One of the great joys of living in Europe is being in such close proximity to a great diversity of people, cultures, history and landscapes, all within a relatively small land area. I recently had a unique opportunity to see Europe’s amazing topographical diversity from the air on a flight from Amsterdam to Valencia in Spain. Though it was a short two-hour flight, the plane crossed four different countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain – and the views of the patchwork of fields, 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) below were astounding. Much can be said about a country and its people by observing the landscapes and towns from the air. History, culture, climate and topography are important elements in how a country’s land is organised and used, and those two hours in the air made for an insightful study of the remarkable differences in Europe.

Plane window views of a flight from Amsterdam to Valencia

As the plane took off from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, it quickly became clear, from the neat rows of oblong fields how organised the Dutch are. It’s also clear that agriculture is a big business, judging by the size of the fields and how efficiently the land is utilised. Another point that quickly becomes apparent is the centuries-old pre-occupation of the Dutch to keep invading water (from both the rivers and the sea) at bay.

Large lakes and a massive network of waterways were created to distribute water and thereby prevent flooding in this low-lying country – a third of the country lies below sea-level.

The plane crossed into Belgian airspace after a half hour. The northern part of Belgium shares a similar topography with the Netherlands: flat and low-lying. Belgium also has a similar population-density as the Netherlands. However, the differences of the composition of the fields couldn’t be more stark. I imagine culture and history play an important role in explaining the seemingly chaotic patchwork of fields. 😉

As the plane entered French airspace, the scenery changed again. The fields grew in size and the landscape was visibly more hilly. The plane flew directly above Paris before continuing in a southerly direction. We flew over towns which clearly formed the epicentre for the surrounding region – roads from the countryside led to the centre of the towns while the fields fanned-out from the urban areas.

The landscape gradually changed as the plane flew towards the Pyrenees. The large agricultural region surrounding Paris made way for forests, villages and smaller fields. Rolling hills, with their gorgeous patchwork of fields, interchanged with forests and villages, while rivers meandered along the valley floor.

A patchwork of fields in southern France.

Soon, the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees came into view. The Pyrenees form a natural border between France and Spain and boast peaks higher than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet).

The Pyrenees mountains form a natural border between France and Spain.

The Pyrenees also separate the green north from the dry south. As the plane entered Spain, past the Pyrenees, the landscape quickly became more barren. Green turned to ochre and brown. Unlike the Dutch, who face an eternal struggle with too much water, the Spaniards take large measures to save every drop and distribute it efficiently. Large reservoirs were built to capture the molten snow carried by the rivers from the mountains. These turquoise lakes form a stunning contrast to the brown landscape.

A dam lake at the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The landscape became increasingly barren as the plane approached Valencia. Irrigation networks that distribute water from the reservoirs to the agricultural areas could clearly be seen between the patches of green. The rugged mountains and the patchwork of fields in countless shades of brown made for simply breathtaking scenery.

Green fields slowly make way for brown patches of land.
Barren landscapes inland from Valencia.

And all this on a two-hour flight from Amsterdam to Valencia! I love living in Europe! 🙂

Read more about the Plane Views series: Plane Views: The Beauty of a Window Seat.

27 Responses

  • […] you fly out of or into Amsterdam) but I never had a camera with me. My dream came true on a recent flight from Amsterdam to Valencia. It was a late-afternoon flight and the plane took off in a northerly direction before quickly […]

  • It helps that you had clear skies all the way. I love window seats on flights, but lately there seem to be nothing but cloudy skies out the window. I thoroughly enjoyed your flight to Valencia. It reminded me of why I am a geographer.

  • Wow, great pictures! I’ve seen similar pictures taken from the plane with the unique administrative organization in different countries on the globe, simply amazing! And the diversity is really impressive and it really drives you to the thought that this is really what makes this world so beautiful:)

  • I love the window seat just for this reason. Never thought of polishing the window — great tip!

  • Stunning photos! I love how contrasted they are, if you hadn’t mentioned, I wouldn’t have guessed these photos were so geographically close together.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you for sharing! This is as closes I would get visiting Europe! It is however one of my biggest dream!

  • Thank you Gwen & Lilian for your comments. Hope I’m convincing more people to look out a plane window and enjoy the views! 🙂 There’s just so much to see and so much we can learn from it.

    Keith 🙂

  • I love looking out the airplane window a lot. So I usually try to get a seat near the window. Fortunately, most times I get it =)

  • Hey Keith

    You just might convince me that the window seat is the best! 🙂 My fave is the one with the town in the middle and the fields radiating out from the centre. Very cool!

    It is so interesting how culture reveals itself when someone takes the time to look. Yes, geography dictates certain things, and yet, how each nation carves up the geography, primps & trims its landscape (or not) does seem to reveal something about the essential nature of national culture.

    Thanks again, Keith. Another great post.


  • Great shots, Keith! Every time I look out an airplane window and think “Wow, that would make a great shot”, I remember that my camera is in the bottom of my knapsack under the seat in front of me, and the hassle of pulling it out overcomes my desire to take a photo. 🙂

  • Hi Vera & Nancy,
    I do the airlines a favour by polishing the window first. If I don’t have tissues, I use the paper air-sickness bags (without tearing them). 🙂 It’s a hilarious sight each time for the person sitting next to me; the looks I get… LOL! 🙂 As for the photos, I usually lower the exposure (especially on clear days) and take various photos with different ISOs. You also need a very good zoom. I take my photos with either a Canon Ixus 970 or a Canon G11. Hope this helps. 🙂


  • I’m with Nancy–my photos from the airlplane window never turn out like that. How do you do it? Care to share your secrets. I really love these pictures.

  • […] An aerial experience of Europe (Velvet Escape) […]

  • what a lovely article! I feel very green and organiseed all of a sudden, …..maybe because I am dutch?

  • That has to be one of the coolest posts I’ve seen in a while…a great idea to show the diversity of the world!

  • Love aerial photos, fascinating the change in each country. Makes me wish I had taken more shots when I criss-crossed Europe…

  • What a striking and remarkable difference. The Dutch/Belgian/French examples are surprising – I wonder why that would be??

  • Haha, they really are a neat bunch! 🙂 Thanks for your comment Nellie.


  • Loved the neat oblong rows of green fields! The Dutch really are a neat bunch arent they?

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