“Let’s face it,” said Audrey, “a nice creamy chocolate cake does a lot for a lot of people. It does for me.”

And it is hard to argue with Miss Hepburn, Belgium’s most famous export apart from the chocolate she liked to scoff down.

This diminutive European country is well known for its confectionary and beer, but few know that in 2001 Belgium was the only country in the world to have more female government minsters than male ones.

Widely recognised as one of the most stable political centres on the continent, and home to the EU and NATO headquarters, Belgium also holds the record for the longest time without a government.

Those 541 days in 2010, when the Belgium people were without a government longer even than their counterparts in Iraq, was just another example of the fascinating contradictions and surprises that this quirky land plays host to.

Arguably the most beautiful of these paradoxes is the Ardennes, a region of spectacular river valleys carved into a country apparently so flat and monotonous that “if you stand on two dictionaries you can see everywhere.” Not so.

The Ardennes

Located in the south east and reaching out into Luxembourg, Germany and France, the dense Ardennes forest was a major battle ground in WW1, a destructive history that belies the tranquil, winding contours of its geography today.

Meuse

Meuse

On the bank of the river Meuse the Annevoie Gardens (Les Jardins d’Annevoie) comprise a 55 hectare area of waterfalls and manicured gardens that, throughout its history, have been stylised to reflect the English Romanticism roots.

Underneath Belgium’s most wild region is a network of caves that were carved from the rock by subterranean rivers.

One of the most popular caves is Abîme, where bats live happily under the village of Comblain-au-Pont. Discount vouchers for visits are available although checking this colourful limestone cave out at the full price of €8 is worth the money.

Back above ground Belgium is home to some amazing cities both in the French speaking Wallonia and the more northern, Dutch-speaking regions.

Cities

Brussels' Place Royal

Brussels’ Place Royal

Best to start with the capital city and the sprout made from hundreds of Mussels. The Mussel Sprout of Brussels is, after all, a pretty good indicator of the quirky sense of humour this part of central Europe has.

One of the most celebrated locals is Rene Magritte, a surrealist artist whose work can be seen at the Magritte Museum, inside the neo-classical Altenloh Hotel.

Magritte was a distinctly modern man, spending hours devoted to advertising illustrations while also creating some of the best-known works of surrealism. The two, these days, are often inseparable.

Similarly indivisible in Brussels are people and chocolate, particularly in a city where you can learn how to make the sweet stuff from the experts at Zaabar.

The short courses, down on Avenue Louise, are run for adults and kids, with few places in the world boasting chocolatiers this good and worth listening to.

Mmm, Chocolate and Surrealism.

At the Grand Place, Brussels’ Gothic rocket ship Town Hall looks over a city square similar to those in Amsterdam and Prague, where historic government buildings cast their shadows over street vendors and circled students.

The square up north in Bruges is smaller but not dissimilar to Brussels, apart from the fact it is shaped like an egg, is not actually a square and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bruges Canals

Bruges Canals

Julius Caesar, historians believe, before the oval shaped square was built, ordered the first fortifications of the city in the first century, using it as a defence against ancient pirates coming from the north.

The Romans shared the borders of what is now Belgium with the Germanic tribes, making the area one of the most important strategic parts of Europe, a role Belgium again took up during the world wars.

To get the best look of this historic canal town its best to head up the 366 stairs of Belfry Tower, which offers a panoramic view looking down over Bruges and the surrounding area.

If you look hard enough you might, although probably not, be able to see Ghent and its medieval towers.

Beneath those fortified buildings are some of the best places to eat in Belgium, which is not a statement to take lightly. The Café Theatre, located in the city’s Opera House, is recognised as Belgium’s Best Brassiere.

Not far behind is Aba-Jour, a rectangular bar that serves a range of brilliant Belgian beers alongside traditional Flemish food.

Perhaps the best thing about the cities of Belgium, and something that sets this country apart from many of its neighbours, is that trains between the cites are extremely cheap. People under 26, for example, can buy a Go-Pass ticket and make ten trips of any length around the country for just €50, while a single to anywhere you fancy is less than €10.

There are also plenty of rental car options that will take you up and down the country in no time, just remember to drive on the right side and that running red lights in Belgium means a heavy fine.

Once you are in the city bike rental is always available for a quick trip around, in Ghent, Bruges and Brussels.

Wherever you go in Belgium, as well as the fantastic transport options,  it is aslo likely that good food will not be far away.

Food

Carbonade Flamande

Carbonade Flamande

A few kilometres south west of Ghent is Hof Van Clev, the most celebrated Belgian resteraunt of recent years. The menu is predictably expensive for an eatery thought to be one of the best and bookings are needed massively in advance.

However, these parameters do generally surround places serving meals that even Rene Magritte may have had trouble imagining.   More readily available dishes are up for grabs all over the country, such as the Carbonade Flamande (beef and onion stew), a favourite of the Flemish people, and the Wallonians in the south prefer rich meatballs in rabbit sauce.

Of course there are lots of other national dishes native to Belgium, with many of them inspired by the eclectic nature of Belgian identity.

This is a country that, despite its size, has been at the forefront of much of Europe’s most important events. It was here, after all,  where Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated and chips were finally invented.