The provinces of Antwerp and Limburg, together with a chunk of Brabant, constitute the Flemish-speaking northeast rim of Belgium, stretching as far as the border with the Netherlands. The countryside is largely dull and flat, its most distinctive feature being the rivers and canals that cut across it, with the River Scheldt leading the way. Easily the main attraction hereabouts is Antwerp, a sprawling, intriguing city with many reminders of its sixteenth-century golden age before it was upstaged by Amsterdam as the prime commercial centre of the Low Countries. Antwerp boasts a battery of splendid medieval churches and as fine a set of museums as you’ll find anywhere in Belgium, featuring in particular the stirring legacy of Rubens, who spent most of his career in the city and produced many of his finest works here. On a more contemporary note, Antwerp is the international centre of the diamond trade and one of Europe’s biggest ports, though these roles by no means define its character – for one thing its centre has a range of bars and restaurants to rival any city in Northern Europe.
That part of Antwerp province lying to the south of the city isn’t of much immediate appeal – it’s too industrial for that – but there’s compensation in a string of old Flemish towns that make ideal day-trips. The obvious targets are small-town Lier, whose centre is particularly quaint and diverting, and Mechelen, the ecclesiastical capital of Belgium, which weighs in with its handsome Gothic churches, most memorably a magnificent cathedral. Southeast from here, just beyond the reaches of Brussels’ sprawling suburbs, the lively university town of Leuven is the principal attraction of this corner of Vlams-Brabant (Flemish Brabant), boasting its own clutch of fine medieval buildings.
Further to the east, the province of Limburg is, unlike Antwerp, seldom visited by tourists, its low-key mixture of small towns and rolling farmland having limited appeal. Nevertheless, Hasselt, the workaday capital, does have an amenable, laidback air, and pint-sized Tongeren, which claims to be the oldest town in Belgium, makes a good hand of its Roman history. Tongeren is also a relaxing spot to overnight or to rent a bike and cycle off into the surrounding countryside, where the village of Zoutleeuw is distinguished by its spectacular fourteenth-century church – the only one in Belgium that managed to avoid the depredations of Protestants, iconoclasts and invading armies.Read More
The Kempen – and Baarle-Hertog
The Kempen – and Baarle-Hertog
Filling out the northeast corner of Belgium, just beyond Antwerp, are the flat, sandy moorlands of the Kempen. Once a barren wasteland dotted with the poorest of agricultural communities – and punctuated by tracts of acid heath, bog and deciduous woodland – the Kempen’s more hospitable parts were first cultivated and planted with pine by pioneering Cistercian monks in the twelfth century. The monks helped develop and sustain a strong regional identity and dialect, which survives in good order today, though the area’s towns and villages are in themselves uniformly drab. The Kempen was also the subject of endless territorial bickering during the creation of an independent Belgium in the 1830s, a particular point of dispute being the little town of Baarle-Hertog, about 35km northeast of Antwerp. The final compromise verged on the ridiculous: Baarle-Hertog was designated as being part of Belgium, but it was surrounded by Dutch territory and the international border between it and the adjoining (Dutch) town of Baarle-Nassau actually cut through houses, never mind dividing streets. If you’re eager to have one leg in the Netherlands, another in Belgium, then here’s the spot.