Travel Europe: First resort for the famous

This summer, Ostend is in celebratory mood - so for once, why not visit it instead of just driving through?
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The Independent Culture
Nothing is so becoming as the leaving of it," wrote one British visitor to Ostend in 1793. The English who flocked to this gateway to the Continent after the Battle of Waterloo were equally dismissive: they complained of a lack of fresh water, offensive smells, vagabonds, pickpockets, hustlers and ugly women; even the horses, they said, looked funny. Few tarried longer than a couple of hours.

Today's travellers are equally reluctant to linger in Ostend, eschewing the unknown pleasures of the Belgian coast for the more obvious delights of Bruges, Ghent or Brussels. But there's more to Ostend than tourists think.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the town's most famous son, the painter James Ensor. Although the exact half-centenary is not until 19 November, Ostend is ostentatiously celebrating throughout the long, warm-ish summer.

Leaving the catamaran at the Hoverspeed terminal, you are greeted by a new 300m mural, a brightly coloured homage to Belgium's legendary chansonnier Jacques Brel, incorporating the lyrics of "Le Plat Pays".

The gently satirical song displays a nostalgia for the coast that most of Brel's countrymen seem to share. Perhaps it is because this low-key resort, popular with Belgian families and pensioners and crammed with tea-rooms, waffle stands, amusement arcades and excellent fish restaurants, was one of fin-de-siecle Europe's most fashionable and cosmopolitan resorts.

Monarchs, radicals and fashionable loungers, among them Marx, Queen Victoria and Victor Hugo, flooded into the town and crowded its magnificent Art Nouveau-meets-Alien casino and the seafront promenade, lined with handsome hotels and elegant villas. Sadly, few traces remain of those glory days. The casino was torn down by the Germans in the Second World War to make way for a gun battery, and much of the belle epoque architecture was levelled by developers in the Sixties and Seventies to make way for lucrative seaside apartment complexes. And the casino's replacement, erected in 1953, is a squat, clumsy, concrete aberration only partly redeemed by the Surrealist Paul Delvaux's interior mural.

A detailed model of the extravagant casino is the most poignant exhibit at De Plate, the local history museum on cafe-packed Wapenplein. A musty, slightly anarchic institution, it traces the evolution of Ostend from the Ice Age to modern times. Bogglingly random exhibits include the pelvis of a local mammoth, a splendid drawing of a whale that washed up on the beach in 1826, a detailed description of how to build a boat, and a horse- drawn chip stand that graced the Groenemarkt from 1895 until 1940.

If your curiosity is aroused, a local teacher and amateur historian, Dirk Beirens, gives day-long Belle Epoque group tours (you need to book with the tourist office), complete with meals and a chance to sample local tavern life.

As well as visiting the fine examples of the turn-of-the-century style that remain on Ostend's outskirts, the tour unravels King Leopold II's extravagant designs for the flourishing resort: the elegant seafront Venetian galleries (once glass-panelled to protect the rich from the wind); Leopold Park; and a subterranean passageway linking the Royal Orangerie with the villa the King bought for his mistress, 48 years his junior.

Fin-de-siecle grandeur is not the only surprise on the city limits. The nearby polders are dotted with giant brown or black-and-white "cows", herds of cunningly disguised, cloth-covered cars, their side-mirrors transformed into cows' ears. Poking fun at one of society's "sacred cows", the project recalls the irreverent spirit of James Ensor himself.

Born to a gentlemanly English father, who met his less-refined Belgian wife in an Ostend souvenir shop, Ensor loved and hated his provincial birthplace, making it the scene of countless paintings.

These expressionist pictures show the play of light on the sea, beaches crammed with chubby bodies and masked grotesques inspired by Ostend's orgiastic annual rite, the Dead Rats' Ball. Until 31 August, the Fine Arts Museum is exhibiting its complete collection of the artist's paintings, sketches and letters, including views of the street where Ensor lived, the cathedral, harbour, fishing boats and savage skits on doctors and other important people.

In Ensor's day, the Ostend beach was packed with horse-drawn cabins carrying bathers to the sea (introduced by the English, incidentally, along with oysters, exiled debtors and amateur theatre). A century ago, the painter captured the scene in The Baths at Ostend, a large copy of which is now on display in the open air, next to the casino. Suffused with scatological humour, it shows couples French-kissing, men with telescopes spying on half-naked women, and wobbling fat-bellied priests.

Such outrages saw it banned from an exhibition in Brussels, although this ban was lifted following the personal intervention of Leopold II. Part of it now features on the BFr100 banknote.

Ensor eventually settled in the cluttered house on Vlaanderenstraat, a former souvenir shop inherited from his uncle and aunt and a short walk from the seafront. Now a museum, it houses original souvenirs, among them shells, stuffed animals, mermaids and the fantastical carnival masks that inspired so much of his work. If you're not too spooked, have a drink at the nearby James Cafe, its walls plastered with antique pots and pans, photographs of the painter, beach scenes and a macabre boar's head and stuffed trotters.

When you tire of seaside crowds, escape to nearby Mariakerke, where the promenade is more peaceful. Ensor's tomb stands in the graveyard of Our- Lady-of-the-Dunes, a cosy Gothic church just a stone's- throw from the sea.

If you're expecting it to be decorated with weird carnival masks or dancing skeletons, you'll be pleasantly disappointed; it's a plain stone block, surrounded by a modest patch of flowers. The nearby dunes are an ideal place for a stroll and final gulp of North Sea air before you travel on to bigger and better things.

Hoverspeed (0870 524 0241) runs six daily services via SeaCat from Dover to Ostend, including a late- night summer service leaving at 11.30pm (until 31 August). A standard five-day return (two people with car) costs pounds 139 off-peak (up to 7.30am and after 8.30pm); pounds 159 during peak hours; and pounds 190 for more than five days. Foot- passengers pay pounds 25 for a single or five- day return and pounds 50 for more than five days. Ostend tourist office: 00 32 59701199