Some national characteristics are, despite being clichid, also very evident - the Italians, for example, do have a tendency to voluble, arm-waving conversation and the Australians are great at sport but terrible losers.
So where did Belgium and its people get a reputation for terminal ennui and boredom?
I have an alternative theory - at least as far as golf is concerned. The Belgians know they've got some of the best courses in continental Europe (at very fair prices) but are more than happy to keep it to themselves, thank you very much. In the process, they don't give a damn if the rest of the world looks over or past them to see what France, for example, or Spain or Portugal may have to offer the visiting golfer.
So, because they keep their heads down, mind their own business and don't dance up and down shouting about how good their country and its golf courses are, the rest of us have been suckered into thinking that neither the country nor its golf is very interesting.
And sorry guys but your secret's about to be blown, at least as far as the Wallonia region is concerned. This is the area to the south and east of the country and will be the focus of this feature simply because Belgium itself has so many good courses that it would be impossible to do them justice in one article.
In on this well-kept secret, a member at Sept Fontaines Golf Club approached a party of journalists who recently played his course for the first time and asked what they thought of it. When he heard the eagerness with which they wanted to sing its praises he leaned forward conspiratorially and said: 'But please don't be too enthusiastic, we don't want it spoiled.'
And there you have it from the horse's mouth so to speak. We know and like what we've got here so please don't ruin our little secret.
But although Belgium is not currently well-known to UK golfers, its discovery is only a matter of time. And because of Eurotunnel and Eurostar, getting there has never been quicker or simpler.
Southern Belgium has 30 courses with the concentration of these being found in the western side of Wallonia, just south of Brussels. The overall topography is flat - which is one of the reasons it became part of the killing fields that were the trenches of the First World War - and if you're interested in that particular part of our history there are many fascinating sites to visit. But where a few hills do exist, you can bet a golf course has been built. Nevertheless, the courses in this part of the world bear striking similarities to some of our home counties gems, such as Sunningdale - and for many UK golfers that represents the best to which we can aspire.
Nowhere is this better seen than at Royal Golf Club du Hainaut, just outside the beautiful city of Mons, and which has three nines designed by British architects Simpson and Hawtree. The first two loops, Le Bruyeres and Le Quesnoy, consist of classic parkland holes, with tree-lined fairways, large, beautiful greens and several doglegs (most of which move left-to-right). The course is challenging but fair and despite the apparent looming presence of massed stands of pine trees, there's a surprising amount of room. The third nine, Les Etangs, is longer and a bit more open and the whole course is built on sandy soil, meaning it drains well and is almost always playable. This is a great track, one of the best in Belgium, and if you play only one course in the area, make it here. Oh, and the weekday green fee is 50 euro (approx £35), which is the closest you will get these days to a bargain.
A little north and east from Mons you will find Royal Waterloo, which is one of the best known clubs in the country and which was established in 1923. It has two 18-hole courses (La Marache and Le Lion) and a nine-hole track called Bois Hiros. The topography is hillier than Royal Hainaut but there's nothing too daunting. The challenge of Royal Waterloo is perhaps exemplified by the third hole on La Marache.
It's a downhill, double dogleg par five of 474 metres (approx 521 yards). The blind drive needs to be drawn around a corner or hit dangerously close to the trees guarding the left side and if you successfully negotiate that your ball should roll a pretty good distance down the fairway. You now face the second dogleg and a string of bunkers across the width of the fairway. A good, strong, thinking hole, which reflects the course on which it sits. Sadly, Royal Waterloo has suffered, as have so many courses, from a virtually rainless summer so the fairways were a bit patchy in early October but the greens remain excellent.
Quite close and only a few kilometres south of Brussels is Golf Club de Sept Fontaines. An interesting feature of many Belgian courses is their clubhouses, which are often worth a visit for themselves and Sept Fontaines is a clear demonstration of this. Water hazards look to abound on the scorecard map but is only seriously in play on a few holes. Of the two 18-holes courses, Le Chbteau is a par 72 that is very reminiscent of Wentworth while its shorter neighbour, La Forjt is a par 69 of 5,549 metres (6,103 yards) where the trees lining the fairways induce a real feeling of claustrophobia and your 5-wood or driving iron is likely to get a few outings.
Accuracy is essential but once you get to the greens if you fail to hole out it can only be because of a faulty putting stroke - as with all the courses in this part of Belgium, the greens were uniformly excellent - not a bad testament considering how many of them are framed by over-hanging trees. The club has made a particular point of producing three courses that will suit all level of play and has succeeded admirably with a complex that is perfect for holiday golf.
Tree-lined fairways feature on all three courses but on La Forjt the fairways are not so generous and accuracy is essential. It's the sort of course that the continentals call 'technical' which often means 'leave the driver in the bag'. This is a thinking, scenic course that you will want to play more than once.
An imaginary triangle with Brussels at the top, Namur bottom right and Mons bottom left contains a clutch of good golf in a small area, and another of the gems here is Golf Chateau de la Tournette. It has two 18-hole championship courses and, as the name might suggest, a superb clubhouse. The L'Amiricain course, not surprisingly, was built by an American architect, Bill Amick and for much of its length has the same woodland feel as a number of other courses in the area. L'Anglais was designed by British architect Martin Hawtree. The course likes to describe itself as a 'typical links' but as it's quite a way from the sea, this claim cannot be supported. However, it has a links feel, with generous fairways and short rough. There is also a par 27 nine-hole course for beginners.
For a contrast, head south of the town of Namur near Profondeville and try your hand at Golf De Namur Rougemont which is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. Unless you're Jack Nicklaus and can afford to move mountains to sculpt exactly what you want, courses are an inevitable reflection of the topography over which they're built and Rougemont is no exception. It suffers, sadly, from being shoe-horned into a few acres less than it deserves but the hilly land on which it's built offers few choices. Stand out holes include 12, a gorgeous downhill par three of 174 metres (191 yards) that requires a good mid-iron that has to be hit straight.
It's immediately followed by the unusual par four 13th that is the shape of a horseshoe. A long iron from the tee, preferably drawn around the corner, leaves something in the region of a 7-iron up a steep hill, with bunkers set into the face. At 303 metres (333 yards) it looks a pushover on the card but is anything but from the tee.
Finally, near the town of Namur is Golf de Falnuie, which offers a bit more room for those power fades and draws but is nonetheless enjoyable. It's of the standard of a good members' club and for the last decade has hosted the Belgian Masters, which is an annual fixture in which all the country's club champions go head-to-head. In addition, the 13th century castle and farm buildings that now form the clubhouse offer the ideal 19th hole for celebration or commiseration.
Belgian golf has a long history, an excellent present and a healthy future but don't tell your friends - otherwise they'll all want to go.
Royal Golf Club du Hainaut
Chemin de la Verrerie 2
Tel: +32 (0) 6522 0200
Green frees: 50 euros weekdays; 65 at weekends
Royal Waterloo GC
Vieux Chemin de Wavre 50
Tel: +32 (0) 2633 1850
Green frees: 60 euros weekdays; 85 at weekends
Golf Club de Sept Fontaines
1021 Chaussee D'Alsmberg
1420 Braine - L'Alleud
Tel: +32 (0) 353 0246
Green fees: 40 euros weekdays; 70 at weekends
Golf Chateau de la Tournette
Chemin de Beaumont 21
1400 Nivelles (Brabant Wallon)
Tel: +32 (0) 6789 4266
Green fees: 41 euros weekdays; 66 at weekends
Golf De Namur - Rougemont
Chemin du Beau Vallon 45
Tel: +32 (0) 8141 1418
Green fees: 30 euros weekdays; 40-50 at weekends
Golf de Falnuie
Rue Emile Pirson, 55
Tel: +32 (0) 8163 3090
Green fees: 25 euros weekdays; 40 at weekends
Guide price for a room in a 4-star hotel is between 60-120 euros per night, depending on the room.
Chbteau de Limelette (4 star)
19th century building in its own extensive garden, 20 minutes south of Brussels that has 80 bedrooms.
Tel: +32 (0)10 421 999
Les Jardins de la Molignie (4 star)
Modern hotel in traditional building; 26 rooms, four family suites and two duplexes
1, route de Molignie
Tel: +32 (0) 82 61 33 75 - Fax +32 (0) 82 61 13 72
Hotel du Lido in Mons (4 star)
67 room modern hotel, part of the Best Western chain, near the centre of the historic city of Mons
Rue des Arbalestriers 112
Tel: +32 (0) 065 327800
Le Restaurant Marchal
Ramp Sainte Waudru, 4
Tel: +32 (0) 6531 2402
Excellent food in the centre of Mons, close to the cathedral.
An excellent and comprehensive resource.
By far the simplest route nowadays is on Eurotunnel, which takes 30 minutes from Folkestone to Calais - from where you will be in the heart of southern Belgium within two-and-a-half hours by car. London - Calais return is £115-165 but there are many price variations and offers. For further information, see www.eurotunnel.com or call 08705 353535.
|| 27 - OCTOBER 2003