I’ve recently become enamored with the historic cities of Flandres, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. Whilst I used to only pass through Flandres in the past, often on my way to France, I first discovered Flemish cities on a study trip to the region in 2007. Wandering through places like Bruges or Ghent with a group of Dutch planning students, we discovered that Flemish city centers generally seemed older than the ones in The Netherlands.
Indeed, Flandres was the first region north of the Alps to bloom in the early renaissance. Many Flemish cities experienced a golden age between the 12th and 16th centuries, much earlier than Dutch cities like Amsterdam, that didn’t experience their golden age until the 17th century. Antwerp, for instance, was considered the center of the international economy in the 16th century and even became the wealthiest city in all of Europe at that time. In fact, it wasn’t until the city came under Catholic control in 1585 when a mass exodus of Protestant merchants and bankers to the Netherlands sparked the rise of Amsterdam as the new primary trading center of Europe. And Bruges already was a trading and industrial center at the heart of the Hanseatic league as early as the 12th century.
Most, if not all, Flemish cities have a central market square, or Grote Markt. These central plazas form the civic hearts of the communities, and the central point of the historical city centers. Their edges are lined with cafés and restaurants, whose outdoor seating areas spill out onto the square (terrific if you like people watching). Many of a city’s most prominent buildings are often located here too, including Belfry towers, churches, Aldermen Houses, and City Halls.
As many of the cities in Flandres began as outposts on riverbanks, their oldest buildings are often located along the water. This makes for stunning sights, such as in Ghent.
Walking around in these city centers, one truly experiences a sense of anticipation. Streets are mostly narrow, crooked and curved; grand vistas are hardly found in the historical inner cities. Where one moment you feel like you’re navigating through a maze of medieval streets, the grand market square majestically unfolds the moment you turn a corner. There is no telling what you’ll stumble upon next. That makes walking through these cities quite an engaging experience.
The historical centers of the largest Flemish cities, being Antwerpen, Ghent, Bruges, and Mechelen, are preserved quite well and have not suffered major damage during World Wars I and II. Leuven was burned down in World War I, but has been meticulously rebuilt in an historically accurate way, with British and American money. And whilst the buildings that make up the urban fabric of Leuven today thus aren’t completely authentic, the replicas do ensure that we can still experience this historical urban center in much the same way as past generations have. Some might call the rebuilt center a piece of faux history, but to me, it’s the experience that counts.
When these Flemish cities flourished, walking was the main mode of transportation. This is observable everywhere in the urban fabric, from the width of the streets, to the cobblestone paving, to the detailing on facades. Even today, these cities remain examples of walkable urbanism and people-scaled streets.
That is not to say that the historical centers of Flemish cities haven’t adapted to more modern transportation technologies. To the contrary, they actually enjoy an excellent accessibility for cyclists and transit riders. Transit lines are carefully integrated in their historic cores, whilst bike parking garages are sometimes installed below ground, as is the case in Leuven.
Everything taken together, Flemish cities are amongst my very favorite ones in the world. The mixture of walkability, people-scaled urbanism, and historic buildings has earned them a special place in this urbanist’s heart.