Hold tight] Belgium goes off the rails: The tramway along the Flanders coast offers some bizarre and beautiful sights. Stephen Wood took the trip

Stephen Wood
Friday 01 October 1993 23:02

CHOOSING the site for the next mini-golf world championships will be a simple matter. Desmond Lynam won't have to go to Monte Carlo, and Manchester need not apply: Belgium's human rights record and its infrastructure can't be matched. As The Belgium Coast All Year Round] (available from Ostend Tourist Office) reveals, the 40-mile stretch of the country's Channel coast offers no fewer than 36 mini-golf courses, plus a rapid transport system that connects them all. At the eastern end, Knokke-Heist ('A Colourful Palette', proclaims the guide) has no fewer than five; Nieuwpoort (curiously, 'A Taste For Water') has four; down near the French border, even De Panne (merely 'Seaside Resort') has three.

Whether the courses are up to world championship standard, I cannot say. I didn't go to the Belgian coast for the mini-golf, nor for the World Cartoon Festival in Knokke-Heist, nor even the Culinary Fish-dishes Contest at De Panne. The Belgium Coast All Year Round] makes a valiant effort to give each of the seaside resorts on its flat, featureless coast a different character, but the fact is that you can hardly tell Mariakerke from Middelkerke. Anyway, what attracted me was not the differences but what they all have in common. The coastal tramway - properly, so tram experts will tell you, the 'Littoral Vicinal' - covers the waterfront, all 40 miles of it, and my plan was to see The Belgium Coast Up And Down]

It is about three minutes' walk from the Ostend ferry terminal to the hub of the coastal tramway. Unfortunately the station, and the trams, are nowhere near as quaint as one would hope. Belgium, being so flat, was the ideal place to create the densest tram network in the world, and by the late Twenties the Belgians had done so; but all that remains of the Societe National des Chemins-de-fer Vicinaux (the word vicinal means 'local road') is a lot of bus routes and three tramways. The coastal tramway has survived because it is a rapid transit system, running services every half-hour in each direction, rather than a piece of history.

Its own history, going back about a century, is elusive. I discovered that there is a book about the coastal tramway; but I discovered at the same time that it is in Dutch, and out of print. Anecdotal history, however, goes back at least a quarter of a century: a school-friend and I once set out on a hitch-hiking holiday from Ostend and, having failed to get a single lift in Belgium, caught the tram to France in search of more generous motorists. I remember that in those days the trams were still old, rickety things; but my memory, now also an old, rickety thing, does not stretch further than that.

The new trams are sleek, 45mph jobs, and the drivers use their performance to the full. Standing passengers had to hold very tight as we swept out of Ostend to the west, past the grand Hotel Thermae Palace and out to the coast road, lined with inexplicably large hotel and apartment blocks. On the long straight stretch to Middlekerke the buildings disappear, leaving a minimalist landscape of sea, road, dunes and sky, all scale and no detail apart from the beach, which is sectioned off by breakwaters and dotted with labradors, joggers, kite-fliers and about half a million seagulls. Middlekerke is a rather uninteresting place ('Sports and Leisure' is all The Belgium Coast All Year Round] can come up with) but it has one treasure: a quite unimaginable Norman-style casino with sweeping, steeply-pitched, tiled roofs. It looks like a giant bus shelter on an inter-war housing estate, but its entertainments have, to quote TBCAYR] once again, 'earned it the title of 'Olympia of the low-lands'.'

Further west - in fact, beyond Westende - the tram turns inland to Nieuwpoort and passes the magnificent circular monument to King Albert I (and the less magnificent monuments alongside, in honour of those lock keepers who died while holding the German army at bay during the First World War by flooding the plain). When it returns to the coast, things start to become weird. The first sign of this is an ocean liner parked on the left of the road, away from the sea. This is the best place for the Normandie to be, since it is made of concrete. It is a hotel and restaurant, very solidly built in 1937 in the shape of an ocean liner, with a hull, portholes and funnels. Unfortunately the management, not satisfied with a good one-liner, push the joke too far by describing the chef as the 'captain', the first floor the 'A-deck', and so on.

A couple of miles further on is the strange and delightful Hotel Astrid, a brick-built art nouveau building which beautifully melts together romantic naturalism and the healthy sturdiness of the Arts and Crafts style. And then, on the far side of Koksijde, villa madness sets in. The tram moves too fast for a serious appreciation of the architectural burlesque that precedes De Panne, but if you are game for a laugh, this show of holiday-home jokes is good fun - especially the Fifties villa with a thatched roof. Those of a sensitive disposition, however, should probably get off the tram at Koksijde.

In fact everybody should get off at Koksijde, and not just to run their hands over the Hotel Astrid. Koksijde and its neighbour Sint-Idesbald are the high spots of the western section of the coastal tramway: Paul Delvaux lived in the town, and the museum dedicated to him has a superb collection of his paintings and possessions. The museum is a long walk from the tram, but it would be a pity to go by car. Delvaux's paintings have a lot of trams in them, and even when he moved on - in his best-known, surrealist period - to specialising in thin, pale, naked women, they were usually waiting for trams, in trams, or cruelly deprived of trams. Delvaux doesn't, however, have a one-track mind: he has painted trains, too.

I SAT at the De Panne terminus waiting for the return journey to Ostend and listened to the conversation of three elderly Belgians. I could not understand a single word. One of the strange pleasures of Belgium is the way that it manages to be both very cosmopolitan and utterly alien at the same time. Just down the road from De Panne is France - Oo-la-la, berets, croissants, and so on - and just across the Channel is England. But apart from chips, beer and mayonnaise, what do we know about Belgium? And who remembers a few words of Flemish from their schooldays?

Yet in a tram shelter full of Flemish, the advertising hoarding showed a photograph of a group of cowboys with the selling line, 'In 1941 Levi's removed the crotch rivet'. Imagine - Belgians presumably (a) understand this and (b) can interpret it as a good reason to buy a pair of Levi's. Think of it the other way around: if you saw a fly-poster for the Wedstrijd Visgerechten, would you guess that there was a Fish-dishes Contest in town?

The Belgians' command of English is not total; if it were, there would not be a brasserie in Nieuwpoort called Grill The Sailors. Still, you don't need to be a linguist to get by on the Belgian coast because everybody speaks good English, even in Ostend fish market. But Ostend hardly feels familiar: Dover is too far away for day-trippers to turn it into a real Channel port. The streets have names such as Aartshertoginnestraat and the wonderful beers are equally unpronouncable (I discovered that Hoegaarden is actually 'who-harden', and that De Koninck is delicious); the town has a well-maintained dourness and the people a kind of 'well, if this is all there is, then we might as well enjoy it' resignation. The distinction is simple: France is just French, but Belgium is foreign.

THE EASTERN stretch of the coastal tramway, between Ostend and Knokke-Heist, has one or two amusements: the strange covered promenade leading towards the beach at Blankenberge, the lighthouse in a field near Zeebrugge (echoing the Normandie, it's on the wrong side of the tracks) and the houses elegantly faced with ceramic tiles. It also has the one great treasure of the Belgian coast, De Haan.

There are a lot of stops on the coastal tramway but, apart from the modern 'terminus' at Ostend, only one station. And what a station. De Haan is a planned resort dating originally from 1888, a sort of Hampstead Garden Suburb on Sea. Designed in 1902 by the Brussels architect, G Dhaeyer, the station combines the same elements as the Hotel Astrid; but the Arts and Crafts style dominates, with the art nouveau elements relegated mainly to its decorative lettering. If Hansel and Gretel had travelled this way, they would have got off at the little cottage of De Haan station, seduced by its cosy, overhanging eaves and its ornate brickwork and timbers.

The resort of De Haan, or 'Coq-sur-

Mer', is just as delightful - it is villa madness, but of the finest sort. Built on a network of winding roads and the single, straight avenue, Normandielaan, the houses almost define holiday architecture: the playful mixture of styles, the decorative flourishes adding a touch of romance - and the architecture travels, too, picking up influences from the English Arts and Crafts movement, French gothic revival and early German and Dutch modernism, among others. If one house stands out amid so many beauties, it is the sensuously rounded Twenties cottage on Normandielaan that has an entirely appropriate and equally sensuous thatched roof.

De Haan is still subject to the statutes that controlled its development. So, unlike every other resort, De Haan has no apartment blocks. But it still has some things in common with its neighbours. There's the tram: you could book a trip to Ostend and a hotel in De Haan, and be getting off the tram at that wonderful station only half an hour after the ferry docked. And, if you must, you could have a few rounds of mini-golf. I didn't see any of them, but The Belgium Coast All Year Round] says that De Haan has four courses.

The coastal trams depart in each direction every half an hour; Ostend tram station is next to the railway station. A one-day ticket costs BF290 ( pounds 5.70); three days, BF490. The Musee Paul Delvaux is in Pannelaan, St Idesbald, Koksijde; October-December, it is open Fri, Sat, Sun, 10.30-18.30, entrance BF150. De Haan's tourist office is in the tram station; for hotel reservations telephone 010 3259 235723 or 233447.

Port Profile

Getting there: P & O European Ferries (0304 203388) operates at least six returns per day to Ostend from Dover. A single or three-day return for car and five passengers costs from pounds 75. Crossing time, four hours. But see also 'Departures', page 40.

Hotels: The Thermae Palace (010 32 59 806644) if you are rich: double rooms from pounds 102 per night; The Mayfair (010 32 59 702068) if you are poor: double rooms from pounds 21 per night; in between, 33 other hotels.

Where to eat: Innumerable places I did not have time to try. But for pounds 1.75 you can get a portion of herrings and a portion of chips, both excellent, on the Vissersplein, opposite the ferry terminal.

Shops: There is a Delhaize supermarket almost opposite the tram station on Leopold III plaan (closed Sundays).

What to do with an hour to spare: for adults, after dark, walk down Langestraat, where the prostitutes sit in the shop windows; for families, wander along the fish stalls on Visserskai or, if the weather is nice, have a drink outside the Hotel du Parc on Marie-Joseplein.

Further information: the Ostend Tourist Office has moved to a location opposite the casino on Langestraat (010 32 59 701199 or 703477).

(Photograph omitted)

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