The Flemish-speaking provinces of West Vlaanderen and Oost Vlaanderen (West Flanders and East Flanders) roll east from the North Sea coast, stretching out towards Brussels and Antwerp. As early as the thirteenth century, Flanders was one of the most prosperous areas of Europe, with an advanced, integrated economy dependent on the cloth trade with England. The boom times lasted a couple of centuries, but by the sixteenth century the region was in decline as trade slipped north towards the Netherlands, and England’s cloth manufacturers began to undermine its economic base. The speed of the collapse was accelerated by religious conflict, for though the great Flemish towns were by inclination Protestant, their kings and queens were Catholic. Indeed, once the Habsburgs had seen off the Protestant challenge in Flanders, thousands of Flemish weavers, merchants and skilled artisans poured north to escape religious persecution. The ultimate economic price of these religious wars was the closure of the River Scheldt, the main waterway to the North Sea, at the insistence of the Dutch in 1648. Thereafter, Flanders sank into poverty and decay, a static, priest-ridden and traditional society where nearly every aspect of life was controlled by decree, and only three percent of the population could read or write.
With precious little say in the matter, the Flemish peasantry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw their lands crossed and re-crossed by the armies of the Great Powers, for it was here that the relative fortunes of dynasties and nations were decided. Only with Belgian independence did the situation begin to change: the towns started to industrialize, tariffs protected the cloth industry, Zeebrugge was built and Ostend was modernized, all in a flurry of activity that shook Flanders from its centuries-old torpor. This steady progress was severely interrupted by the German occupations of both world wars, but Flanders has emerged prosperous, its citizens maintaining a distinctive cultural and linguistic identity, often in sharp opposition to their Walloon (French-speaking) neighbours.
With the exception of the range of low hills around Oudenaarde and the sea dunes along the coast, Flanders is unrelentingly flat, a somewhat monotonous landscape at its best in its quieter recesses, where poplar trees and whitewashed farmhouses still decorate sluggish canals. More remarkably, there are many reminders of Flanders’ medieval greatness, beginning with the ancient and fascinating cloth cities of Bruges and Ghent, both of which hold marvellous collections of early Flemish art. Less familiar are a clutch of intriguing smaller towns, most memorably Oudenaarde, which has a delightful town hall and is famed for its tapestries; Kortrijk, with its classic small-town charms and fine old church; and Veurne, whose main square is framed by a beguiling medley of fine old buildings. There is also, of course, the legacy of World War I. By 1915, the trenches extended from the North Sea coast to Switzerland, cutting across West Flanders via Diksmuide and Ieper, and many of the key engagements of the war were fought here. Every year hundreds of visitors head for Ieper (formerly Ypres) to see the numerous cemeteries and monuments around the town – sad reminders of what proved to be a desperately pointless conflict. Not far from the battlefields, the Belgian coast is beach territory, an almost continuous stretch of golden sand that is filled by thousands of tourists every summer. An excellent tram service connects all the major resorts, and although a lot of the development has been crass, cosy De Haan has kept much of its late nineteenth-century charm. The largest town on the coast is Ostend, a lively, working seaport and resort crammed with popular bars and restaurants.