Monday, May 5, 2008

The Royal Treatment

Here are some things that I did not know about Belgium: the country has three official languages (French, Flemish and German), the Flemish speaking areas are richer and more beautiful than the French speaking areas, and Brussels has a serious petty theft problem. I learned these fun Belgian facts this weekend while visiting France's lovely northern neighbor with my roommate and her Brussels-raised colleague. To my surprise, there was quite a lot to discover in this tiny country that is one of the most densely populated in Europe. For example, did you know that Belgium still has a royal family...and that they live in an amazing royal palace on the outskirts of Brussels...and that they open their amazing grounds and greenhouses to the public only once a year...and that their once-a-year opening just happened to coincide with our weekend getaway?

Visiting the royal grounds and greenhouses was truly the highlight of the trip. The combination of great weather, beautiful surroundings, and amazement at our luck provided a couple hours worth of sheer jubilation. Built during the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the greenhouses are not only impressive in terms of their size, but also in terms of their up-keep. I'm not sure I've ever taken so many pictures of flowers, trees, and plants in my entire life; they were everywhere! Outside, the grounds are equally well-maintained and worthy of camera snapping. It's not surprising, then, that so many people showed up to take the tour. Belgian policemen were directing traffic in front of the palace, while others maintained order in the greenhouses or ensured that little kids didn't take a dip in the royal pond.

Despite their modern-day lack of any real power, the Belgian royals still receive funding from the state. Tax-payers from Brussels to Bruge ensure the existence of royal properties and royal activities. I found it strange, then, that visitors were charged 2 euros and 50 cents to have the privilege of viewing the grounds. Doesn't the royal family already get enough money from the commoners? Because of their generosity - paying for a useless figurehead to live in the lap of luxury - shouldn't the public be allowed not only a visit but a free visit to see where their money is going? That's another thing I learned about Belgium. Years after being ousted from power, its royal family still walks around like it owns the place.

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