Belgium: Physical Landscapes

Belgium has a land area of 11,787 square miles (30,528 square kilometers), which, as already has been noted, is roughly equivalent in size to Maryland. Most of the country’s territory lies on a huge lowland plain that stretches from the Pyrenees eastward to the Urals. In this chapter, we will look at Belgium’s land areas, its weather and climate, and finally at some of the country’s more important environmental pressures and concerns. You also will see how Belgians have adapted to and used their natural landscapes.

LAND AREAS

In terms of land areas, Belgium can be divided into three main geographical regions. These include the coastal plain in the northwest; the central plateau, in which Brussels and the Belgian heartland are situated; and the high plateau of the Ardennes in the southeast.

Belgium: Physical Landscapes

Coastal Plain

The short Belgian coastline is similar to the coast of the Netherlands. It features long, sandy beaches backed by sand dunes that broaden out to the southwest, where the coast reaches the border with France. Behind the dunes are low-lying polders (sections of land reclaimed from the sea and protected by dikes) about 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide. Once covered by marshlands, this land was drained, as it was in the Netherlands. The polders were developed between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. This coastal region is bounded by the River Scheldt (Dutch: Schelde), which flows northeast, roughly parallel to the coast, until it empties into the sea near the port of Antwerp and the Netherlands border.

The province of West Flanders largely comprises this coastal region and, further inland from the coast, the plain of Flanders is drained by the River Scheldt and its tributaries. The capital city of West Flanders is Bruges. Ostend (Dutch: Oostende) and Zeebrugge are two major ports on the coast to the west and north of Bruges, respectively. Adjoining this province to the east is East Flanders. Its capital is Ghent (Dutch: Gent; French: Gand; formerly “Gaunt” in English), which is located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Bruges. Ghent is situated on the River Scheldt at its confluence with the Lys, approximately 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Brussels.

During the Middle Ages, Ghent became one of the largest and richest cities of northern Europe, with some 65,000 people living within its protective walls. Until the thirteenth century, it was the second biggest city in Europe (after Paris)—larger even than London. Today, it is a busy city that includes a port and a university. The city is connected to the sea by the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. Much of Ghent’s medieval architecture is still intact and is remarkably well preserved and restored. The city center is the largest car-free zone in Belgium. The city also hosts the annual Ghent Festival, a 10-day street festival that attracted 1.5 million people in 2007.

The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought devastation to the city as a result of religious wars. At one time, Ghent was a Calvinistic republic, but the Spanish army eventually reinstated Catholicism there. These wars ended Ghent’s role as a center of international importance. A curious fact is that the War of 1812, fought between the United States and Great Britain, was ended by the Treaty of Ghent. This document was signed by diplomats from both countries who met in the city in 1814. Unaware of the peace treaty, the commander of the U.S. forces, Andrew Jackson, moved his soldiers to New Orleans, Louisiana, at the end of 1814. There, he decisively defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. This was hailed as a great victory, making him a national hero and propelling him to the presidency. Yet it is also a reminder of how slow communications were 200 years ago.

The Central Plateau

The central plateau of Belgium is a primarily smooth region with rolling hills and fertile valleys that are irrigated by rivers, canals, and dikes. Some higher land also exists here, with occasional wooded areas and some gorges and caves. Besides West Flanders and East Flanders, northern Belgium, which is generally referred to simply as Flanders, has three further provinces situated on the central plateau away from the coast. These are Antwerp, Limburg, and Brabant, which is now divided into Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant. In the center of Brabant province is the Brussels-­Capital region, which surrounds and includes the city of Brussels.

Antwerp (Dutch: Antwerpen, French: Anvers), besides being a great port, is Belgium’s second largest city; its population reached 461,500 in 2006. The city is situated on the right bank (as one faces downstream) of the estuary of the River Scheldt that flows into the North Sea. It is also the capital of Antwerp province, which lies mostly to the east of the city. The province’s northern boundary is the border with the Netherlands. Terrain here is very similar to that found in the southern Netherlands. It is crossed by many canals, such as the Albert Canal and other waterways.

Antwerp has long been a very important city and a commercial center from both an economic and a cultural standpoint. Its seaport is one of the world’s largest; after Rotterdam (in the Netherlands), it is the second largest port in Europe. A high volume of oil refinery traffic in tanker vessels and a large number of cargo ships pass through the port of Antwerp. The city is also considered to be the center of diamond trading, an industry that traditionally has been controlled by families from its large Hasidic Jewish community.

The town square (Grote Markt) is the focal point of this thriving city. Not as big as the Grand-Place in Brussels but certainly as beautiful, it is surrounded by the Town Hall and the old houses of the guilds or corporations. Behind these historic structures, the tower of Our Lady’s Cathedral completes this impressive urban panorama. The houses of the guilds are unfortunately not the original ones. A large part of the Grote Markt burned down in 1576. Most of the houses were later rebuilt in the Flemish Renaissance style.

The municipality of Duffel near Antwerp is the origin of duffle (or duffel) coats and bags. The winter coats were made of thick wool and featured hoods and wooden toggle fastenings. To the east of Antwerp province is Limburg province, whose capital is Hasselt. This province is also quite similar to the Netherlands, which borders it to the north and east, and it too is bisected by the Albert Canal. The part of the Netherlands just east of here is also, confusingly, known as Limburg and contains the city of Maastricht. The great River Meuse (Dutch: Maas) flows north out of Belgium into the Netherlands and forms the border between Belgian Limburg and Dutch Limburg for about 25 miles (40 kilometers).

The old province of Brabant lies at the center of Belgium but is now divided three ways. Flemish Brabant was created in 1995 by splitting the former province of Brabant into three parts: two new provinces, Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant, and the Brussels-­Capital region, which (rather like Washington, D.C.) is no longer considered part of any province. This split was made to recognize the official division of Belgium into three separate regions: Flanders, Wallonia, and the Brussels-­ Capital region. The capital of Flemish Brabant is Leuven, and the capital of Walloon Brabant is Wavre.

Besides Walloon Brabant, French-­speaking Wallonia, which effectively comprises the whole southern part of the country, has four further provinces. These are Hainaut, Namur, and Liege, all considered to be in the central geographical region, and Luxembourg province in the Ardennes.

Hainaut (usually spelled Hainault in English) is the most western province of Wallonia and lies to the south of West Flanders and East Flanders and also of Walloon Brabant. Its capital city is Mons, and the province also includes the industrial city of Charleroi, which is either Belgium’s third or fourth largest depending on the definition of its boundaries. Geographically, this part of the country is very similar to the rest of the central plateau.

Namur province is sandwiched between Hainaut and Luxembourg provinces in the south central part of Belgium. Parts of the province are quite hilly but not as much as the Ardennes region, which lies to the south. Its capital, Namur, is situated at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers.

Liege province is the most eastern part of Belgium and lies north of Luxembourg province as well as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The River Meuse flows northeast across the province, and its capital, Liege (Dutch: Luik), is situated on the river. Liege is the third largest city in Belgium after Brussels and Antwerp, although Charleroi also claims the distinction, which, as we have said, depends on where one draws the city boundaries. In any case, Liege is the principal economic and cultural center of Wallonia.

At the beginning of World War I, the Battle of Liege followed the invasion of neutral Belgium by the Germans. It lasted for 12 days and resulted in surprisingly heavy losses for the invaders at the hands of the outnumbered Belgians. This was the first land battle of that war.

During World War II, the Allies liberated Liege in September 1944. Subsequently, it was subjected to intense aerial bombardment; more than 1,500 V-1 and V-2 missiles landed in the city between its liberation and the end of the war. After the war, Liege suffered from the collapse of its steel industry, which produced high levels of unemployment and led to much poverty and social tension.

Again, most of Liege province is part of Belgium’s central plateau and includes mainly agricultural land in broad, flat river valleys. The eastern part of the province, which borders Germany, is hillier. This is the district in which Belgium’s small German-­speaking minority lives.

In this province, 22 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of the city of Liege is the town of Spa. This town is situated in an attractive valley in the hills of the Ardennes, and it is where hot springs, which are claimed to have healing properties, are found. Spa has been frequented as a place to “take the waters” since the fourteenth century. The town has given its name to any resort that has mineral springs with supposed healthgiving properties. Taken further, the generic term spa is now used to refer to any resort hotel with hydrotherapy facilities, or it can merely mean a hot tub. These days, the town of Spa is equally well known as the location of the racing car circuit for the Formula One (F1) Belgian Grand Prix. The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps was built for Grand Prix motor racing in 1921 and is one of the most challenging courses in the F1 calendar. The course is famous for its unpredictable weather. At one point in its history, it rained during the Belgian Grand Prix for 20 years in a row.

The Ardennes

Luxembourg province in southeastern Wallonia is principally a wooded plateau in the Ardennes, ranging from about 1,600 to 2,300 feet (500 to 700 meters) in elevation. It lies to the east and south of the River Meuse. The plateau is divided by rivers that flow in places through deep ravines and below craggy bluffs. Agriculture and cattle farming are chief occupations in this rural region. There is some heath land, and peat bogs are found in depressions in the landscape. The highest point in Belgium is the Signal de Botrange, which is only 2,277 feet (694 meters) above sea level, here in the mountains of the Ardennes. Luxembourg is the largest Belgian province but the most sparsely populated in a densely populated country. The provincial capital is Arlon. Tourism in this area is economically important; in recent years, many farmhouses and other buildings have been converted to provide tourist accommodations. Much of Belgium’s remaining wildlife is found in this region.

The Belgian province of Luxembourg lies immediately west of the bordering Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which is an independent country little more than half its area. The identical name of these two separate geographic entities is confusing, and it is important to distinguish between them. The Ardennes plateau includes most of northern part of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and also extends into France. To the southwest of the Belgian province of Luxembourg is the French Department of Ardennes.

WEATHER AND CLIMATE

Belgium has a temperate climate that is kept mild through the influence of the North Atlantic drift, a warm ocean current that extends northeast from the Gulf Stream. Prevailing westerly winds blow overland from the direction of the English Channel. They bring changeable weather in from the sea, and rainfall can be frequent and sometimes heavy. Winters are usually mild and wet; at this time of year, mists and fog are common. Summers are generally quite cool and pleasant. Greater extremes of both cold and heat are mostly associated with atmospheric high-­pressure systems that occasionally move in from the north and east.

In the part of the Ardennes located farthest inland from the coast, more rain and snow falls—due
principally to the higher elevation of the land. It is in these uplands that the larger forests are found, and these contain conifers together with oaks, beeches, and other deciduous trees.

Over time, half of the country has been cleared for agriculture or pastureland. In fact, in Europe, only Denmark has more of its area well suited to agricultural pursuits. Besides the forests of the Ardennes, there is also heathland, and this is found especially in eastern areas such as the province of Liege.

ENVIRONMENTAL PRESSURES AND CONCERNS

The environment in Belgium is exposed to considerable pressure from human activities. These primarily include urbanization, industry, a dense transportation network, and extensive farming that involve crop cultivation and animal raising. The consequent air and water pollution certainly have repercussions for neighboring countries. Uncertainties about federal and regional responsibilities for control of this pollution have slowed progress in tackling environmental issues like these. Today, however, most of these matters have been resolved.

From the environmental concerns of modern mankind in present-day Belgium, we can look back to prehistoric times, when early man first lived in this part of Europe. The oldest primitive stone instruments found in the area of today’s Belgium date from 800,000 b.c. Between 350,000 b.c. and 40,000 b.c. remains indicate that Neanderthal man was living on the banks of the Meuse River. In caves at the village of Spy, near Namur, nearly perfect skeletons of such early hominids were discovered in 1886. From about 40,000 b.c. onward, Homo sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals as inhabitants of the region.

In Wallonia, near the point at which the borders of the provinces Namur, Liege, and Luxembourg meet, is the beautiful village of Weris. Nearby stands the massive sentinel rock known as La Pierre Haina. This natural monolith in the hills of the Ardennes was evidently a sacred place in prehistoric times. Today, it continues to be venerated by the local people who whitewash the rock in an annual ceremony.

The countryside around Weris is a fascinating prehistoric site that features a field of megalithic remains more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) long. Here, ancient standing stones and dolmens (chamber tombs) over 5,000 years old form an alignment that is unique in Belgium. Traditionally these champs sacres (sacred fields) belong to the early Danubian culture, remains of which have been found buried near the city of Liege to the north. Neolithic megaliths like these are certainly the earliest remains of human-­
built structures in the region preceding historic times. In the next chapter, we shall consider the history of this land which eventually became modern Belgium.