Dunes and Polders
In Belgium, as in Holland, a line of dunes borders the straight coast and is the seat of numerous beach resorts. One of them, Ostende, combines the care of visitors with the work arising from a location facing the English coast at one of the best points for a fast crossing to Great Britain. The polderland behind the dunes forms only a narrow zone, in contrast to a much wider zone in Holland. Being especially good for grass, it is used mainly for dairy purposes, but also for crops and horticulture. The flooding of the southwestern part of the region, which is below the level of high tide, stopped the advance of the German Army toward Calais in the fall of 1914.
The Sandy Region
In Belgium, just as in Holland, the next zone, the sandy region, shows a slightly rolling relief with elevations up to 200 feet. It can be divided into two parts, Flanders in the west and the Campine east of Antwerp. Fertilization, already important during the Middle Ages, has here almost reached perfection, and this region, together with Holland, is probably the best-fertilized part of the world. Wheat, barley, rye, and potatoes, as well as sugar beets, hemp, chickory, and flax are the chief crops, while horticulture, with tree nurseries, orchards, and truck gardens, ranks high. The density of the rural population in the Flanders part of the sandy region is exceptionally high, attaining as high a figure as 800 per square mile. The consequent small size of the land holdings is a handicap, as is the fact that the little fields of any one peasant are often widely scattered and isolated.
In Flanders the old cities of Bruges and Ghent were once harbors on southern distributaries in the Scheldt delta. They owed their development in the later part of the Middle Ages to their marine location and the wool provided by the herds of sheep which wandered over the surrounding sandy plain with its cover of heather. Moreover, flax grows well in this climate, and it helped the Flemish textile industry to attain great fame. The increase of population arising from these conditions called for more intensive land utilization, and in recent centuries crops have supplanted pasturage in extensive areas. Only in the Campine to the cast did sheep retain their economic importance, but even there they have now largely given place to meadows and cropland.
The cities of Flanders have had a checkered history. The silting of their harbors caused Bruges and Ghent to lose their importance during the last part of the Middle Ages, and thus Antwerp on the open stream of the main Schelde became the leader. Foreign rule, however, and the closing of the way to the sea by the Dutch Republic broke the power of Antwerp until the nineteenth century. Freed then from political impediments, it obtained a new lease of life and adjusted itself to modern conditions. It now serves an extensive hinterland and is one of Europe's great harbors, rivaling Rotterdam and Hamburg. A canal through one of the Dutch isles of Zeeland gives it a waterway to the Rhine and provides an inland line of communication so that the Belgian flag is frequently seen on the Rhine boats.
The ancient textile industry also revived during the time of the Industrial Revolution, although most of the raw material has to be imported. Ghent is again a great center of cotton and linen manufactures. Bruges never regained its former greatness and is a quiet but beautiful city, where lacework is carried on as a home industry. Tournai, farther south, forms a kind of stepping-stone to the textile area of northern France. The wool industry, formerly so important, has shifted towards the plateau north of the Ardennes with Verviers in the extreme east as the main center.