Belgium has only 70 km of coast on the North Sea, but the Belgians haven't underestimated its value. Real estate plays big here, and many well-to-do Belgians have a second house or an apartment somewhere near one of the Belgium's fine whitesand beaches.
One peculiarity of the Belgian coast is the abundance of tall apartment buildings, especially in places like De Panne, Ostend and Blankenberg. Another noteworthy point is the number of casinos. Yet another is the tramway line that connects all the towns from De Panne (to the southwest) to Knokke-Heist (to the northeast) in a sort of long conurbation. It is actually the longest tramway line in the world.
De Panne & Koksijde
Just across the border from France, De Panne (or La Panne in French) it is a beach favoured by French tourists from Lille. In fact, French is more spoken than Dutch here. The long beach is lined with rather unappealing concrete apartments, but there are plenty of shops and restaurants in the backstreets, which distinguishes it from other beaches before Ostend.
De Panne is where King Leopold I first set foot on Belgian soil in 1831, and a monument was raised in his honour. It is also where King Albert I set the headquarters of the Belgian Army and his government during the First World War. In 1940, it is between De Panne and Dunkerke (across the border) that the British troops retreated from the Nazi advance into the Benelux and France.
There is almost no separation between the villages of De Panne and Koksijde (Coxyde in French). The latter is nicer, with more detached houses, but less shops.
Between Koksijde and Nieuwpoort, the small village of Oostduinkerke gained a worldwide reputation in 2013 when UNESCO added the local tradition of shrimp fishing on horseback to its list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. This artisanal and family practice has existed for more than 500 years. From April to September, it is possible to come to observe the fishermen on the beach. Fishing nets are attached to the horses who walk parallel to the coast, laboriously making their way through the waves with water up to their knees. The fishermen on horseback sport their yellow or orange raincoats and trousers and their long boots. Once the nets are filled, they sort and throw back the fish, crabs and jellyfish and keep only the small gray shrimps typical of the North Sea.
Completely destroyed during WWI, Nieuwpoort (Nieuport in French) is a fishing village renowed for its seafood. This is where the German invasion was brought to a halt, thanks to the flooding of the plain between the sea and the River Ijzer (see Ypres). The beach itself is about 2km south of the fishing village. It has nicer and more modern apartments than most other towns, and nice traditional white houses with orange title roofs.
The main and only real city on the coast is Ostend (Oostende in Dutch, literally "East End"; Ostende in French), with a population of 70,000. Directly linked to Brussels by train, this was King Leolpold II's great project; making one of Europe's trendiest seaside resort. In its late 19th century heydays, Ostend rivaled with Monaco, Brighton or Deauville, and was the playground of the aristocracy. At a time, it called itself the "Queen of Belgian beaches".
The town was first mentioned as a fishing village about 1000 years ago. It was already a port of some importance when it joined the Revolt of the Netherlands in 1601 and resisted a 3-year siege against the Spaniards (finally to be taken). Ostend then set up its own colonial company, with trading posts in Africa and India. After Waterloo, the Brits were the first to bathe here, and Queen Victoria herself crossed the Channel to rest in Ostend in 1834.
The two world wars gave a hard blow to Ostend. The old casino was destroyed by the Nazi. After WWII, abusive property development left scars to the city's harmonious Belle Epoque architecture. The casino was rebuilt in 1950 in white portland stone and includes wall frescoes and sculptures by, among others, Paul Delvaux. Covering an area of one hectare (107,000 sq ft), the Casino Kursaal Oostende is as big as the Casino of Monte Carlo in Monaco and second only in size within Europe after the Casino di Campione in Como, Italy.
Today, Ostend has mostly lost the charms of its past glory, but is still worth to come for its nightlife and museums. Painter James Ensor lived in Ostend from 1917 to his death in 1949, and his house can still be visited. If you are into Belgian paintings, don't miss the Museum of Modern Art, dedicated to 20th-century Belgian painters, and the Museum of Fine Arts, which possess a lot of works by Ensor, among others. Let's also note the Museum of Folklore, and the Mercator, a ship that operated between 1932 and 1960 and is now moored in Ostend.
A handsome little town 12km north of Ostend. Its beach is small, but it boasts many cottage-style houses with thatched roofs. Albert Einstein stayed here once... De Haan means "the cock/rooster".
Crowded beach resort with plenty of modern apartment blocks. It has an English-style pier perpendicular to the beach.
A good reason to come here with children is to visit the Sea Life centre, one of the largest aquariums in Belgium. In July and August, Blankenberg hosts the Sand Festival (next to Sea Life), where huge sand sculptures are built based on a specific theme.
Literally "Sea Bruges". It is the new port of Bruges, which had been cut off the coast after the natural Zwin canal silted in the 15th century. It was built between 1895 and 1907 and is still expanding. By no means a beach, Zeebrugge is a huge artificial harbour with petrol tankers and ferries to Felixtowne and Kingston-upon-Hull in England. It is also a fishing harbour with a fish market.
The most bourgeois and show-off town of the coast along with De Haan, Knokke-Heist is in fact made of 5 villages : Heist, Duibergen, Albert-Plage, Knokke and finally Het Zoute next to the Dutch border. The nearest from the border, the most upmarket. Actually, only the latter has more to offer than the usual concrete apartments blocks along the beach.
Het Zoute (Le Zoute in French) is where the country's upper class and the jet set buy their beach residence, meet, relax and party. It has been dubbed "Brussels Beach", due to the high density of well-heeled Brusselers. Real estate prices there are reputedly the highest in Belgium, sometimes reaching 20,000 € per square metre for an apartment. Its white villas with orange-tiled roofs and the occasional timber frame give Het Zoute an Anglo-Dutch atmosphere. It is indubitably the nicest and chicest part of the Belgian coast.
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