Kristien and Greetje, from Dingenzoekers, recount:
The Belgian Coast: autumn at the seaside
Meet Kristien and Greetje, writer and photographer, explorers of Belgium. As Dingenzoekers, we follow in the footsteps of Pippi Longstocking who explained it so well all those years ago: there are loads of things, and there really is no need to go in search of them.
Meanwhile the second edition of our book ‘België voor kinderen en hun baasjes (Belgium for children and their masters)’, published by Luster, is on the shelves. For this book, we travelled the length and breadth of the country, looking for spots with a certain je ne sais quoi. Luckily, we had our three children (and their unvarnished opinion) to set us straight.
The result: a solid tome featuring more than 300 great places to eat, sleep and things to do. Also on our blog, we weekly write about all those micro adventures in home country, from the North Sea to the Ardennes, the centre of Brussels to a forgotten corner in Hainaut.
The Belgian Coast only fun in summertime? Heavens no, that would be like saying chocolate cake only tastes great on Tuesdays. At the invitation of Westtoer, we visited… ‘Blankenberge, Blankenberge, thee stunning city!’ last week. ‘I wish I had a Blankenberge like that in my back garden!’ we sing along with Clement Peerens, as we travel to his beloved Pearl of the Belgian Coast. The purpose of our two-day trip? Getting our fix of Vitamin Sea and finding out for ourselves whether Blankenberge is indeed the most glorious spot on Earth.
In spite of Clement’s enthusiastic ad, we hadn’t been in Blankenberge for quite some time. For one reason or another, we always end up in Ostend if we need some sea air - which would be a rather regular occurrence given that we live right in the centre of Antwerp. Without horizon. Blankenberge’s reputation of ‘Retirement Home by the North Sea’ makes that you tend to avoid if when you visit the Belgian Coast. Quite unjustly so, we soon discovered!
We were dying to investigate it. But first?
Coffee. We went for coffee in De Kolonel, located in a stunning art deco building from 1936. Bianca serves an aromatic flat white and also her breakfasts are worth calling in for. Unfortunately she’ll be shutting up shop here soon to open a new business in Bruges. 29 September is D-Day, so do call in before then if you can. Or better still: take over the coffee shop!
The Paravang (walkway)
After a first longing glance at the sea, we decided to walk the entire promenade in the direction of the small harbour. A wet, though lovely walk, and luckily we could shelter under the Paravang. This elegant construction dates from 1908 and is only one of the many gems of the Belle Époque era you’ll come across in Blankenberge; it dates from the time when the bourgeoisie visited the Belgian Coast to flaunt in style. Paravang refers to windbreak, a role it fulfilled with verve during this September shower we got caught out by.
Belle Époque centre and trail
At the Belle Époque centre we dived into the magnificent period of the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century when Blankenberge was a fashionable seaside resort. The buildings exuded beauty, as the many old photographs show. Fun fact: in years gone by you had to buy a ticket to go for a swim in the sea.
Our eyes shone when we got to admire the glazed tiles that so often adorned the facades of the homes of that era. We were given a map to follow the Belle Époque trail on our own and found ourselves marvelling at one amazing discovery after another. Some of the homes still look as dazzling as they did first day (Villa Olga!). Others are in need of a loving touch and it didn’t take us long to start fantasising what it would be like to buy one of them and do it up.
Extra tip: the brochure ‘Art-Nouveau wandeling door Blankenberge (Blankenberge Art Nouveau trail)’, produced by the city guides, gives you an in-depth insight into the architecture, wall tiles, ironwork and stained glass windows.
Our jaws dropped when we walked into Oberbayern, and not just because we were famished. Bavaria at the seaside? Sure enough! After the war, this German pub-restaurant was disused for ages, until it was given a new lease of life as a family restaurant in 1963.
The magical interior exudes Wes Anderson and the Sound of Music. Pure magic! Patrons who used to come here 50 years ago now come back with their children and grandchildren. We tucked into an excellent shrimp-stuffed tomato (Kristien) and great shrimp croquettes (Greetje) and vowed to come back again.
The Pier and the beach
In our opinion, the North Sea beach is one of the nicest beaches in the world - provided you stand with your back to the built-up promenade that is. Those muted, subdued colours, the vast outlines, the light filtered through the clouds. Luckily, there’s no charge anymore to get onto the beach these days. We went for a bracing walk along the shoreline, in the direction of the Pier, which we recognised from the photographs in the Belle Époque centre.
The building from the thirties is also truly charming in real life. And far more beautiful than its counterpart in Scheveningen, which has been turned into a shopping mall with its feet in the water.
The Canadian-style shed of De Oesterput is an absolute must if you’re into fresher-than-fresh shellfish. The view of the lobster pots completes the maritime feel.
We decided to go the whole hog and ordered a platter of shellfish, laden down with snow crab, king crab, shrimp, langoustine, sea snails, whelks, oysters and more. Far more gratifying if you have to work a little for your dinner; we peeled and picked all evening long.
De Fonteintjes and the coastal forest
Nothing more invigorating than a seaside walk in the early hours of an autumn morning! Plus: the sun had returned!
Via the beach, we walked to De Fonteintjes, a nature reserve with small dune lakes and wet dune grasslands, between Blankenberge and Zeebrugge. It derives its name from the thrust of the deep ponds that appeared as a result of the excavations to reinforce the thirteenth century dyke that had to stop the sea flooding the dunes. Strangely enough, these ponds contain fresh water.
De Fonteintjes became a protected nature reserve in 1978, a real stroke of luck for the many plant and animal species that thrive here. Come autumn time, the path is lined with the flaming orange of the sea-buckthorn berries - do give them a try, they are quite sour but delicious and contain a lot of vitamin C.
During autumn, the nature reserve lies on the route of the tens of thousands of birds heading south to warmer climes. We made ourselves comfortable on the viewing platform and feasted our eyes on the beauty of the Belgian Coast.
A fresh sole, pan-fried in butter? No better place than restaurant Seasons on Manitobaplein, where you can also get a mean Dame Blanche (ice cream). There’s no fear of anyone leaving this place hungry, take it from me!
After lunch we reported to Beachclub O’Neill for… the very first surfing lesson of our lives. The waves are good, our instructor assured and, and so is the water temperature: 18°C. Mind you, clad in a wetsuit you wouldn’t feel the cold. We spent one whole hour working up a sweat in the waves alongside the pier and, in the end, our North Sea surfing skills almost matched our Internet ones. Surfing is a bit of an overstatement: board wrestling was more like it. But that too seems to be a cool sport.
Tip: all the towns on the Belgian Coast have their own beach club where you can learn kitesurfing, windsurfing, supping, wavesurfing, sailing, kayaking, rafting, waterskiing, speedsailing, not to mention power kiting.
Huisje van Majutte
Before we bid Blankenberge goodbye, we called into the Huisje van Majutte, the oldest fisherman’s cottage on the Belgian Coast. When it was built, around about 1775, the back door directly gave on to the beach. Peter and Lena gave the darling little gem a new lease of life after a twenty-year sleep. Once upon a time, Peter tells us, this cottage was home to a family of 14. The upper floor, where we sank our teeth in a tarte tatin, was the bedroom where the 12 children slept. A cosy - and slightly claustrophobic - affair no doubt. Peter entertains his guests with countless stories about yesteryear and loves demonstrating the dumbwaiter he made from an old cupboard.
We returned home with a clear conclusion: Clement Peerens is right. Blankenberge, oh thee stunning city. Full of unexpected treasures and hidden finds. This time it won’t take us another age to return.
This report came about in the context of Vitamin Sea, in collaboration with Westtoer. We stayed at Hotel Helios, where we got a warm welcome, a view of the sea and… a soft bed.