Arrive at Ostende's grand 19th-century railway station and you'll be greeted by a sign advertising day trips to Ramsgate. For me, that billboard immediately robs the city of any mystique.
My early morning trog through the city streets proved no more encouraging. I lugged my ailing roly-bag down Vindictive Lane (named after a battleship, but does rather put you on your guard), and then Kapelle Street, with its disproportionate number of tattoo parlours, old people being pushed about in wheelchairs, and hard-drinking men who clocked in when the bars opened at 7am.
Thank goodness, then, that the city's tourist board is preparing to launch the Marvin Gaye Midnight Love Tour, something designed to put Ostende on the map for all the best reasons. Not many people know that, 30 years ago, Marvin Gaye lived in Belgium while recovering from depression and his addiction to pretty much most things. And those who do probably didn't realise he wrote "Sexual Healing" in a fourth-floor flat on Ostende's Promenade. I know this because I have just had a sneak peek of the tour.
It comes in the form of an app that you can download on to your phone for €3. Or you can hire an iPod from the tourist office opposite the truly hideous modern casino where Gaye gave his last (undersubscribed) European concert. At the press of a button the app reveals footage of Marvin on these streets and interviews with the people who shared those strange 18 months with him.
Ostende is an odd place for anyone to wash up – least of all this prince of Motown. It's hardly a city, more a series of streets between the end of the railway line and the start of the North Sea – but it is not without its charms. The Belgian royal family had its holiday home here for generations. (In fact, one of them loved the womenfolk of Ostende so much he had tunnels dug from the rather twee royal residence on the Prom down into the town so that he could visit his mistresses incognito.) And the painter James Ensor (1860-1949) lived all his professional life here, turning out pictures of skeletons fighting over kippers and raw-fleshed nudes.
Pieter Hens, who set up the Midnight Love tour, says Gaye came here at the invitation of Belgian concert promoter Freddy Cousaert. One of the app stops is outside Freddy's apartment with footage of the Cousaert daughters talking about their curious guest. In February 1981, it was unusual to see a black man in Ostende.
Gaye was in Brighton when Freddy contacted him. He didn't want to leave the UK because he was depressed and unable to write, and he loved "the rain and the wind, the honesty of the sea". Freddy told him he could have even more rain and wind if he came to Ostende. So Marvin and his son Bubby took the ferry over and Freddy helped him to come off most of the drugs and start writing again.
There was very little of the February gloom that appealed to Marvin when I tried out the Midnight Love tour in autumn. In fact, there was a spectacular sunset over the North Sea, which managed to make even the ugly post-Second World War redevelopment of the Prom glow. I started my preview at the woeful casino where there's a bronze statue of Marvin seated at the piano. The app opens with an introduction by the English musician and Gaye fan Jamie Lidell, who also cleaned up his act after having, by his own admission, lived "a lot of my life just stoned".
Next, I was directed on to the promenade to see the ferries coming in. At this point I watched black and white footage of Marvin and his son arriving. His ghost was looking out to where I would be standing, in glorious Technicolour, 30 years later. From here, I wandered, in a blaze of the setting sun, down the promenade to Marvin's flat at No 77. You can't go in but if you could I am sure it would be wholly unremarkable. On the iPod I can see a picture of Marvin in a woolly hat sitting with David Ritz, who came over to work with him on "Sexual Healing". Thirty years on, that same rather sad, large brown sofa is jammed against the window.
I walk down Lange Street and try to feel Marvin's ghost as he went in search of sexual healing and, by all accounts, found it. The guide shows me how these scruffy shops looked then with Marvin turning his collar up against the damp night air. The same friet shops, pizzerias and tabaks. The bars, such as the Cocoon Club and Flanagans, may have changed their names but there's still that same down-at-heel, drink-all-day feel.
I let the iPod deliver me finally to the Lafayette Music Bar, which definitely wasn't here in 1981. A bar runs round two sides of this louche den and, above the spirits, there's a large black-and-white photo of our man looking smart in a blazer. Perched on a stool with a small beer I remain mystified as to quite how Marvin got his mojo back in Ostende, but I've definitely seen a side of this city that was invisible to me until now.
How to get there
Adrian Mourby travelled to Ostende with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk), which offers return fares from £109. He stayed at Hotel Polaris (00 32 59 27 90 06; hotel polaris.be), which offers rooms from €119 per night with breakfast.
The Midnight Love Tour will be available from the tourist office (visitoostende.be) in February.Reuse content