West Flanders: Belgium's tranquil and turbulent coast
Belgium's entire 70 km coastline is in the Province of West Flanders. By its very location on the sea, the area has always been an attractive destination for vacationers and foreign invaders alike.
Backed by sand dunes, most of which have disappeared beneath apartment houses and esplanades, the often wind-swept beach is wide with fine clean sand. The seabed descends gently without any sudden drop-offs and the surf is rarely dangerous.
Most of the small towns along the coast are made up of villas, hotels and apartment houses, more or less all connected by the coastal road and a continual tramline. Starting with De Panne on the French border, which has beaches up to 250 m wide at low tide and is popular for windsailing, each town moving north has its small centre for shopping, restaurants and bars with the usual busy nightlife of a beach resort. Parking is difficult in season and it is almost impossible to tell where one town begins and ends.
At nearby Oostduinkerke, there are still fishermen who fish for shrimp from horseback. Ostende about halfway along the coast is the principle town with a harbour servicing yachts, cargo, fishing and the cross channel ferries. The famous artist James Ensor was born here and its very popular concert/entertainment centre, the Casino-Kursaal, which was rebuilt in 1953, has surrealistic murals painted by Paul Delvaux in the gambling hall.
At the north end of the country's coastline, is the more exclusive Knokke-Heist with its luxurious villas, a handsome casino - conference centre, (with famous murals by René Magritt), plus tennis, golf club and riding clubs. The town also offers an eight-km walk of flowers where one may appreciate some of the local mansions along the way.
Het Zwin reserve
Between Knokke-Heist and the Dutch border rests Het Zwin a large natural reserve of dunes and marshland. This area was formerly the estuary of the river Het Zwin that silted up over the ages to the detriment of Bruges and Damme as commercial ports. While most of the land behind the coast has been reclaimed for cultivation, that portion near the sea (150 hectares of which 25 are in the Netherlands) has been carefully retained as a protected natural sea lands reserve (mud flats, marshes and dunes) and bird sanctuary.
Requiring constant care to preserve it, only about one third of the area is accessible to the public. There is a park of low pine trees and lagoons with storks gliding overhead to their nests and many unusual smaller birds all successfully nesting in the brush seemingly undisturbed by visitors. A dyke has been built for walking across the marshes from the park to the sea providing nature lovers with an ideal combination of hiking and observation of local birds and plants now fully protected from developers' steam shovels.
The lowland behind the coastal territory has been reclaimed by drainage through the canals and protected with dikes.
Rather flat for the most part and quite romantic with its old windmills, cottages and wind bent trees lining the canals, the large farms which have evolved are major factors in the country's agricultural wealth. Back in 1953, a disastrous and costly flood swept the region, which was even worse further north in Holland
This utterly charming little medieval town was once an important port on the way from the coast to Bruges. Unfortunately for both ports, the river Het Zwin silted up leaving them by the wayside.
Its small, lovely town hall remains as enchanting as when it was built in the fifteenth century and one may once more take a lovely quiet trip by boat on the tree lined canal connecting it to Bruges.
Only a short distance from the French border, Kortrijk is totally Flemish, but then Flanders in ancient times extended into the north of France.
Due to its chalk-free river, which was needed for flax-retting, it had already became an important and prosperous centre of linen manufacture by the fourteenth century and had a much larger population in the fifteenth century than today.
Unfortunately, because of its border location the town and surroundings were perpetually under siege over the ages, more often simply because of its closeness to France. In WWI, it was the main base for the occupying Germans behind the Ypres line and then it suffered heavy bombing damage during WWII.
On the Grote Markt, a belfry is all that remains of the ancient cloth hall destroyed in 1944. The neighbouring Stadhuis or town hall dating from 1519, and the thirteenth century Church of St Martin, however, have been regularly restored and enlarged over the ages.
Closeby there is a delightful Beginnage/Begijnhof with the quaint small houses dating from the seventeenth century, while the Church of Our Lady Onze Lieve, rebuilt following WWII damages, has renowned paintings by Van Dyke and Louis de Deyster along with an unusual collection of portraits of all the Counts of Flanders.
The famous Battle of the Golden Spurs of 1302 between the weavers and the burghers is celebrated with a monument at its actual location on Groeningelaan, now within the city, while the importance of flax to the city is demonstrated in a nineteenth century farmhouse, the Nationaal Vlasmuseum, devoted to flax cultivation and weaving.
Ieper, known as Ypres in English and French, represents to most people the fierce fighting and horrible destruction of the First World War. Founded in the tenth century, it became the leading textile city in Flanders from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century and very wealthy with magnificent halls and churches being built.
Despite its decline in importance and undergoing many sieges from all sides, the city retained its historical beauty until October 1914 when it became the centre of the battle of the Ypres Salient (bulge) between the Germans and the English. The city endured four long years of bombardment destroying every single building before then the ruins themselves were bombed away. The situation was so desperate the Germans used gas as a weapon just north of here and in the end over 300,000 Allied soldiers were killed. The region today has 170 military cemeteries. The city has been completely rebuilt on its former street plan and a number of the historic buildings have been faithfully copied including the great Cloth Hall on the Grote Markt and the Cathedral of Saint Martin behind it. In addition to the many outlying military cemeteries and their memorials, there is the large Menin Gate/Menenport with the names of nearly 55,000 British soldiers missing during the War.
Anywhere in the Province is a good place to eat seafood, but it seems to have another flavour when you are dining on the coast. Shellfish is, of course, the region's specialty, but there are sole and turbot as well. Meanwhile, the choice of eateries from stalls to gourmet restaurants is mind-boggling.
At the same time, the discos and bars up and down the coast boom throughout the night. Summer is the big season, but the coast is crowded at Christmas and Easter, while the month of May attracts the young married couples - the wives with small children renting villas and the husbands joining them on the weekend.
Tourist Office of Province of West Flanders
8200 St. Michiels/Bruges
Tel. 050 380 296
Fax 050 380 292
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