From the coasts of Flanders facing the North Sea to the dense forests cladding the Ardennes, a great diversity of landscapes characterises Belgium, one of Europe’s smaller countries. Beaches of fine sand, dunes, polders, undulating farmlands, heaths, valleys and uplands make up an ever-changing but harmonious landscape. Likewise, little Luxembourg is an appealing combination of river valleys, glorious forests and bold escarpments.
Belgium covers an area of 30 547sq km/ 11 794 sq mi, and has a population of 10 584 534 (2007 estimate). With 336 inhabitants per sq km, it is one of Europe’s most densely populated countries. The movement of people and goods benefits from an excellent infrastructure, including numerous navigable waterways and a dense road network, and commuting between home and workplace is highly developed.
The country is divided into three regions.
Lower Belgium consists of the provinces of Antwerpen (pop 1 688 493, capital Antwerp), Limburg (pop 814 658, capital Hasselt), Oost-Vlaanderen/East Flanders (pop 1 389 450, capital Ghent) and West-Vlaanderen/West Flanders (pop 1 141 866, capital Bruges).
The 70km/43.5mi of straight coastline is the only part of Belgium which borders the sea. The beautiful beaches of fine white sand have made this coast a highly popular holiday venue, but have not made it easy to build ports. The only natural harbour is the mouth of the River IJzer (Yser) where the port town of Nieuwpoort is located. Zeebrugge is a man-made fishing port.
The coast has developed beyond recognition since the Middle Ages and is now bounded by sea-dykes or by a broad belt of dunes. In the past, it was marshy land criss-crossed by an infinite number of waterways. Over the years, these gradually became choked with mud, and in the case of the silting up of the Zwin tributary, ruined Bruges as a trading centre. Human effort completed the work of nature by creating a polder area on the landward side of the dunes.
Although they are not the size of the Dutch ones, Belgian polders were created in the same way. They were once marshlands, which have been drained and dried out and are now protected against the tides by sluices. They extend over a vast area, their fertile soils the basis for a prosperous agriculture.
These lowlands between the Scheldt, the Meuse and the Demer extend over the provinces of Antwerpen, Brabant and Limburg and into the Netherlands. Huge quantities of sand and pebbles deposited by the rivers have created a marshy and infertile landscape where only pines and heather can grow on the poor soil.
Although the Kempen now has few inhabitants, it was once a favourite place for monks to build their monasteries (Postel, Westmalle and Tongerlo). Some of the land was reclaimed and cultivated in the 19C, while other areas were taken over by the armed forces (Leopoldsburg, founded in 1850). In the 20C, industries were attracted by the building of the Albert Canal in 1939 and the region became the home of the Centre of Nuclear Studies at Mol (1952). The only valuable natural resource is coal. This was discovered at the end of the 19C near Genk, but the coal seams have been gradually abandoned as they became unprofitable.
The Sandy West
This region, with its occasional valleys, extends between the coast and the polders and the Leie and Scheldt rivers. Several peaks are all that remain of the more resistant strata, among them the Kemmelberg, Kluisberg and Mont St Aubert.
The land is cultivated much more intensively here than in the Kempen, and the area is far more densely populated. The cultivated fields are bounded by lines of poplars.
It is easy to reach the ancient strata here, making it possible to work the quarries (porphyry in Lessines and Tournai). Some areas, like the Houtland near Torhout, are densely wooded. In the Middle Ages, the waterways helped the development of the textile industry, which continues to flourish today around Kortrijk, Tournai and Ghent.
The provinces of Flemish Brabant (pop 1 044 133, capital Leuven), Walloon Brabant (pop 366 481, capital Wavre) and Hainaut (pop 1 290 079, capital Mons), together with the Brussels-Capital Region (pop 1 018 804), constitute the heart of the country. The region consists of a cretaceous plain, rising gradually towards the Ardennes massif to the south, finally reaching an altitude of about 200m/656ft. Its relatively fertile soil supports both arable and livestock farming.
The Haspengouw/Hesbaye plateau to the east and the Hainaut to the west are covered with a layer of very fertile soil. This is arable country, where villages are tucked away in valleys, and farms are large and isolated. The limestone, sandstone or brick buildings (the last often whitewashed) usually surround a vast central courtyard, which is reached through a single, sometimes monumental, gateway. Where Central Belgium meets the Ardennes, the long valley excavated by the rivers Sambre and Meuse between Charleroi and Liège goes further into the Borinage area around Mons. Here coal-bearing strata are exposed, the basis for Belgium’s most important mining area, with its concomitant metal-working industries along the “Sambre-Meuse line” around Liège, Charleroi and La Louvière.
Namur (pop 458 574, capital Namur), Liège (pop 1 040 297, capital Liège) and Luxembourg (pop 258 547, capital Arlon) are the three provinces that make up Upper Belgium (Haute Belgique). The remains of an ancient, much eroded massif, the Ardennes are the westward extension of the Eifel uplands in Germany. Famous for the forests dating from the Roman period (the name “Ardennes” comes from the name of the goddess Arduinna), the region is divided into the Lower and Upper Ardennes.
This series of plateaux, at an average altitude of 200-500m/656-1 640ft, extend southward from the Meuse. The Condroz is a moderately fertile region, composed of limestone and schist. The main town is Ciney. Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse lies south of Charleroi. The broad depressions of Famenne (main town: Marche-en-Famenne) and Fagne are typically damp, wooded regions of sandstone and rock. Deep, narrow valleys gouged out by the Lesse, Ourthe and Meuse run between these plateaux.
The humid Herve region, consisting mostly of pastureland, together with the Verviers region, is part of the Lower Ardennes. The border region south of Couvin, known as the Pays des Rièzes et des Sarts, is over 300m/984ft in altitude, and is one of the areas where the ancient rock foundation of the Ardennes is exposed.
The area consists of plateaux and gently rounded summits rising to more than 500m/1 640ft. The most resistant ridges make up the inhospitable area of Hautes Fagnes, which includes the highest point in Belgium, the Signal de Botrange (694m/2 277ft). Peat bogs have developed on the waterlogged, poorly drained ground here.
Considerable tracts of the Upper Ardennes have been planted with coniferous trees. The winding river valleys, such as that of the Amblève, are more welcoming.
Lacking in natural resources, ill-favoured by the harsh climate and with only difficult access, the region did not develop at the same pace as the rest of the country for many years. But it has now opened up to tourism.
The Belgian Lorraine (Arlon) and the Gaume (Virton) regions belong geologically to the southern part of Luxembourg.
Covering an area of 2 585sq km/998sq mi, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has a population of 480 222, 85 000 of whom live in the capital, Luxembourg. To the east, Luxembourg is bordered by the German Bundesländer of Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland, and the border is formed by three rivers: the Moselle, the Sauer and the Our. The Grand Duchy’s southern neighbour is the French region of Lorraine. Luxembourg also borders Belgium to the west, especially its provinces of Luxembourg and Liège, as well as a German-speaking area of Belgium, to the north. The country as a whole consists of two very different geographical regions.
In the north, the Oesling (the Luxembourg Ardennes) is a plateau linking the Ardennes with the Eifel. At its highest point it reaches 559m/1 834ft (Burgplaatz). Thinly populated like the Belgian Ardennes (only the town of Wiltz has a population of more than four thousand people) because of its harsh climate, the region’s principal economic activity is tourism.
The Gutland (or “Bon Pays”) to the south, covering two-thirds of the country, has a milder climate due to its lower altitude, gently sloping down towards French Lorraine. It is formed of various strata of sandstone and limestone, alternating with clay and marl which yield good arable soils. The Luxembourg vineyards are southeast of the Gutland, on the slopes overlooking the Moselle valley.
Where the hard rocks of the ancient upland massif meet softer formations, erosion has created “côtes”, steep east-west running escarpments covered with beech forests. The northern escarpment stretches from the Arlon area to Echternach, running along the north of Luxembourg’s “Little Switzerland”. The southern escarpment extends along the border with France and carries on into Belgium to just south of Virton.
The limestone areas of southern Belgium are famous for their caves, some of which have been an important tourist attraction for many years.
In the Lower Ardennes, an almost complete ring of rivers surrounds the Condroz plateau; the waters of the Meuse, Ourthe and Lesse have cut deep trenches through the schists and limestones and have hollowed out extensive cave systems, such as the Fondry des Chiens at Nismes or the Vallon des Chantoirs at Sougné-Remouchamps, where the caves are of the type known as “chantoirs”.
Water percolating through the limestone dissolves it, forming subterranean rivers, which are sometimes just the underground stretch of a river which otherwise runs on the surface. The Lesse is an example of this, disappearing near Han to reappear 10km/6.2mi further on. It runs through the Grotte de Han, the most famous cavern in Belgium. The great chamber at the Grotte de Rochefort is equally impressive.
In most cases the subterranean river has a tendency to cut deeper and deeper. Because of this, the old river bed higher up fills up only during floods. It can be a thrilling experience to take a boat along the course of an underground river, as at Remouchamps, where the trip covers about 1km/0.6mi.
The caves at Goyet, Furfooz and Han were inhabited during the prehistoric period.
Underground, the water deposits the limestone it has accumulated from filtering through the soil, forming the fantastic shapes of concretions. Stalactites, projections downwards from the roof, are the best known, along with stalagmites, columns rising up from the floor. Stalactites combine to form draperies, or fuse with a stalagmite to make a pillar.
The delicate concretions that are produced by crystallisation, which often “grow” diagonally, produce gravity-defying, eccentric shapes. Although they are generally white and formed of calcite, they are sometimes tinted with minerals: for example, iron oxide produces a reddish colour, while manganese gives a brownish one..