As you enjoy your Belgium river cruise, you’ll be charmed by the rich architecture and beautiful scenery, both of with reflect a long history with the river and waterways of the area. Your cruise will take you through quaint fishing villages along the river in addition to larger cities built on the river bank. Enhance your cruise experience by learning more about the past, present, and future of this stunning region.
Belgium is a country in northwest Europe whose name derives from its inhabitants during Roman times, the Belgae, a mix of Celtic and Germanic peoples. The Romans incorporated the area and named the new province Gallia Belgica. When the Roman Empire declined in the 5th century, control of Gaul was ceded to the Franks. In the 8th century the Carolingian dynasty, named for Charlemagne, was formed and instituted trading along Belgium’s river banks. The empire fragmented and the country came under the control of German kings. By the 10th century Flanders developed significant power and took steps to control and protect their homeland.
The new millennium brought a golden age to Flanders, based largely on wealth generated by the weaving of English wool into fine cloth and selling it throughout Europe. Success led to controversy as the Flemish aristocracy and France struggled to regain control of this now wealthy, independent area. This clash lasted from 1337 to 1453 and came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War; eventually the Burgundian empire took over. The next few centuries saw religious struggles (Spanish Catholicism versus northern European Protestantism) and trade shifting northward from Bruges as the latter’s river beds and waterways silted up and became unusable. By the 17th century, trade had shifted to Antwerp and Ghent, and thence to Amsterdam. The past three centuries saw power struggles over the area involving the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Austrians and the Germans. The country declared itself an independent monarchy in 1831 under Léopold I; today, Albert II sits on the throne.
Between 1885 and 1908, under Léopold II, the country entered into the race for colonies by taking over the Congo and generating a large income in the harvesting and trade of natural rubber. Conditions in the Congo during this time are detailed in the best-selling book King Leopold’s Ghost and also in Joseph Conrad’s famous book Heart of Darkness. Things improved greatly after Léopold turned over the Congo to the Belgian nation, and that country is now the Congo Free State.
The country is divided into three administrative regions—Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia—and is trilingual, with citizens speaking French, Dutch and German. Its capital, the river city of Brussels, is home to NATO and most of the European Union’s institutions and is a very popular river cruise destination. The country offers a rich legacy of artistic treasures, with Flemish painters van Eyck, Brueghel, Rubens and van Dyck, more modern artists like Magritte, and widely beloved comics like The Adventures of Tintin. Belgian cuisine is world-famous, especially chocolates and other sweets, mussels, so-called “French fries,” thick waffles and more than 500 varieties of beer, all of which you will be able to sample on your river cruise.
Viking river cruises all share the same characteristics; they enchant the cruise traveler with beautiful sights along the river and friendly locals. Your cruise along the waterways of the “Benelux” region will be a memorable experience that you will cherish for years to come.