North Belgium

The northern area of Belgium is very different both linguistically and culturally than its southern neighbors. In the north, the Flemings, who constitute more than half of Belgium’s population, speak Flemish, which is equivalent to Dutch (sometimes called Netherlandic). Towns and buildings in this region tend to have Dutch names.



In the Middle Ages, Antwerp was a thriving hub of the European cloth trade and the principal port of the Duchy of Brabant. Today, it is the main city of Flemish-speaking Belgium and the center of the international diamond trade. At the heart of the city’s old medieval district is the Grote Markt. The Brabo Fountain, at its center, has a statue of the soldier Silvius Brabo, said to be the nephew of Julius Caesar. The square is overlooked by the ornately gabled Stadhuis (Town Hall), built in 1564, and the Gothic Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady), which dates back to 1352. Among the paintings inside the cathedral are two triptychs by Antwerp’s most famous son, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). The narrow, winding streets of the old town are lined with fine medieval guildhalls, such as the Vleeshuis, or Meat Hall, once occupied by the Butchers’ Guild. Dating from the early 16th century, it is built-in alternate stripes of stone and brick, giving it a streaky bacon-like appearance. When Rubens died in 1640, he was buried in the family’s chapel at the lovely sandstone Sint Jacobskerk (1491–1656), also located in the old town. One of the most prestigious of Antwerp’s many museums is the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, which houses an impressive collection of ancient and modern art. Works from the 17th century include masterpieces by the “Antwerp Trio” of van Dyck (1599–1641), Jordaens (1593–1678), and Rubens. More modern exhibits include works by the Surrealist René Magritte (1898–1967) and Rik Wouters (1882–1916). During renovations which will last until 2017, major works will be on display at various locations across the city. Other museums of note are the Diamond Museum and the Museum Plantin-Moretus, which is devoted to the early years of printing and celebrates the achievements of Antwerp’s most successful printer, Christopher Plantin. Rubenshuis was Rubens’ home and studio for the last 30 years of his life. A tour takes you around his living quarters, equipped with period furniture, his studio, and the kunst-kamer, or art gallery, where he exhibited both his own and other artists’ work and entertained friends and wealthy patrons.


With good reason, Bruges is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belgium. The city owes its pre-eminent position to the beauty of its historic center, where winding lanes and picturesque canals are lined with splendid medieval buildings. These are mostly the legacy of the town’s heyday as a center of the international cloth trade, which flourished for 200 years from the 13th century. During this golden age, Bruges’ merchants lavished their fortunes on fine mansions, churches, and a set of civic buildings of such extravagance that they were the wonder of northern Europe. Today, the streets are well maintained: there are no billboards or highrises, and traffic is heavily regulated.


Bruges’ premier fine-art museum holds a superb collection of early Flemish and Dutch masters. Artists featured include Rogier van der Weyden (c.1400–1464), Jan van Eyck (d.1441), and Hans Memling (c.1430–94). Van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon (1436), a richly detailed painting noted for its realism, and Memling’s Moreel triptych (1484) are among the museum’s most outstanding exhibits. Painted in the early 16th century, the Last Judgment triptych is one of a number of works at the museum by Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450– 1516). Peter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638) is also well represented. Later Belgian works include paintings by Surrealists Paul Delvaux (1897–1994) and René Magritte (1898–1967).


The Basilica of the Holy Blood is Bruges’ holiest church, holding one of the most sacred relics in Europe. In the upper chapel, rebuilt after it was destroyed by the French in the 1790s, is a 17th-century tabernacle, which houses a vial said to contain a few drops of blood and water washed from the body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea.


This folk museum occupies an attractive row of 17th-century brick almshouses in the northeast of the town. Each of the houses is dedicated to a different aspect of traditional Flemish life. Several crafts are represented, and visitors are shown a series of typical historical domestic interiors.


The heart of Ghent’s historic center was built in the 13th and 14th centuries when the city prospered as a result of the cloth trade. The closure of vital canal links in 1648, however, led to a decline in the town’s fortunes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Ghent flourished again as a major industrial center. Dominating the old medieval quarter is the imposing Het Gravensteen or Castle of the Counts. Parts of the castle, once the seat of the Counts of Flanders, date back to the 12th century, although most parts, including the gatehouse, were built later. Many of Ghent’s finest historic buildings are found on Graslei, a picturesque street that borders the Leie River. The street is lined with well-preserved guildhalls dating from the Middle Ages. The magnificent St Baafskathedraal has features representing every phase of the Gothic style. In a small side chapel is one of Europe’s most remarkable paintings, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). Opposite the cathedral stands the huge 14th-century Belfort (belfry). From the top of the tower, you can enjoy splendid views of the city. From here, it is a short walk to the Stadhuis (Town Hall), whose Pacification Hall was the site of the signing of the Pacification of Ghent (a declaration of the Low Countries’ repudiation of Spanish rule) in 1576. Ghent’s largest collection of fine art, covering all periods up to the 20th century, is in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, some 20 minutes’ walk southeast of the center. There are works by Rubens and his contemporaries Jacob Jordaens and Anthony van Dyck. Occupying an elegant 18th-century townhouse, the Design Museum Gent is a decorative-arts museum, with lavishly furnished 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century period rooms. An extension covers modern design, from Art Nouveau to contemporary works.