sent to you, with some luck they might not make the effort. But if you get fined on another occasion, bear in mind that computers have a perfect memory and you might still have to pay...

There are also breathaliser tests, mostly on Friday and Saturday evenings, usually from 6pm to 2am, sometimes early on Sunday morning too! These are done by the local police and they know very good places where to be positioned, usually after a bend where no escape is possible, there is always a motorbike cop waiting for those who try, so don’t. Driving (carefully!) with just that pint too much might be socially accepted in Belgium, but drunk driving is not -so do not exaggerate. One can have the equivalent of one to two UK units before testing positive (depending on how slow/quick you drink, BMI,...), but above 0.05BAC (about 2/3 the UK limit) you will be fined and possibly banned to drive for one to several hours. The fines do not come cheap either. Again breathaliser tests occur way more often in Flanders compared to Wallonia, but always beware. If the circumstances really are against you, get advised by the locals on the traditional ‘hot spots’ or an escape route via country lanes. Or sleep in your car. In case of an accident, you ALWAYS have to pass a breathaliser test, when positive, your insurance company will be warned and will of course refuse to pay, even if you did not cause the accident! So you can not only expect a massive bill, but also a nice fine as the finishing touch. If you are in this position, you can try to negotiate a deal with the other party but direct cash will be needed. It is not unheard of for the police to breath test competitors during a rally.

Another unexisting traffic rule in the UK is priority to the right. This sometimes causes confusing situations, but it’s quite easy. On an unsigned junction (mainly on the countryside or city centres), the car that comes from the right always has priority! So no signs = priority to the right, they also have that rule in France. To make it clear on dangerous junctions, there still is a sign: a white/red triangular one with a black cross. Same rule... Very important to know too is that pedestrians and cyclists are considered as vulnerable road users, unfortunately many take a rude sort of advantage of this, but always give priority to them, even when not strictly needed, and never ever park your car on the sidewalk or a cycling path! If the police see this you can be fined immediately (100 euros!), and not only if they have a bad day. It is also against the law to park your car opposite to the driving direction, however this should not cause much trouble. We strongly advise to drive on the right side of the road too.

How to organise your stay in Belgium?

In such a densily populated country, it is very easy to find accomodation if you do the effort to book it all early. Belgium has a strong and very internationally orientated economy, so there is absolutely no shortage on hotels, guesthouses or B&B’s. The whole of Europe and possibly half of the world gets across the country for business and also tourism is a big thing, so you can add a vast choice of campsites and holiday parks too. You will never have to drive longer than half an hour to a rally HQ, no matter where you stay. Sometimes you can even book a room within walking distance. On quite a lot of events the French border is very close too, so there you will find even more options. The Internet will guide you. But if you live in a cave on Mars, just take your tent and sleep in the servicepark. No one will bother. Maybe this illustrates the Belgian spirit, there are many rules and laws, but most can be bent or sometimes ignored. Just some good common sense and happiness will get you a very long way.

Food and drink is very important in Belgium. The traditional kitchen has a rock solid reputation, the French influence is quite strong but the dishes are far less complicated and taste just as good. It is virtually impossible to find a moderate restaurant, bad ones do not exist or it has to be the exception to the rule and they will not be open for very long. When you see some local specialities advertised, you’re good. And every area has its local delicacies. Just try to avoid very touristy areas where you will not get the best for your money but that is a general rule. Being a small country close to the North Sea, you will easily find good seafood if you do not prefer meat. Belgians are very carnivore, but all restaurants offer a good vegetarian selection. For a quick meal, you will find chip shops (“frituur”) everywhere. Just bear in mind that Belgians have several ideas of eating and drinking, this might be a bit complicated. The traditional UK pub formula where kitchens open early, and stay open during the day, do not really exist. A restaurant will serve food roughly from 11am to 2pm and again from 6pm to 9pm. A tavern or brasserie will serve through the day, whilst a café only does drinks and no food, apart from the odd bag of crisps. However a good café owner  might advise a nearby chip shop or call a take away and allow you to consume in their premises, as long as you have a couple of beers of course. In a restaurant, it’s a common habit to have an aperitif first, usually stuff like Martini, Port, G&T,... but wine and off course beer are acceptable too. In very busy places you will be kindly asked to pay immediately after being served to keep it all organised, however mostly you just ask for the general bill before leaving, no matter if it’s a café or a restaurant. The rule is: one table, one bill. Try to get organised on this before paying.

 

How to organise your beer experience in Belgium?

 

Maybe the most interesting bit for many? Although the smoking ban has not seen many non-smokers returning to the pubs, there still are many left. They vary from humble local pubs to trendy bars, the choice is endless. Belgian pubs only serve one lager but of course have a big to massive choice on special beers. Over 800 different beers are brewed in Belgium and the list of brands is still growing since micro brewing is a big hit. There is really something for everyone’s taste, so do not ask for beer cocktails or a mix with syrups or spirits. This is not done! Alcohol percentage starts with 5.0% to 5.5% on lagers and on their specialist equivalents like Palm, Hoegaarden, Rodenbach,... or other brands vary per area. Only fruit beers might be a bit lighter. This percentage is the normal standard, from 6% to 7% onwards the beer is considered only a bit stronger, from 8% onwards you get the real strong beers going up to 12%. The stronger the beer, the slower you drink. The taste of a strong beer is not much influenced by temperature, just avoid getting it warm. Just like rallying a good but reasonable pace is very important, if not you crash. Avoid the taste trap too, many beers are incredibly smooth and go in like lemonade, but always check the alcohol percentage if you do not want to meet the man with the hammer. And avoid competition with the locals, they are used to these beers so you will always lose. But every local will be very proud to advise you through the beer selection, just ask. This is a matter of national pride. Certainly try to taste some authentic Trappist Beers, they are very easy to find and quite modestly priced, out of Belgium, prices can triple (‘Triple’ beers are also very good by the way, but strong). Every beer brand has its own glass too, Belgians really do not appreciate their beer being served in the ‘wrong’ glass, so you can use this habit as an easy quality label for the place where you drink.

Anyway it can be a good idea to do your homework, there are plenty of specialist websites around, taking pacenotes while tasting is also a good idea too since the choice is so massive, and you want to remember your favourites. We will not do the effort to guide you on brands, breweries or taste palettes, or we would need another (extremely) extended website for this, please check with the professionals.

Buying beer is the best idea for collecting local souvenirs. The big shopping chains like Delhaize, Carrefour, Colruyt, Comart or Spar all offer a very good overall selection at the best prices. Avoid discounters like Albert Heijn, Aldi or Lidl. For an even more extensive choice you can go to the beer halls, they are everywhere (just ask) and offer a massive specialist choice, although prices will be a bit higher. You will also find loads of beer shops around the French-Belgian border, some are good but beware of a rip off. Bear in mind that virtually all the beer bottles and cases have a recycling deposit so you will pay that bit extra (some 5 euros per case+bottles). Once you return your case with empty bottles on a shop of choice you will get a cashback.