Impressions of Flanders

Or, If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium

From August 14 to September 7, we were in Belgium, and I’m not sure what to say about the place. We spent all of our time in the northern half of the country, an area known historically as Flanders. There, people mainly speak Flemish, a version of Dutch (unlike in the southern half of Belgium, where people mainly speak French). So, linguistically at least, it didn’t feel like a big change coming to Flanders from the Netherlands.

Our first two weeks were spent house sitting in the sleepy northeastern part of Belgium, in a small town called Overpelt. It was the exact opposite of our July house sit in Denmark: Whereas that one involved an energetic dog and a little old house in the countryside, this one featured two quiet cats and a big modern house in suburbia.

We had a comfortable time, with multiple televisions, a pool table, a well-equipped kitchen, a pair of good bicycles, and a patio with lounge chairs (for the rare times when it wasn’t raining). After our long, tiring days of sightseeing in the Netherlands, it was nice to be able to relax and still have time left to do lots of editing work, writing, cooking, photo sorting, and trip planning.

One of the cats we looked after in Overpelt

After the house sit ended, we headed west by train to get a feel for Belgium’s historic old cities. We stayed in Ghent, Bruges, and Leuven (also called Louvain) and made day trips to Lier and Brussels (the capital). During our three weeks in the country, we formed the following impressions:

  • The countryside in Flanders (and the Netherlands) is fairly dull and even flatter than Denmark. In some ways, it resembles parts of the U.S. Midwest: lots of cow pastures and corn fields, punctuated by stands of trees, and nondescript towns full of 20th-century buildings of no real architectural interest.
  • During our time in Overpelt, things were very quiet. Most of the restaurants and butcher shops and bakeries were closed (their owners on vacation), leaving only mediocre fast food places and chain grocery stores. We found ourselves missing the food options and pretty scenery of Haderslev (our temporary home in Denmark) and the rolling golden wheat fields around it. Prices continued to be high, although lower than they were in Denmark.
A riot of carving on a pulpit in St. Peter’s church in Leuven
  • After spending time in steadfastly Protestant Denmark and the Netherlands, it was interesting to be back in a mainly Catholic country. Old churches are much less plain and more interesting in Flanders than they are farther north. In particular, Flemish churches seemed to have a competition to see who could have the biggest and most ornately carved Gothic- or Baroque-style pulpit. Each one we saw was more over-the-top than the last. The phrase “everything in moderation” doesn’t apply to pulpits.
  • Whereas my favorite period for Dutch painting is the 17th century, I prefer the 15th and early 16th centuries for Flemish painting. Artists like Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Dirk Bouts were painting portraits and church altarpieces beautiful and delicate enough to rival those of Italian painters of that period.
  • Traditional Flemish architecture resembles that of Amsterdam and other North Holland towns, but to our eyes it’s much prettier and more interesting. It’s more decorated and less sober. And even when it rises to Rococo flights of fancy, it’s still fun and (to an American) feels very European.
  • There’s something magical about towns, like Ghent or Bruges, where you encounter flowing waterways around almost every corner. It’s so beautiful to sit on a bench by a river or canal and see the lights of old buildings reflected on the shimmering water.

In our next post, we’ll give a little more detail about the five old Flemish cities we visited, with photo galleries to follow.

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