The Real Flanders
Belgium is an amazing European destination, one that features 127
Michelin starred restaurants (2 with 3 stars, 23 with 2 stars and 102 with 1 star), more than 1,600 unique beers, spectacular art, 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is home to dozens of quaint cities and villages such Bruges and Ghent.
Belgium consists of two distinct states. Wallonia is the French speaking southern state which is just a bit larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut. Flanders, by contrast, is the Dutch speaking northern state, just a tad smaller than Connecticut, and features such visitor favorites as Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels and Ghent.
Since Flanders is home to many of America’s favorite Belgium destinations, I thought we would look at a means of seeing the real Flanders, the one that is often overlooked. There are many ways to explore Flanders. Coach tours, train excursions, and bike journeys all come to mind, however I would suggest that the best ways to explore the wonders of Flanders is by taking to the waterways. The state of Flanders has over 866 miles (1,395 kilometers) of navigable waterways, which include both rivers and canals.
The meandering waterways of Flanders will lead you through picturesque villages, unspoiled rural landscapes, castles, medieval city centers, nature areas and tourist attractions. All are accessible via the incomparable, relaxed rhythm of canal boats, barges or river cruise ships. The intricate mesh of the Flanders waterway network makes it possible to create enchanting cruise itineraries of a couple of days, or a couple of weeks of traveling.
The most popular way to cruise the waterways of Flanders is probably by river cruise ships. One of the leading river cruise companies servicing this market is AMA Waterways. Their “Best of Holland and Belgium” program features 3 stops in Flanders. Their first Flanders port of call would be the city of Ghent. A vibrant university town, Ghent just happens to be filled with stunning medieval architecture such as the 12th-century Gravensteen Castle and the Graslei, a row of guildhalls beside the Leie River harbor. Ghent is probably best known as the home of the Ghent Altarpiece, a 15th century painting by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, which is now housed in a new museum section of the Saint Bravo Cathedral.
From the Ghent port of call it is also possible to visit the “Venice of the North,” Bruges, famous for its canals spreading out like fingers throughout the city. The “Historic Centre of Bruges” has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. One of my favorite things to do in Bruges is to visit historic Bruges Markt. It is a beautiful open square surrounded by delightful architecture, cafes and restaurants and plenty of tourists snapping the perfect Instagram shot. The most notable points in the square are the imposing neogothic Provinciaal Hof building and Craenenberg Café where Maximilllian of Austria was imprisoned in the year 1488. The best way to enjoy the square is to grab a seat at a cafe, order a great Belgium beer or coffee and watch the world unfold before your eyes.
Typically the second port of call is Brussels. Brussels is both the Capital of Belgium and the de facto Capital of the European Union. While Brussels may not have the star pull of Bruges or Ghent, the capital has more than enough attractions to make this a memorable stop, with a plethora of world-class museums and art galleries. For those not interested in museums there are quirkier things to do, such as the Atomium (constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair), or enjoying the architecture of the old town quarter. The MUST see attraction in Brussels is The Grand Place (“Grand Square” in French), otherwise known as Grote Markt (Dutch for “Grand Market”), the central square in Brussels – a top tourist destination and one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. Surrounded by opulent guildhalls with cafes, the Choco-Story chocolate museum, and dominated by two larger buildings: the Gothic-style City Hall, and the King’s House or Breadhouse accommodating the Brussels City Museum- the Grand Place never ceases to amaze. You will find centuries-old bars hidden down its many alleys serving authentic Belgian beer, restaurants offering steamed mussels along the narrow Rue des Bouchers, stores selling delicious chocolate, lace and souvenirs, and so much more.
The final stop in Flanders would be in the “City of Diamonds,” Antwerp. The city nickname derives from the fact that 84 percent of the world’s uncut diamonds pass through its diamond district. A tour of the diamond district is a great way to become acquainted with this city. Antwerp itself is a hidden gem that often gets overshadowed by its importance to the world of diamonds, yet there much more to be discovered here. This is a modern city that also boasts medieval streetscapes, renaissance monuments and a lively nightlife. Not to be outdone by Milan, Italy, it also happens to be a giant in the fashion industry, with its Fashion Design School often credited as one of the best in the world. Additionally, the MoMu (ModeMuseum), a.k.a. Fashion Museum, reopened in September 2021 after a multi-year renovation. Some sights not to be missed while visiting Antwerp are the Centraal trains stations, the still unfinished Cathedral of Our Lady (construction began in 1351), the Rubens House, Chocolate Nation and the emigration museum Red Star Line.
ALTERNATIVE CRUISE OPTIONS
I know some agents are thinking that they have customers that would rather not be on a crowded river cruise ship (really they only have about 160 guests on them!) For those guests Flanders can offer private boat rentals or canal barges that would allow clients to travel at their own pace through Flanders’ waterways and visit quaint smaller villages. Flanders is crisscrossed by 16 different canals which create endless possibilities for a slow, personalized vacation on the water.
For those looking for a canal boat vacations, self-captained vessels are usually available in sizes that range from 4 berths to 8 berths. A self-captained boating experience is easy in Flanders, as all the canals and rivers are easily navigable. Since Flanders is flat lowland, there are usually only a handful of locks (boat elevators) that need to be accessed. These vessels are perfect for those clients that looking to see Europe and want to do it at their own pace and their own style. Just like renting a car, the guests become responsible for their own housekeeping, meals, fuel and navigation.
A nice compromise between guests that want the full-on river cruise experience and those that want to explore the waterways on their own, are river barges. While called “barges,” these are actually old barges that have been converted into boutique boat hotels. Operating under their own power and staffed by crew, chefs and housekeeping services, this is an amazing way to see both the tourist towns, such as Ghent or Bruges along with the smaller villages along the canal routes. Canal barges are generally quite a bit more luxurious than self-captained canal boats and feature dining rooms, common lounge areas, private en-suite bathrooms and air conditioning. Some barges even offer an outdoor jacuzzi. Most canal barges feature only 6 to 12 berths, so you can be sure that your clients will have both an intimate experience and be pampered by the attentive crew.
What makes selling a Flanders waterways vacation such great opportunity for travel advisors is that it is one those rare upsells that is a true WIN-WIN for all concerned. Cruising along a river or a canal is a much more immersive experience than driving down a modern highway in a 50 passenger coach. Clients unpack only once, without having to switch hotels every day. The result is that your clients make unique memories as they travel through scenic waterways taking in Flanders, its amazing nature, villages and medieval towns. You will receive both happier clients and much larger commissions. A true WIN-WIN. Additional information on the wonders of Flanders, Belgium can be found at www.VisitFlanders.com and specific questions can be directed to Marco Frank at Marco.Frank@VisitFlanders.com