Flanders (Dutch: Vlaanderen) is the Dutch-speaking, northern part of Belgium wedged between the North Sea and the Netherlands in the north and Wallonia and France in the south. This region has an immense historical and cultural wealth made visible through its buildings, works of art and festivals.
- Antwerp (Antwerpen) — Flanders' biggest city, with a large cathedral, the second-largest port of Europe, and plenty to see and do.
- Bruges (Brugge) — also known as the "Venice of the north", a very nice medieval town with lots of small canals
- Hasselt — capital city of Limburg, with a lot of greenery and shopping possibilities
- Kortrijk — an old city with famous medieval towers (Broeltowers) and a big pedestrian shopping district
- Ghent (Gent) — a more medieval city located approximatively in the centre of Flanders, half way between Antwerp and Bruges
- Leuven — an old town with a very old university and a beautiful town hall
- Mechelen — small town with a famous cathedral
- Sint-Niklaas — offering nice cycling opportunities and boasts Belgium's largest market square
- Ypres (Ieper) — made famous by its destruction during the First World War; many memorials and museums
Nowadays, Flanders is one of the three federal regions of Belgium (the other two being Wallonia and Brussels). This means that it has its own government, a parliament and separate laws. The capital, however, is Brussels, over which Flanders has only partial jurisdiction. But Flanders has travelled a long historic road before arriving at its present situation. Once being its own County of Flanders, the territory has been part of several larger countries or empires. Since Belgium's founding in 1830, tensions between the Flemish and French-speaking population have led to the federalisation of Belgium.
The split between the regions is quite noticeable when travelling via public transport. The bus line operator in Flanders differs from the one in Brussels and Wallonia, resulting in different ticket types and different prices. The train network is a uniform network, however, but the announcements are adapted to the language of the region the train is driving in. Also when travelling by car, you'll see that the traffic signs are translated, so it's better to look up the name of your destination in Dutch and French before you leave.
Flanders has several airports:
- Brussels Airport (BRU IATA). Located in Zaventem, this is the main airport in Belgium and likely the most convenient point of entry.
- Antwerp Airport (ANR IATA). Located in the District of Deurne, a few kilometers from Antwerp it only has direct flights to London and Manchester catering for business customers.
- Ostend - Bruges International Airport (OST IATA). Located in Oostende, mostly served by charter and freight flights.
There are several ports of entry at the coast and on the Schelde you can find several small ports too.
From England there is only one option to reach Flanders by boat, and that is by using the ferry that operates between Kingston upon Hull to Zeebrugge, a part of Bruges.
The E19 goes through Flanders, also the E40 crosses the region.
By bicycle or on foot. As we are in the European Union there are no borders and you can travel freely. Several places have nature parks and allow you to walk in and out (often following old-smugglers routes).
All roads are free of charge in Flanders except that some tunnels, such as the Liefkenshoektunnel in Antwerp, have tolls.
The roads and signalisation are pretty good and almost completely lit during the night.
Many foreigners find in-town traffic nervous due to the many twisty, small roads with very busy traffic. Older towns can appear to be a maze of one-way streets, where a single missed turn might takes you to the other side of the town. One-way streets also often change, causing navigation units and paper maps to be outdated very soon (even if you just installed new updates). Often it is better to park your car and continue on foot. Do not forget to look out for bicycles when you're driving in a town, bikes might ride fast and appear from everywhere. Car drivers are also held completely responsible when they are involved in an accident with bikes or pedestrians. The maximum speed in towns is normally 50 km/h, and quite often reduced to 30 km/h. In general, the towns are not large, and most towns have a ring-road, allowing you to drive to the other side without driving through the town.
In-between smaller towns, the road-network consists mostly out of 2-lane roads, where the speed limit changes between 90 km/h (in the fields) and 50 km/h (when you cross a village). The roads are quite straight, the road surface is well-maintained, and the cyclists normally have separated lanes. So outside towns, driving cars is a better option.
The motorway network in Flanders is quite well developed, and connects all bigger cities, and gives good access to the neighbouring countries. But during rush hour (around 8:00 and 17:00), there are many traffic jams around Brussels and Antwerp. In the summer, there are also traffic jams on the E40, connecting the coast to the mainland. The maximum speed on motorways is 120 km/h.
By public transport
The national train-company is called NMBS. Trains will get you to most cities.
In cities you will find buses, trams and metro from De Lijn(The Line). The same ticket is valid for 90 minutes for one zone. You can buy multiple-ride tickets (Lijnkaart), this is cheaper than buying a ticket per ride. Depending on the number of trips you make in a day, buying a day pass might be cheaper than using multiple single tickets or tickets for multiple zones. Buying tickets from a machine or ticket office (Lijnwinkel) is cheaper than buying from the driver. De Lijn ticket offices might be closed in the off-hours. De Lijn tickets are valid in every Flemish city, but not in Brussels. Brussels has its own transport company called MIVB/STIB. However, De Lijn offers a few buses in Brussels and on these buses the regular De Lijn tickets are used.
Antwerp and Ghent have a tram network, and the coast also has a single tram-line, connecting all coastal towns. The tram networks are, just as the bus lines, operated by De Lijn and the same tickets are used as on the bus. There are no metro lines in Flemish cities.
Flanders has a vast network of special roads for bicycles. Get a map in a tourists office, because sometimes they can be hard to find.
Inside towns, when there is no separate lane designed for cyclists they ride between the cars due to the narrow streets, so be cautious. If however there is a bicycle lane, you are obliged to use it. If not, you can face a fine. Outside towns, most big roads have dedicated cycle lanes, though small roads (even when they have no dedicated cycle lane) are more relaxing to ride on.
At some train stations, there are bicycle rental opportunities.
The cycle node network
Flanders implemented a cycle node network. See the map. The network connects streets where cycling is relaxing. Every crossing between relaxing streets received a node number. When you create a route, you only need to write down the node numbers on a small piece of paper, and tape it to your bike. This way, there's no need to mess with big paper maps, or trying to attach a navigation device to your bike. However, you should always carry a map with you, in case you miss a sign. The cycle node network is ideal to create your own roundtrips in the countryside, or to bring you from one town to another.
Getting around by foot is by far the easiest inside towns. You don't need to take one-way streets into account, and most streets have raised sidewalks. Quite often, streets in the town centre are completely reserved for pedestrians. Many of the historical streets do have cobblestones as their primary pavement, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes. Most towns are also small enough to visit them purely on foot.
The official language of Flanders is the Flemish dialect of Dutch. Flemish Dutch has some vocabulary not used in the Netherlands and a distinct, soft accent but it is still standard Dutch. Nearly all Flemings, with the partial exception of senior ones, are capable of speaking standard Dutch.
Most people know English at least moderately, and the younger generation (younger than 30) in particular can be expected to understand English properly. Not everyone can engage in a conversation with native English speakers due to lack of spoken English experience. Above 50, the chance of successfully communicating with someone in English decreases rapidly. Basic French is, just like English, taught in schools to everyone, but with the exception of areas in the proximity of the language border, French language skills are usually insufficient for an effective conversation. Flemings are proud of their language, an in the Flemish region around Brussels for example, many locals might not appreciate you ask something in French. Either way, English is a better bet to ask something or start a conversation. A considerable number of people also understand German, but many have difficulties speaking it due to the different pronunciations and conjugations. If you speak German slowly, Flemings will likely understand what you're trying to say. Other languages are most likely unknown, with the exception of Arabic, Turkish and Berber in some Antwerp suburbs where immigrants accumulate.
Tourist brochures are often available 3 or 4 languages (German is sometimes excluded). Official information (s.a. public transport schedules and traffic signs) are very often only in Dutch. Town names on the traffic signs are also translated to Dutch (s.a. "Luik" instead of "Liège", "Rijsel" instead of "Lille", etc.)
Viewing a movie in Flanders is also possible. Most films are shown in the original version (see OV at the theaters) with French and Dutch subtitles, only child-movies are often dubbed (noted with NV at the theaters).
- Historical cities, like Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Lier or Mechelen.
- Belfries of Belgium and France — 24 belfries in Flanders are part of this geographically large UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Flemish Beguinages — a kind of Medieval monasteries. 13 such beguinages have been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List; they can be found in Hoogstraten, Lier, Mechelen, Turnhout, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Dendermonde, two in Ghent, Diest, Leuven, Bruges, and Kortrijk.
There are many music festivals organised throughout the summer. The bigger ones happen in a small village, because there is lots of space and not many neighbours to complain about the noise.
Some of the famous ones are:
- Pukkelpop (near Hasselt) is still an independent festival organised by youth movements. They figure big names but try to have alternative groups too.
- Rock Werchter (near Leuven), owned by Clearchannel features all big commercial bands.
- Maanrock (in Mechelen) is one of the larger free festivals. It's inside the city.
- Marktrock (in Leuven) has many different stages with different kinds of music all over the city. Most music is popular music, though there are many small bands playing there. The main stage is the only stage not to be free. Every time you enter you pay a small fee (5 euro in 2003).
- Sfinks (near Antwerp) is a world music festival. It has a really nice atmosphere. There is a lot of side animation, like a big market.
- Pole-Pole (in Ghent)
- Openluchttheater Rivierenhof (near Antwerp) isn't really a festival, though it has big bands all through the summer. Usually they "pick up" artists that have a few days without a gig.
- Couleur Café (in Brussels)
- Werchter Classic (near Leuven) mainly offers classic rock bands, but has been featuring artists that had their break-through only recently. It's mostly a re-use of the Rock Werchter facilities.
- Graspop (metal music), Rhythm 'n Blues, Dranouter (folk music), Cactus festival, Rock Ternat, Rock@Edegem ... (there are too many to sum up)
The festivals organised in towns are often free and very nice. They stay away from commercial music and have good bands playing combined with small local bands. Flanders has some nice music bands with some international fame(dEUS, Das Pop, Zita Swoon, Soulwax,...)
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- Beer. Beer is taken seriously in Belgium. There are hundreds of brands to choose from.
- Café. Every city or village has a café.
Flanders is very safe. You will find that people are usually very helpful. In towns, you should of course beware of usual petty crime (pickpockets in tourist places). Some suburbs around Antwerp have high concentrations of immigrants and should be avoided at night for safety, but tourists are usually unlikely to visit them because these areas typically offer little touristic value. The police force in Flanders is professional and the corruption levels are low in comparison to other government structures. When in trouble, do not hesitate to address police officers, who can be expected to engage in a conversation in English anywhere in Flanders. In touristic areas in particular, police officers will be able to communicate fluently in English.
The relatively flat topography of Flanders favors cycling, but unlike its northern neighbor, cycling infrastructure is poorly developed in many parts of Flanders. Cycling roads are absent outside the major cities, and where cycling roads are available, they are often in a state of disrepair. Wearing a fluorescent vest and safety helmet are not mandatory in Flanders, but of course highly recommendable.
With the exception of wild boars with young offspring, there is no dangerous wildlife in Flanders, and woods or forests are safe any time of the day. In the summer season however, ticks are known to reside in tall grass, and have a small chance of carrying Lyme disease. Check your legs when walking through tall grass or wear long trousers. If strongly discolored concentric circles show up on your skin, you might be bitten by a thick, and it is recommendable to consult a doctor immediately.
Jaywalking is not a crime in Flanders, and vehicles will slow down or stop if you stand at the side of the road with visible intention of crossing.
Tap water is safe to drink anywhere in Flanders, so drink bottles can be refilled at any occasion. Surface water however (streams, rivers, wells) are usually heavily polluted as a result of Flanders' high population density, and unsuitable for consumption regardless of how clean they look.
- Flemings don't like to talk about their income or political preference. You should also avoid asking people about their views on religion. Flemings however like to talk about beer and chocolates.
- The Flanders-Wallonia question or dispute and the high number of separatist and extreme-right votes in Flanders are controversial topics and you should avoid asking strangers about their views on these as well. Once you get to know them better and you feel they are open for it, you can ask them about it.
- Although many Flemings speak French, avoid speaking the language, as it may be regarded by some as disrespectful, due to the Flanders-Wallonia tensions. Explaining you're a tourist (and don't live there) will usually make people more forgiving.
- Most people enjoy helping tourists, and a lot of people speak, apart from Dutch, also English, French or German (especially the students). Don't hesitate to ask locals if you have a question.
- Throwing garbage or gum on the street is frowned upon - don't be surprised if someone talks to you if you do. You'll soon notice Leuven is a very clean city and locals respect this and try to keep it this way. Use the many bins.
- Giving tips shows that you were content with the service given, but you are certainly not obliged to do so. It is sometimes done in bars and restaurants. Depending on the total, a tip of €0,50 to €2,50 is considered generous.
- If you visit Flanders it would be very logical to also visit Wallonia. Though there is a different mentality, you will find that they are Belgians just like the Flemish (lots of beer and good food).
- Paris is pretty close, so are London, Cologne, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. These destinations can be reached by train easily.