Northern Belgium - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abstracted from the History section in Flanders: the Bradt Travel Guide 

Independence (1830-1900)

Frustrations came to a head on the evening of 25 August 1830, during the performance of French composer Daniel Auber’s new opera La Muette de Portici. The story is one of revolution against the Spanish in 1647 and it was not long before the Belgians saw the similarity of their situation. Imbued with nationalist vigour, citizens rushed from the Théâtre de la Monnaie into the streets of Brussels and raised the flag of Brabant over the Hôtel de Ville in the Grand’ Place. Uprisings like this spread in waves throughout the country and William quickly sent in the army to quash the rebels. He was successful in Hasselt and Leuven, but when Dutch troops arrived in Brussels on 23 September, four days of street fighting ensued. After bloody brawls the Dutch were finally surrounded by the nationalists and forced to make a quick retreat. The provisional government wasted no time in declaring independence on 4 October 1830. With William poised for war, the provisional government appealed to other European powers to recognise the independent Kingdom of Belgium. Great Britain and France acquiesced and at the London Conference in 1831, the country’s independence was recognised for the first time, on the proviso that Belgium remain a neutral state and not enter into any alliances with surrounding powers.

The government then had to find a suitable king to rule their constitutional monarchy. They offered the throne to the German Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (1790–1865), uncle and advisor to Britain’s Queen Victoria. He was sworn in as King Leopold I of the Belgians on 21 July 1831. Two weeks later, a disgruntled William invaded, but Leopold managed to keep his troops at bay. These skirmishes lasted for eight years until William finally gave up in 1839 and signed a treaty acknowledging Belgium’s independence.

Leopold I immediately set about regenerating the economic strength of his new country. The Société Générale bank (now Fortis) was revived and financed work on roads, canals and Europe’s first public railway line between Brussels and Mechelen. These improved transport links created enormous industrial growth.

When large-nosed Leopold II (1835–1909) succeeded his father in 1865, he continued his programme of national development. Antwerp became an international port and the railroad companies were contracted to build lines throughout Europe and in China and South America. The proceeds financed the filling-in of the River Senne to clean up the surrounding slums and the construction of the formidable Palais de Justice, the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts and – for the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence – the imposing Parc du Cinquantenaire.

However, Leopold was still not satisfied. He wanted Belgium to stand tall and equal among the other European nations, but he was hindered by a government that controlled the purse strings of the treasury. Frustrated with their lack vision, Leopold began to look elsewhere for alternative means of finance. The focus of colonialism was on Africa and Leopold joined in the race for the unconquered jungles of the Dark Continent.

Natural history

Until 1989 there was no environmental planning in Flanders. Large swathes of the countryside were intensively farmed, leaving only pockets of protected areas, like Het Zwin, the Westhoek dunes and Hoge Kempen National Park. You’ll see lots of cows, horses, sheep – even the odd farmed llama – but sightings of wild mammals are rare. However, NGO Natuurpunt has strived to raise awareness and implement conservation programmes and it seems to be working. After a long absence, foxes are making a comeback across the region. Throughout West Flanders and Brussels there are populations of red squirrel, hedgehog and dwarf bat and even the occasional sighting of Siberian chipmunks. The waterways of East Flanders and Flemish Brabant are home to the odd European beaver, and Limburg has healthy populations of badger and the hazel dormouse.

Many birds use the country as a rest stop during their annual migration. One of the best places to see them is the Het Zwin wetlands and marshes on the coast north of Knokke-Heist. Seabirds include the Mediterranean, Icelandic and great black-backed gulls, curlew sandpiper, grey heron, storks and the rarely seen shoveler.

Coastal dunes support nearly 67% of the plant life found in Flanders and of this nearly a third is found in the Westhoek dunes just past De Panne. There are pockets of birch, beech and oak across the centre, but the main concentration of woodland is in the pine forests of Hoge Kempen National Park, whose mix of forest and moorland is home to deer, snakes, frogs, toads and goshawks.

People and culture

The Flemish are traditionally earthy in humour and character. Country lovers at heart who love to moan and make merry in equal measures, they pour heart and soul into their home cooking and prioritise the family above all else. Many remain in the town in which they were raised, so as to be close to their relatives and roles are often traditional. But don’t be fooled: if the Belgian man is the head of the family, the woman is surely the neck that can turn the head any way she chooses. Her home is her domain and its appearance is important. Cleanliness is still considered next to godliness: dust-attracting carpets are despised, an untidy hedge unapproved of and it’s not a rarity to see a pinafored grandma sweeping the street outside her house or soaping down the pavement until it sparkles. Indeed, a strong element of materialism informs the dreams and aspirations of the average Belgian family. Often quoted as being born met een baksteen in de maag (‘with a brick in their stomachs’), they seek the suburban dream of a self-built house, children and a car. It seems such choices have filtered down from the generations that suffered the upheaval of the World Wars. But more recently couples have begun to break the

mould, forming unmarried unions, pursuing careers and waiting until later to have children. Furthermore, women are not expected to change their maiden names if they do get married and there are egalitarian laws permitting men to take paternity leave to help their partners after the birth of a baby.

Of course, the linguistic frictions between the northern Flemish and southern-dwelling Walloons figure in daily life, but to nowhere near the extent suggested by the press. The clashes of the 1950s and 1960s have cooled and for the most part people’s grumbles are ingrained dogma inherited from past generations. It’s an old argument that seems relatively stale on the pallets of the younger generation and although they still identify themselves as either Flemish or Walloon ahead of any Belgian nationality, it seems the venom-infected taunts once slung between opposing language groups have lost their sting. Habit and pride ensure that the Flemish still accuse the Walloons of laziness, and perhaps the Walloons will always regard the Flemish as arrogant, but there is little bite in the bark. The rib-poking is also extended to their Dutch neighbours, and just as keenly returned. ‘Why does a Belgian carry a knife in the car? So he can cut corners,’ is a typical dig from the Dutch who cast the Flemish as stupid and stingy. The Flemish take it on the chin and give as good as they get.

So if, like the Dutch, you have labelled the Flemish as dull you’re missing the point. They elect to stay well-connected to the family locale, because what is more rewarding than being able to call round at your sister’s or brother’s, go for a bike ride among fields dotted with cud-chewing cows and finish the day off with a cool beer on a sunny terrace? While the lives of other nationalities are a frenetic imbalance of work and leisure, the Belgians usually manage to get the equilibrium right. They are an unpretentious, good-natured, hard-working bunch, who rejoice in a home life that revolves around kids, canines and cooking. All in all, a beguiling breed who quickly bring you round to the pleasures of living life at a more relaxed pace.


Even after independence in 1830, works by Flemish writers were still categorised and referred to as Dutch literature. However, the denial of Flemish as an official language after independence provoked protests among Flemish writers and spawned a number of literary societies, kick-starting a transition that would eventually see Flemish literature being credited in its own right. One of the first works to contest the inequality was Hendrik Conscience’s (1812–83) In ‘t Wonderjaer 1566, published in 1837. Disgusted that he’d written the novel in Flemish instead of French, his father threw him out of the family home and a penniless Conscience was forced to wander the streets of Antwerp. He had the last laugh though; eminent painter Wappers presented him to the royal court and it was under the patronage of Leopold I that Conscience was commissioned to write his second work, Fantasy. In 1845 he was made a knight of the Order of Leopold and Flemish literature became officially vogue.

Since then both Flanders has produced a handful of celebrated writers, a few of whom have achieved success abroad. Worth mentioning is Camille Lemonnier (1844–1913) a writer and poet from Ixelles in Brussels. His novels include the love story Un Mâle published in 1881 and the darker Le Mons, released a year later, which traces the regret of two peasants after they commit murder.

Waving the flag for women is Marguerite Crayencour (1903–87). Better known by her pseudonym, Marguerite Yourcenar, she remains Belgium’s most prominent female writer. Born in Brussels, she received a first-class education at her father’s estate in northern France. Her seminal work Mémorires d’Hadrien was published in 1951 and later translated by her lover, Grace Frick, into English. In 1980 she became the first woman to be elected to the distinguished Académie Française.

Also of note is the exceptional writer, poet, playwright and painter Hugo Claus (1929–2008). Hailing from Brugge, he wrote his seminal work Het Verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) in 1983. It tells the story of a Flemish child caught up in the German occupation of Belgium during World War II. Writing under a series of pseudonyms, Claus was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Flanders is not traditionally associated with great poets but two names dominate 19th-century poetry: Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) and Emile Verhaeren. Maeterlinck became an overnight success with his first play La Princesse Maleine in 1889. Born in Gent, he concentrated on exploring the themes of death and the meaning of life in the majority of his works, receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. Emile Verhaeren (1855–1916) trained as a lawyer, but tried only two cases before turning to literature. Inspired by the works of Flemish painters like Jacob Jordaens and David Teniers, he published his first set of poems Les Flamandes in 1883. They are still admired for their raw and provocative depiction of Flemish life.

Later, many came to regard singer-songwriter Jacques Brel (1929–78) as a poet in his own right (page 354). Although born in Brussels, he spent most of his life in Paris. His later songs, employing numerous metaphors and linguistic styles, explored complex themes of love, death and life’s hardships.

21st-century poets include Miriam van Hee (1952–) whose sixth collection, Achter de Bergen (Behind the Mountains), won the Flemish Culture Prize for Poetry in 1998; Stefan Hertmans (1951–), professor of art criticism at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gent, whose poetry focuses on the grotesque; and Roland Jooris (1936–) who, like van Hee, explores points of contact between poetry and day-to-day reality; he won the Flemish Culture Prize for his collection Gekras (‘Scribblings’) in 2005.


Flanders’ rich architectural heritage ranges from the 13th-century Romanesque and Gothic to 18th-century Baroque and 19th-century Art Nouveau. At times haphazard, but always charming, the mixture of medieval houses next to modern steel and glass is a common occurrence. From Gent’s Patershol quarter, lined with brick-red medieval terraces, to Brussels’ ultra-modern and starlight-studded Atomium, the region’s bold approach to architecture continues to evolve.

Flanders’ oldest and most celebrated architectural feats are the towering belfries and secluded begijnhofs. They cropped up during the 13th and 15th centuries when the trading of cloth created an economic boom that also financed Brussels’ Grand’ Place and many of the region’s Gothic cathedrals and town halls; the most impressive examples of these can be seen in Antwerp’s Onze- Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal and Leuven’s Stadhuis.

The counter-Reformation of the 16th–17th centuries ushered in the Italian Baroque style. Characterised by twisted columns, arching domes and elaborate ornamentation, it was quickly adopted and given a Flemish twist by artists and architects and imaginatively renamed Flemish Baroque. The guildhouses of the Grand’ Place were rebuilt in this design following Louis XIV’s attack in 1695.

Following independence in 1830, Leopold I was keen to revive Brussels’ urban cityscape and set it on par with Paris, so ordered the construction of numerous buildings. Among those commissioned were the magnificent Galeries Royales St-Hubert, famed for their arched glass-paned roof, and the formidable Palais de Justice.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Art Nouveau was in full swing. Influencing everything from buildings to bedroom furniture, the movement was characterised by the use of wrought iron, glass, marble and wood decorated with leaves and flowers in flowing, sinuous lines. Architects of note include Paul Saintenoy (1862–1952) – who is responsible for the elegant Art Nouveau Old England Department Store in Brussels, which now houses the Musical Instrument Museum, Gustave Serrurier-Bovy (1858–1910), Henry van de Velde (1863–1957), Paul Hankar (1859–1901), and the legendary Victor Horta (1861–1947). His most famous constructions include Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, the Greenhouses at Laeken (which he designed with Hankar) and Maison Waucquez, which now houses the Belgian Comic Museum.

Modern architectural design was perhaps heralded by Antwerp’s Boerentoren (Farmers’ Tower), built in 1928 and considered Europe’s first skyscraper. This was soon followed by the space-age Atomium (page 130), built for the 1958 World Fair.

The experimental design of many of the EU buildings and the conversion of  Flagey – a former radio and television studio in Ixelles – into a theatre and café has inspired modern architects, and new ideas are showcased in the Museum of Modern Architecture (18 Rue de l’Ermitage; (open on appointment) in Brussels.

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