While Belgium is mostly known for its medieval architecture and typical food (waffles, chocolate and beer, anyone?), there are also a number of great natural areas in this small nation. The Zwin nature reserve is one of those. Hoge Kempen National Park is another one.
Sometimes referred to as “the international bird airport”, the Zwin is one of the most important refuges for migratory birds in Western Europe. In 1986, it was designated a Wetland of International Importance. The Zwin lies on the North Sea coast, on the Belgian side of the border with the Netherlands in the far northwestern corner of Belgium.
Responsible for the Rise of Bruges
Now a huge area of wetlands, tidal pools and streams, and dunes, it wasn’t always like this. In fact, the Zwin area was created as recently as 1134 when a violent storm ravaged the coast of Flanders. In the aftermath of that storm, a tidal channel was created, reaching no fewer than fifteen kilometers (almost ten miles) inland.
This new channel extended almost to the city of Bruges, at the time a rather unassuming city in the Flemish lowlands. However, because the city suddenly had easy access to the North Sea, its trade, commerce and power increased dramatically in the following decades and centuries. Bruges would rise to become one of the greatest harbor cities in medieval Europe. The city’s rich history and former influence is still visible in its wealth of historic houses, towers and churches.
Unfortunately for Bruges, though, as the Zwin wasn’t a natural channel, it began silting in the late 1200’s. The waterway became unnavigable and eventually closed altogether, cutting Bruges off from the North Sea once again.
The Zwin Nature Reserve – Important for Birds, Fun for People
It’s a fun piece of local history—the story behind Bruges’ immense success, really—but it really is its natural importance and beauty that makes it worth visiting nowadays.
The current Zwin nature reserve was established in 1952, occupying 1.25 square kilometers (about 310 acres). It’s a dream destination for bird-watchers and botanists alike, home to dozens of bird species and an exceptionally large number of salt-resistant plants.
There is a small zoo, a visitor center with exhibits and several fine hiking trails across the Zwin plains.
This unique natural area makes for a fun day trip from one of Belgium’s major cities, such as Antwerp, Ghent, Brussels and, of course, Bruges. It’s also a mandatory destination if you’re spending time on the Belgian North Sea coast. The Zwin nature reserve is easily accessible by car, bus or bicycle. There’s a train station in nearby Knokke-Heist.