A few weeks ago we felt deserving of an extended break, plotted a course west, stocked up on wine and delicacies and headed for the Belgian coast on a steel grey Friday afternoon. We took the stopping train to the coast, which kept the commuter count quite low, and enjoyed a leisurely picnic as the countryside rolled by.
One of the positive things about travelling by rail in Europe is that the train stations are in the middle of the cities or towns. De Panne is the exception. We decamped from our cozy carriage into a February wind and onto a deserted platform five kilometres from anywhere. It was only eight p.m. but felt like three a.m. No buses and no taxis were to be seen anywhere. The station looked like it had shut for the season. The only sign of life were a pair of desultory youths mumbling to each other through their cigarettes beside a deserted tram.
Presently a young lady wandered along and got on the tram. Plucking up the courage we boarded and asked if the tram indeed was heading to town and, if it was, asked how we could get a ticket. She confirmed that it was headed that way and pointed to a notice on the wall of the ticket office. There, in plain Flemish, where the instructions for buying a ticket. A simple SMS text was all it took to ride the tram for an hour. Shortly after fathoming that, the driver turned up and we were on our way to town. We arrived at our hotel seconds before the kitchen was due to shut so we hurriedly order dinner and a(nother) bottle of wine. After flinging our gear in our room, we settled back and waited for dinner. After dinner we relaxed in the hotel bar to discuss the plans for the following day over a large Highland Malt and a glass of red wine.
The sun woke us the next morning as it peered through the trees outside our window. We dressed and went down to breakfast. A mountain of scrambled eggs and a couple of rashers of bacon got us ready for a day of walking. We set off along the beach and headed south towards France. The weather was pretty reasonable for a February which means it wasn’t raining and we wandered somewhat aimlessly along investigating barnacle encrusted poles, a myriad of different shells, and sea grasses bordering the dunes while sail carts whizzed past with the wind and sauntered past against it.
Eventually we crossed into France and found a cafe that offered a warming cup of coffee for one of us and a beer for the other.
We headed back to the home country, turned right at the border and headed into the dunes. We hadn’t gone very far when the curious image of three French police mounted on horse back hove into view on the other side of the fence. Around them scurried a gaggle of photographers, either leaping over the border fence, it wasn’t much of a fence, or running on ahead to get the perfect angle, snap a picture and then hurry on again. They were trailed by what must have been the junior member of the team whose task it appeared to be to clean up after the horses. We waved to the police, they waved back and we each went our separate ways.
The walk in the dunes took all afternoon. The only disappointment was that the shetland cattle never appeared. Why shetland cattle should be grazing in sand dunes in Belgium was beyond us but there were a number of signs suggesting that was the case. We never saw any evidence of it.
After a day of walking in the sand we carried half the beach back to the hotel in our shoes, changed and jumped into the swimming pool. Afterwards we headed into town and found a comfy little restaurant and enjoyed a true Belgian delicacy, balletjes in totomatensaus (meat balls in tomato sauce).
The next day, armed with the courage from our tram experience of the first day, we walked into town fired off a couple of text messages for tickets and boarded the tram for Nieuwpoort. We got off early and found the a light house in a rather unexpected place. It was a kilometre inland and hidden from the sea by an apartment building…
Who says the Belgians can’t be surreal? As we reached the coast the February wind which had deserted us the day before came back with a vengeance to hurry us along the harbour entrance. We glanced quickly at the few boats in the water and one alongside the path but it wasn’t long before we decided to warm our cockles in a cafe.
After that we wandered first around the docks
and then around the locks that controlled the interaction of the sea with the Yser where, between 1914 and 1918, a game of cat and mouse was played out between Belgian engineers and German artillery. It wasn’t long before the February wind convinced us it was a good idea to hop onto the tram and head back for De Panne to stop off at our now favourite Belgian restaurant for another hearty dose of good home cooking.
Dinner was delicious. We repaired to the hotel where another Malt awaited, played a few hands of Gin and headed off to bed. Noticing the state of our cards the night clerk pulled a fresh pack out of the cupboard and gave it to us as a gift.
The following morning we boarded the tram and got to train station rather early. The police were there having a polite conversation with some refugees offering guidance and advice. The whistle blew. We boarded the train and headed home.