Country Profile: The Benelux Countries

On The Road Travel Essays

back to index

Country Profile: The Benelux Countries


Avec des cathédrales pour uniques montagnes,
With its cathedrals as only mountains

Et de noirs clochers comme mats de cocagne
And its dark clock towers as poles of plenty

Où des diables en pierre décrochent les nuages,
Where stone devils snatch at clouds,

Avec le fil des jours pour uniques voyages,
The thread linking the days as the only journey

Avec des chemins de pluie pour unique bonsoir,
And paths of rain as the only evening greeting,

Avec le vent de l'est écoutez-le vouloir;
With the east wind — listen to its desires —

Le plat pays qui est le mien.
The flat country which is mine.

"Le Plat Pays" 2nd verse Jacques Brel (1929-1978)

(It's better in French.)

The following is not intended to provide the basis for a coherent commentary. It is simply a collection of random facts, figures and curiosities.

Belgium covers an area of 11,781 square miles and has a population of about 10,000,000. This makes for a population density of 830 inhabitants per square mile, one of the highest ratios in Europe. 33% of the people live in major industrial areas.

It is made up of 9 provinces: West Flanders (Bruges), East Flanders (Ghent), Antwerp (Antwerp), Limburg (Hasselt), Hainault (Mons), Brabant (Brussels), Namur (Namur), Liège (Liège), Luxembourg (Arlon).

Dutch (or Flemish) is spoken in Flanders (60% of the population); French spoken in Wallonia (39%); German near Eupen (1%). Belgium is officially trilingual.

75% of the population is Catholic.

The present Head of State is King Albert II (since 1993). He succeeded King Baudouin I (1951-93).

In 1990, during the debate on abortion, King Baudouin I found himself morally unable to sign and ratify the law so he abdicated for a day to allow it to be passed.

The present Prime Minister is Jean-Luc Dehaene; the government is a coalition as always.

Belgian National Day is 21 July, the anniversary of Leopold I's triumphant entry into Brussels in 1831.

Belgium imports 70% of the goods it consumes.

The Belgians are the world's biggest beer drinkers. The brewing industry here is of superb quality and huge. Total annual output of the Belgian beer industry is 14,000 million litres, more than 1,000 litres per head of population. Among the most typical and famous Belgian beers are the Trappist beers fermented at high temperatures (e.g., Orval, Chimay, Westmalle) and those that are left for years to ferment spontaneously, the Gueuzes, Lambics and Kriek Lambics (the latter are cherry-flavoured).

Belgium has more Michelin-starred restaurants per head of population and per square mile than any other country. Even so, the great national dish is frites mayonnaise. They are allegedly so good because they are fried twice and then flung into the air to lose the extra oil. The first mention of the Belgian frite in history dates back to 1781 and attributes its invention to hungry fishermen on the river Meuse.

Driving licences have only been available in Belgium since 1969. And then at first, all you had to do to get one was pay BF250 and sign an affidavit that you had driven before.

The most popular sport in Belgium is cycling followed by pigeon-racing and then football.

Eddy Mercx, the great cyclist of the '60s and '70s, is just about the country's only world-class sporting hero so far.

Tintin books have been translated into 51 languages and sold more than 200,000,000 copies worldwide.

The Battleground of Europe  Belgium is situated in the centre of one of the most densely populated regions in the world — the Benelux countries, the southeast of England, northeastern France and the lower Rhine. It is sandwiched between the Germanic peoples of the north and east and the Latin peoples of the south and west. Movement across it has always been easy, it has access to the North Sea and to the Rhine River system. It is a fertile land and one with huge natural resources (in the early C19 Belgium was the world's second country after England to industrialise). In the Middle Ages its cities vied with Venice, Florence and Genoa for the title of the wealthiest in Europe.

It is really no wonder that for the last 1,000 years or more, Belgium has been fought over almost without a break. Given its geographical situation, Belgium's role in history has been the unenviable one of the battleground of Europe. Some of the most crucial and decisive battles in European history have been fought between foreign powers on Belgian soil. For example:

The Battle of Waterloo just south of Brussels in 1815 where Napoleon was finally defeated by the English and the Prussians.
The battles of the Yser, Ypres or Passchaendaele ("Flanders' Fields") which resulted in the liberation of Belgium in WW I at the cost of over a million lives.
The Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in 1944/45 when the American forces stopped the Nazis' last major sally into western Europe.

When Belgium finally achieved independence in 1830 (for the detailed story see Brussels walking tour notes), it cast off centuries of foreign domination. In the previous 400 years it had been subject to the Burgundians, the Austrians, the Spaniards, the French and the Dutch. Since then it has been an independent nation state, a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. It is of course the seat of the European Union. These days, Belgium advertises itself as "The Heart of Europe," supposedly a reflection of its geographical centrality, its political role, the warmth of its people (!) and its status as the most Europhile country in Europe.

Two Countries in One  Belgium is an improbable country even now, made up as it is of two completely different cultures living in a state of uncomfortable togetherness. The great defining feature of the nation is its dual population. Technically, Belgium is trilingual because of the 100,000-strong German-speaking community, but for all practical purposes the country is made up of two peoples, the Flemings, who are Dutch-speaking, in the northern and western provinces and the francophone Walloons on the south and east. Decades of linguistic and cultural inequality between the two have been ironed out, at least since the sixties, but the underlying tension is still there. In the light of this tension, the role of the monarchy — as a unifying focus in a divided nation — is perhaps the most significant one of any country in Europe.


NB: The official name for this country is the Netherlands. 'Holland' refers properly only to the two western provinces at the political, cultural and economic heart of the country. For the purposes of these pages, however, the two terms are used interchangeably as they are in ordinary conversation.

God created the earth — except for Holland which was created by the Dutch.

In the entrance lobby of the new Stadhuis or town hall in the Stopera complex in Amsterdam there is a glass pillar filled with water. The level of the water rises and falls according to the rise and fall of the tide. At low tide the water level falls below ground; at high tide it rises to almost 7 feet above ground. This is to say, were it not for the sea wall and the city's defenses against the elements, Amsterdam would be swamped by the waters of the North Sea twice a day.

It is not just Amsterdam. Without human intervention almost half the country would be under water, or at the very least subject to continuous flooding. (This area would encompass your entire route through the Netherlands, once past the heathland around Breda.) The North Sea would come in as far as Utrecht. Holland covers an area of 16,631 square miles, of which about 6,000 square miles are below sea level at high tide.

The key to understanding the Netherlands is understanding its geography. The story of this country is one long battle against the threat of disastrous flooding. This is a dual danger, coming not just from the sea but also from Holland's great rivers as they make their way to the sea. A map of Holland in the C10 would look very different from a map of Holland today. The course of rivers has been changed, miles of coastline have been lost, vast areas of land reclaimed for habitation and exploitation, and a labyrinthine network of canals has been imposed upon the landscape. This country today is the result of 2,000 years of people fighting against the forces of nature.

The Means of Defense  The basic sine qua non of Holland's existence are the coastal sand dunes created by the action of the wind and the waves. These dunes have built up over the last 2,000 years, sometimes to a height of 100 feet. On their own, though, they have never been enough to protect the low-lying land behind them from the sea. The sea has broken through on a number of occasions — you only have to look at a map of the country to see where the dunes have been breached, most noticeably in the Delta area and Wadden islands. As a result the coastal dunes have had to be artificially strengthened. They are constantly monitored. Where necessary they are supplemented by dykes. (The governmental body responsible for overseeing all Holland's defences against the sea is the Ministry of Public Works, the Waterstaat.) The principle is very simple: if you can keep the water out you can use the land. And, as already mentioned, it is not just the sea. The western provinces of the Netherlands are low-lying fenland, under constant threat of flooding from rivers in spate. Drainage is very poor. Where the land lies below sea level, drainage is non-existent. To make the land safe, liveable and usable has been the overwhelming preoccupation of this nation throughout its history. It is an unending battle, as seen most recently in the devastating floods of February 1995. Before that there has been a succession of even greater disasters. 1,800 people died, for example, in the floods of 1953 when almost 650,000 acres of land were inundated. Over the last 1,000 years there have been about 20 floods of similar proportions.

Land reclaimed from the sea, marshes or lakes is known as polderland. To stop flooding protective walls must be built known as dykes. Where the land is at or below sea level and there is no natural drainage the job must be done by machine. The particular machine developed by the Dutch to pump out water was the windmill.

"He who cannot master the sea is not worthy of the land."

How to make a basic polder  The following method is old-fashioned, medieval in fact, but effective. First find your low-lying fenland. Then build a dyke enclosing the area you want to reclaim. For this you need to make two parallel clay embankments. Put down a thick layer of reed mats between them, weighed down with heavy stones. Pile sand on top of the mats and then bricks, earth and concrete (or a finishing layer of grass) on top of the sand. The dyke for an inland polder needs to be at least 10 feet high and perhaps 100 feet thick at the base. You can treble these figures for a coastal dyke.

If your polder is inland and lower than sea level at low tide, then there is no natural drainage and you have the constant task of draining off the surplus water and regulating the water level. Empty the water into ditches, pump it into higher ditches, then pump it up again and again until it reaches sea level and drains away into a network of diversion canals and thence to the sea. You do this by means of a series of windmills. (If you want to be a little more cutting edge, you can use diesel or electrically operated pumps.) The effect is the same. After 5 or 6 years your polder will be ready for exploitation. You now have land suitable for human habitation, very fertile and powerfully defended against the threat of flooding.

The reclaimed soil of the new IJsselmeer polderlands of Flevoland, the twelfth and newest province of the Netherlands since 1986, is the richest and most fertile in Europe. This is no real surprise since the land has never been used, in contrast to the rest of the continent where the soil has been all but exhausted by centuries of cultivation. Fifty years ago this was just waterlogged fenland on the edge of the South Sea or Zuider Zee. The creation of polders is expensive but very profitable.

Windmills and their successors  It is commonly but wrongly said that the Dutch invented windmills. What is true is that they adapted these industrial machines, from the middle of the C14 onwards, for the purposes of water-pumping and made huge advances in their technology. In the western provinces of the Netherlands the majority of windmills were put to the vital job of draining the polders. (Naturally, in the well-drained eastern provinces windmills were put to industrial uses.) There were once about 10,000 windmills in Holland keeping the country above water. By 1800 their technology had been surpassed by steam power, more efficient and not dependent on unreliable wind power. In this century steam power has itself been superseded by diesel or electrically-operated pumps. Massive reclamation projects like the former Zuider Zee or the Delta Plan have become possible. Today 1,250 miles of dykes are kept dry by 20,000 pumps. About 1,000 windmills still survive, of which perhaps only 200 are still working, mostly for preservation's sake, for reasons of nostalgia and aesthetics. The most spectacular concentration of windmills is at Kinderdijk near Rotterdam where 19 of them together used to drain the Alblasserwaard on the banks of the river Lek.

Windmills can't say much but they do have a primitive language:
+ made by the vanes mill at rest, ready for operation
x made by the vanes temporarily out of service or not needed
tilting slightly to the left: mourning
tilting slightly to the right: a happy event
sails decorated with flags, etc., a festival or celebration

During WW II a similar signalling system used by the Dutch resistance indicated to the English planes flying overhead whether or not it was safe to make a drop.

Hij heeft een kap van de molen gehad He's been hit by a windmill (i.e., he's crazy)

Flowers  More than anything else Holland is famous for its flowers. Since the introduction of tulips into this country from Turkey 500 years ago, Holland has been the centre of the world's flower markets. In the 1630s, the power of the flower became so absurdly great that four tulip bulbs could sell for the price of a merchant's house in Amsterdam. "Tulipomania" was stopped by government intervention at the end of the decade but flowers have never ceased to play a major part in the Dutch economy and indeed the Dutch identity. Just south of Schiphol Airport is the town of Aalsmeer, where the world's biggest flower auction takes place every weekday. Every year from late March till May in the Keukenhof park west of Leiden, the main bulb-producing region, is the world's largest open-air flower show. It is not just tulips but also gladioli, narcissi, crocuses, hyacinths and freesias. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see this extraordinary floral extravaganza. Holland exports annually 2 billion tulip bulbs and 800 million flowering tulips. Tulips, however, only come fourth in Dutch horticultural production. Roses are number one. The ten-yearly World Horticultural Show called the Floriade is simply too big to contemplate.

(NB: For Keukenhof, ring 31 252 41 3814 in season or 31 20 56 43 700 off season.)

Independence and the Golden Age  William the Silent, Prince of Orange is the great heroic figure of Dutch history. In the mid C16, the various cities and provinces of the Low Countries (ie. modern Flanders and the Netherlands) were possessions of the Spanish empire of Philip II, under the brutal governorship of the Duke of Alba. This man executed with ferocity his king's policies of high taxation and religious suppression of Protestantism. In the 1560s rebellion began to stir, focusing around the figure of William the Silent. The most famous members of these Dutch resistance forces were the pirates known as the "sea beggars" who preyed relentlessly and successfully on Spanish shipping. In 1581 under the Union of Utrecht the Northern Provinces came together under the rule of William of Orange. This is the birth of the nation state of the Netherlands.

Though William the Silent was assassinated in 1584 in his palace at Delft, his struggle continued under his successors until 1648, the end of the Eighty Years' War, when Spain was forced at last to recognise the independence of the Protestant Northern Provinces. (Catholic Flanders remained under Spanish control.) The House of Orange has been the Netherlands' ruling house ever since.

The Golden Age for Holland was in every way the C17. Freed from Spanish rule, the country boomed to become the wealthiest in the western world. Just as Bruges' loss had redounded to Antwerp's gain, so when Antwerp began to decline in influence and power, Amsterdam reaped the benefits. The diamond trade, for example, moved its expertise to here. In 1609 the Bank of Amsterdam was founded, the largest in the world. Seven years earlier The Dutch East India Company was formed, the world's largest trading organisation. In 1621 this was followed by the West India Company. This is the age of Tulipomania. C17 Dutch still life painting clearly shows off the incomparable wealth of Dutch merchants and businessmen. Internationally, Dutch power reached its height as their trading companies sent explorers around the world in search of new commercial possibilities, eg. Henry Hudson to the river that bears his name. Taiwan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the South African Cape, the Dutch West Indies (Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Aruba), northern Brazil, Manhattan island (or Nieuw Amsterdam): these comprised the Dutch colonial empire at its height. Culturally, this is the age of the grand canal houses that adorn Amsterdam in the Heren-, Prinsen- and Keizersgracht. It is the age of some of the greatest painters in European history, Frans Hals, Vermeer and Rembrandt.

Other random facts

Holland's population is about 15,000,000. At 1,200 people per square mile, it's the most densely populated country in Europe (apart from Monaco) and second in the world after Hong Kong.

The Dutch population is 25% Catholic and 18% Protestant. This is one of the most secularised countries on earth.

The Netherlands are made up of 12 provinces: Zeeland (Middleburg), Zuid-Holland (The Hague), Noord-Holland (Amsterdam), Utrecht (Utrecht), Groningen (Groningen), Limburg (Maastricht), Friesland (Leeuwarden), Gelderland (Arnhern), Noord-Brabant ('s-Hertogenbosch), Overijssel (Zwolle), and Flevoland (Lelystad).

Not all of the Netherlands is around sea level. The highest point of the country, the Drielandenpunt in the southeast near Maastricht, reaches a Himalayan 1,053 feet.

The head of state is Queen Beatrix, crowned in 1980.

The Prime Minister is Wim Kok, presiding over a left-wing modernising "purple" coalition.

Agriculture and fishing 3.5% of GDP

Mining and manufacturing 28%

Services 73%

Royal Dutch Shell is Europe's largest company. It vies with Coca Cola and General Electric for title of the world's largest.

Holland is the world's seventh largest exporter of goods and services.

The Dutch are the biggest debit card or bank card users in Europe. Over 90% of transactions are done by plastic. Credit cards are still very rare.

An extraordinary 17% of the Dutch budget is spent on education. This is the only country in the world with 0% illiteracy. Almost everybody speaks English and German, and probably French and Spanish and Italian as well.

Traditional Dutch cuisine, like its English cousin, is pretty uninspired. Herrings are ubiquitous. Pea soup is a national delicacy. If you want to eat typically and well in the Netherlands you can do no better than Rijstafel. This is Indonesian food, a legacy of the Dutch empire in the East Indies. It comprises a selection of hot dishes against a background of rice. It is the equivalent for Holland of Indian food in England, Italian food in Germany or Mexican food in the U.S.

Polsstokspringen The Dutch, who have a superb sporting tradition especially in the fields of football and ice skating, also invented the sport of pole vaulting. The original Dutch version, though, is very different from the familiar Olympic one. A tall pole is stood upright in the middle of a canal. The competitor then runs up to the canalside, jumps on the pole, shimmies as quickly as possible to the top and hurls himself forward as the pole falls towards the other side of the canal. The man who reaches the furthest distance from the bank wins.

Santa Claus is Dutch. His real name is Sinter Klaas or St. Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of little children. He arrives in Holland by boat from Spain every year, landing in Amsterdam harbour. He is always accompanied by his slave Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, the punisher of naughty children (a serious problem for Holland's non-racist reputation). During the night of December 5, he sneaks into people's houses and secretly puts presents in clogs left by the fireplace for the children to find the next day. When the Dutch had possessions in America in the C17 they introduced this tradition. Over the years, Sinter Klaas has developed into Santa Claus.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy