The other day I was at a conference and a speaker from the Belgian region of Flanders spoke about travel and tourism. While his remarks were certainly interesting, my travel blogger brain resonated most with his complaint that many people don’t know anything about Flanders – a region I’ve been to a few times and love to visit. So with that in mind I thought I’d share a few things about Flanders that you may not know and which will hopefully interest you enough to consider your own trip to this always interesting region of Belgium.
Why Is Belgium So Confusing?
Let’s be fair; Belgium is not a large country. To give my fellow Americans a point of reference, it’s about the same size as Maryland – my current home state interestingly enough. So why is it that it has three regions and four languages? How is such a thing even possible? Without going too deep into the history, let me provide a few salient facts from the Cliffs Notes version.
Belgium is divided into three regions:
- Flanders (Dutch speaking)
- Wallonia (French speaking)
- Brussels Capital Region (Bi-lingual)
However, when it comes to identifying the communities within Belgium, three are defined by language: Dutch variant (Flemish), French and German. Geographically, Flanders is in the north next to the Netherlands and Wallonia is in the south next to France, so the divisions make sense. The reason for what is ultimately an intensely confusing political system is thanks to the country’s history, which is complex and fraught with wars and regional scuffles. It has been used as the battleground for Europe many times and so today we have a nation that is unified while being somewhat divided internally. But for the purposes of this post, we are focusing only on Flanders.
Great Cities of Flanders
In the Middle Ages, modern-day Flanders was one of the richest regions in Europe and cities like Antwerp and Ghent have both figured prominently in the history of Western Europe. Today the cities are as much fun to visit as they were hundreds of years ago, including:
Ghent – For centuries water has helped define Ghent, first as an important port and then later through canals used to transport goods around Europe. Today the canals of Ghent as well as the River Lys help define the travel experience in this beautiful town. The main artery through old Ghent is the River Lys, where you’ll find hotels, restaurants and bars lining both sides of this historic waterway. There are also plenty of museums and cultural experiences; enough to fill several days of sightseeing as I learned a few years ago when I spent some time in this great city.
Bruges – Today Bruges is a popular day trip from Brussels for millions of tourists, all of them visiting to see this fairytale city for themselves. And yes, it’s true; Bruges does seem to have charm oozing out of its pores, from the main square to any one of its many quiet side streets. It’s also one of the great chocolate capitals in a country known for amazing confections, and it seems like every local resident has their own favorite chocolatier, someone they know and trust to serve up delicious treats. Bruges is a lot of fun to explore, especially if you visit around the holidays like I did when the Christmas Market adds a whole new level of festive cheer to an already cheerful town.
Antwerp – The most populous city in Flanders, Antwerp is about much more than being an important city. It too of course has a long and beautiful past, with plenty of opportunities for unexpected surprises throughout town. One of the most popular places to visit in town is also the first thing many people see – the Central Train Station. Built in the late 19th century, it’s a great example of design and style that simply has disappeared from the world. It’s a monument to a different era and the fact that it’s still used everyday seems to only add to its importance. Like Ghent, this is also a great city for museums and if spending time in galleries is your thing, be sure to spend extra time exploring them all.
Notable Facts About Flanders
I wanted to end this brief post with a few facts, some odd and others not, about Flanders that hopefully will provide more character and context to what I think is one of Europe’s great regions to explore.
- Flanders is actually one of the great fashion capitals of the world.
- The poem “In Flanders Fields” was inspired by the WWI Battle of Ypres in Belgium, and the poem led to the adoption of the poppy symbol for all wartime remembrances.
- Chocolate was first introduced to Belgium in Ghent in 1635
- Bruges is home to the French Fry Museum
- Flanders has the highest number of castles per square mile in the world
- Brussels sprout and Belgian endive both come from Flanders
- Beer is big business in Flanders, with hundreds of brewers creating distinctive varieties throughout the region.
- Flanders and Brussels is the de facto comic strip capital of the world.
- Restaurants in Flanders hold 121 Michelin stars
Have you been to Flanders? Where did you visit and what did you think?