This Belgian coast is hard to love and easy to scorn. It lacks the rugged profundity of Scandinavian fjords or the fractal chaos of Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Its colour palette is grey-beige and its soundtrack is less Charles Trenet’s La Mer and more Brel’s plat pays.
Rail buffs take note: Belgium’s Kusttram (Coast Tram) is the world’s longest tram line. Wikipedia picks up the back story and defines our (transport) terms.
The Kusttram is a public transport service connecting the cities and towns along the Belgian (West Flanders) coast between De Panne, near the French border, and Knokke-Heist, near the Dutch border. At 67 kilometres (42 mi) in length, it is currently (as of January 2024) the world’s longest metre gauge tram line in service, and the second-longest light rail service in the world after the A Line of the Los Angeles Metro Rail system,as well as one of the few interurban tramways in the world to remain in operation. The line is fully electrified at 600 V DC.
In autumn of 2005 we caught the tram in Nieuwpoort and rode to Zeebrugge, stopping for snacks and drinks in Ostend on the return trip. Weather was quite variable that day, and so we didn’t debark and explore as much as we might have.
But speaking as an American suffering from a violent lifelong allergy to automobile centrism, it has always been a joy to exercise public transportation options while touring Europe, allowing someone else to drive as I look out the window — and, if the mood strikes me, drink more beers than I should before boarding.
The horizon and the sea are an indistinguishable grey, disturbed only by silhouettes of the men and women on horseback. They’re sifting for crangon crangon, the common or grey shrimp. People have fished the North Sea’s shrimp-rich shallows for centuries, but it’s only here in Oostduinkerke where the tradition endures.
We took the tram for kicks on that day almost 20 years ago, and while vestiges of the bicycle enthusiast in me screams internal rejoinders that the single best way to tackle the Belgian coastline is on two wheels, Eoghan Walsh’s three-day exploration of food and drink via the Kusttram strikes me as a wonderful template (italicized passages are his).
I live vicariously through the Belgian Smaak (“Belgian Taste”) website, and Walsh’s sumptuous photo essay is a prime example of why it impresses me so. Photography is by Cliff Lucas: Flavour Track — A Culinary Crawl On Belgium’s Coastal Tram.
Forty years on, James Desimpelaere is in charge, and the hotel has been renamed (Het Botteltje, “the small bottle”), expanded, and modernised. Beer is everywhere at Het Botteltje. The bar has the booths, brass fittings, and polished brewery-branded mirrors of an old-style pub. The walls are covered in memorabilia from breweries past and present. There’s even a fingerpost near the entrance marked with the distances to famous breweries. It smells like a pub—unemptied slop trays, degreaser, and disinfectant—and those English tourists that came in the 1980s would easily recognise it as a pub.
Of course for visitors to Belgium or anywhere else in the world the overarching point of the exercise, in the words of honkytonk king Dallas Moore, is to “git amongst it.” Trains, trams, bikes and your own two feet can take you places, but it’s up to you to absorb the locales and surrender to the moment.
On a frigid Sunday morning in January, I’m in full daydream mode.
Cover photo credit today goes to Carsten Grosse-Knetter, via Facebook.