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Northern Belgium - Background information
The history of Flanders is the history of Belgium, and as far as countries go Belgium is comparatively new. Up until 1830, when it gained its independence, the country was lumped together with Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Collectively they formed the Low Countries and suffered as the pawns of successive foreign powers. These powers played tug of war over boundaries and carved up the land to form the borders that define the countries today.
Het Zwin is one of the area's last remaining protected areas © Provincie West-Vlaanderen, VisitFlanders
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, NGOs such as Natuurpunt has strived to raise awareness and implement conservation programmes and it seems to be working. After a long absence, foxes and wild cats are making a comeback across the region; in 2018, a wolf was spotted in Flanders for the first time in a century, reflecting a wider mainland European trend.
Throughout West Flanders and Brussels there are populations of red squirrel, hedgehog and dwarf bat and even a colony of Siberian chipmunks in the Forêt de Soignes, south of the capital. The waterways of Flanders are home a thriving population of beavers – one briefly became a tourist attraction in Leuven – 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 east of Knokke-Heist. Seabirds include the Mediterranean, Icelandic and great black-backed gulls, curlew sandpiper, grey heron, storks and the rarely seen shoveller.
Coastal dunes support nearly much of the plant life found in Flanders and of this nearly a third is found in the Westhoek Nature Reserve just past De Panneis the only area on the coast where nearly all dune vegetation appears before your eyes in one unbroken landscape. 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.
For visitors as well as expats, the Flemish can seem to be a bit of an enigma – almost more easily pigeon-holed by what they’re not (not as loud and blunt as the Dutch, that’s for sure) than what they are. One persuasive stereotype relates to their domesticity: 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 car, though increasing numbers are opting to skip the marriage part, enjoying many of the same rights as married couples. Many Flemish do, however, remain in the town in which they were born to be close to relatives, and roles are often traditional. But don’t be fooled: if the Belgian man is the head of the family, the woman is the neck that can turn the head any way she chooses. Women are not expected to change their maiden names if they get married and there are egalitarian laws permitting men to take paternity leave to help their partners after the birth of a baby.
The much-mocked linguistic frictions between the northern Flemish and southern-dwelling Walloons figure far less in daily life than the press might suggest, though the separatist movement shows no sign of abating, and nationalist sentiment is strong. Most people identify themselves as Flemish or Walloon ahead of any Belgian nationality, but regional identification is also prevalent, whether you’re a ‘proud’ Antwerpenaar or a ‘rebellious’ Gentenaar. While Walloons look up to France, the same can’t be said of the Flemish, who regularly exchange (comic) barbs with the Dutch like combative siblings. But if, like the Dutch, you have labelled the Flemish as ineffectual/stubborn/bad drivers etc, then you’re missing the point. Make an effort, and break through that initial phlegmatism, and you’ll discover a people who rejoice in the good life – that’ll be their Burgundian roots – be it having a few beers or a hearty feed, have a strong Surrealist streak, and make brilliantly loyal pals.
The Belgian Revolution that led to the establishment of the country brought with it a firm anti-Dutch sentiment, with the language relegated to the rank of a patois. This denial of Flemish as an official language provoked protests and spawned a number of literary societies, kick-starting a transition that would eventually see it 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 in 1845 he was made a knight of the Order of Léopold. Conscience’s historical romances – notably De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (The Lion of Flanders), in 1838, about the Flemish victory over the French at the Battle of the Golden Spurs – helped kickstart the Flemish literary movement.
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, and is the only Belgian to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 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. Roman Catholic priest Guido Gezelle (1830–99) is famous for his use of the West Flemish dialect, his works often inspired by his mystic love of God.
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 its towering belfries and secluded béguinages. They cropped up during the 13th and 15th centuries when the trading of cloth created an economic boom that also financed the Grand-Place in Brussels and many of the region’s Gothic cathedrals and town halls; the most impressive examples of these can be seen, respectively, in Antwerp and Leuven.