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Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries report from the coast of Belgium—
A surreal experience
The tram binds René Magritte’s magnificent murals at the casino in Knokke (near the Dutch border at the northeast end of the tram route) to the gnomes who preside over affairs at Plopsaland at the southwest end of the route at De Panne (just a stone’s throw from the French border). In between those two end points there are giant bananas dangling from flagpoles, piers that lead nowhere, and sedate belle époque hotels that have had their sea views obliterated exactly midway along the route. It is a superb port community, and one that boasts one of the finest fish markets along the coast. The dunes may have been sacrificed to high-rise passions, but some perspectives are simply stunning. To walk from the terrace of the Thermae Palace Hotel at Oostende towards the port on a fine day is utterly memorable. There are graceful arcades, the inevitable statues of one or the other Leopold, and then the graceful curves of the casino. This is a town that once affected to be the Monte Carlo of the North. It is not for nothing that the square on the landward side of the casino is called Monacoplein.
And then there is De Haan, easily the most attractive of the communities along the tram route. Until the tram arrived in 1886, De Haan was a poor seaside village, populated by shrimp fishermen and families. It was just a scattered collection of huts, regarded with disfavor by folk in neighboring villages who judged De Haan to be the haunt of scoundrels and thieves. Within a few years of the arrival of the tram, De Haan developed into a select coastal resort—one that was later to number Albert Einstein among its visitors.
The Belgian coast has long been home to some of Europe’s most audacious artistic traditions. Surrealism was born here. And the coastal tram route features some striking modern art along the way. Expect anything from fake elephants to bronze nudes on the beaches. And yet amid the contemporary art by the sea, there are the reassuring routines of coastal life: “moules et frites,” the clanging bell of the soup man’s white van as he makes his morning deliveries to apartment blocks, the joggers with their dogs running along the promenade. Not to mention the tasty North Sea “bouillabaisse.”
A modest investment of €5 will give you the run of the coastal tram for an entire day, and the ticket is also valid on the bus routes that connect the tram stops with lovely Flanders villages inland. There is more than enough of interest to enjoy a longer stay exploring the coast. A three-day pass for tram and buses costs merely €10.