Brabant Wallon

Florival and Belgium’s north-south divide

An enjoyable 22 km circular walk starting and ending at Florival railway station and contrasting Wallonia with Flanders.

One of the fascinating aspects that I enjoy about Discovering Belgium is discovering the differences between the northern, Dutch-speaking part (Flanders) and the southern, French-speaking part (Wallonia).

A brief history lesson

Since the establishment of Belgium in 1830 and for the next 150 years or so, there was a clear divide between ‘prosperous Wallonia’ and ‘poor Flanders. Southern Belgium was reaping the benefits of the industrial revolution. Rich coal deposits in Wallonia fired thriving steel, glass and machine-building industries. Meanwhile, its northern neighbour Flanders had watched its rural linen industry get blown away by mechanized competition, and its agricultural industry was failing to compete on an increasingly global market.

In the first half of the 20th century, however, the situation began to reverse. Coal mines in Wallonia began to run out. The oil boom of the 1950s broke the back of Wallonia’s industry. By the 1960s, most of the coal mines had been shut down and the steel industry substantially downsized.

Flanders, on the other hand, started making the most of its ports: Antwerp, Gent, Zeebrugge in particular. Coal and copper imported from the Belgian Congo gave birth to new manufacturing plants in port areas. Key industrial sectors such as oil refining and chemicals were developed, supported by direct foreign investment. Multinationals set up Europe-wide distribution centres, making use of Flanders’ growing road network. Brussels profiled itself as the capital of Europe and became a major financial, administrative and service centre.

The result is now more like ‘poor Wallonia’ and ‘prosperous Flanders’, with unemployment levels in Wallonia double those in Flanders.

The evidence

Taking the train from the high-tech university city of Leuven (in Flanders) south into Wallonia clearly demonstrates this divide. I left the brand-new railway station of Leuven, travelled through the smart, university suburbs of Heverlee, passed by the high-tech science park, and gazed at the villas in well-off Sint-Agatha-Rode. Yes, this was indeed ‘prosperous Flanders’.

A few kilometres the train crossed the border into Wallonia and I got out at Florival railway station. Florival is literally just inside Wallonia, yet the contrast with what I had just passed through in Flanders was stark.

And if you were wondering where the Tractor Graveyard in my last blog post was located … yes, it’s in Florival.

But still a great place to walk!

You might wonder what I was doing in Florival. I actually found an interesting 20 km circular walk on my hiking friend Guido’s blog. So I downloaded it and followed it. Yes, it takes you through some semi-industrial and derelict areas as you can see from the photos above, but it also passes through some gloriously deserted forests, a couple of villages, along the River Dijle, and up and down a few Wallonian hills.

If you get thirsty, the Belgian Beer Tree is in full flower:

If you get hungry, you can always peel a few vegetables and eat them raw:

After that, you might need a bit of exercise:

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And then a good sit-down in a comfy chair (or a hard one if you prefer):

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But watch out for the dangerous dog with the cute bunny ears:

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which maybe lives in this cute little house:

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Finally, despite the industrial decline of Wallonia, there are some young Walloons who are obviously very industrious:

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“Can I help you please Dad?”

Follow the route here

Below is the map of the route which you can click to enlarge or download as a PDF. You can download the GPX track from my RouteYou page. As you can see, it’s “circular” in that it begins and ends at Florival railway station, but it’s long and thin so if 22 km is too long for you, it’s easily possible to take a short-cut to knock a few kilometres off the total.

I hope you enjoy your walk. Let me know how you get on and what you think of Belgium’s north-south divide. If you haven’t yet subscribed, do so below to get new walking suggestions straight into your inbox.

And if you find this blog useful and would like to support Discovering Belgium, please feel free to do so by buying me a coffee. Thanks. Denzil

16 replies »

    • Oh Carol, Belgian finances and budgets would take up a whole series of blogs. Some elements to the country’s budget are certainly covered at a federal level (country-wide). Others are covered at a regional level, as Wallonia, Flanders and the city of Brussels each has its own government (so in addition to the Federal Belgian government). Then there is the provincial level of government (e.g. Flanders is broken down into various provinces such as Vlaams-Brabant, East Flanders, Antwerpen etc.). And then there is the municipality level, with local mayors having a budget for local things. So all in all it’s very confusing, and partly explains the high personal tax levels in this country.

  1. Great blog post with lots of telling pictures; in your history lesson you might want to add that the Flemish authorities cleverly decided against coal mining (province of Limburg) and ship building (river Scheldt), which first led to great economic turmoil and massive unemployment but was a blessing for finances which could now be invested in up-to-date industries like you said and in education. For decades to come the Walloon government kept pouring money in mining and steel industy, mainly to maintain employment in those areas…

    • Thanks for your comments Guido; the stopping of the coal industry in Limburg is certainly interesting, especially when you look at that area now and see it quite a prosperous area, not only with light industry but also ecotourism. It seems that some areas of Wallonia are now growing more sharply though, I hear.

  2. Thanks for refreshing my history lessons, Denzil. You always find these varied walks and know where to look for fun photos! I prefer the space and nature in Wallonia as well.

    • Thanks for your comment Liesbet. Sometimes a walk seems to have plenty of fun photo opportunities; other walks I don’t seem to find anything interesting to photograph. I think spending time (i.e. being nosey!) in villages and towns often leads to interesting discoveries!

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