The Baedeker of 1900 distinguished OSTEND as “one of the most fashionable and cosmopolitan watering places in Europe”. The gloss may be gone today, and the aristocratic visitors have certainly moved on to more exotic climes, but Ostend remains a likeable, liveable seaport with a clutch of first-rate seafood restaurants, a string of earthy bars, an enjoyable art museum and – easily the most popular of the lot – a long slice of sandy beach.
Ostend also marks the midway point of the Belgian coast, which stretches for some 70km from Knokke-Heist in the east to De Panne in the west. A superb sandy beach extends along almost all of the coast, but the dunes that once backed onto it have largely disappeared beneath an ugly covering of apartment blocks and bungalow settlements, a veritable carpet of concrete that obscures the landscape and depresses the soul. There are, however, one or two breaks in the aesthetic gloom, principally De Haan, a charming little seaside resort with easy access to a slender slice of pristine coastline; the substantial remains of Atlantikwall built by the Germans to repel the Allies in World War II; and the outstanding Paul Delvaux Museum in St-Idesbald.
There’s precious little left of medieval Ostend, and today’s town centre, which fans out from beside the train station, is a largely modern affair, whose narrow, straight streets are lined by clunky postwar apartment blocks and a scattering of older – and much more appealing – stone mansions. In front of the train station, the first specific sight is the Amandine, a local deep-sea fishing boat of unremarkable modern design that was decommissioned in 1995 – and then parked here, its interior turned into a museum with displays on fishing, nautical dioramas and so forth. Straight ahead from the boat rises the whopping St-Petrus en Pauluskerk, a church that looks old but in fact dates from the early twentieth century. Behind it, the last remnant of its predecessor is a massive sixteenth-century brick tower with a canopied, distinctly morbid shrine of the Crucifixion at its base. Nearby, pedestrianized Kapellestraat, the principal shopping street, leads north into the main square, Wapenplein, a pleasant open space that zeroes in on an old-fashioned bandstand. The south side of the square is dominated by the former Feest-en Kultuurpaleis (Festival and Culture Hall), an imposing 1950s building that has recently been turned into a shopping centre.
Exploring the seashore by public transport could not be easier: a fast, frequent and efficient tram service – the Kusttram – runs from one end of the coast to the other. If you’re UK-bound, note that Transeuropa operates ferries from Ostend to Ramsgate, while Zeebrugge is linked to Hull by P&O Ferries and with Rosyth by Norfolkline ferries.
The old fishing village of Ostend was given a town charter in the thirteenth century, in recognition of its growing importance as a port for trade across the Channel. Flanked by an empty expanse of sand dune, it remained the only important coastal settlement hereabouts until the construction of Zeebrugge six centuries later – the dunes were always an inadequate protection against the sea and precious few people chose to live along the coast until a chain of massive sea walls was completed in the nineteenth century. Like so many other towns in the Spanish Netherlands, Ostend was attacked and besieged time and again, winning the admiration of Protestant Europe in resisting the Spaniards during a desperate siege that lasted from 1601 to 1604. Later, convinced of the wholesome qualities of sea air and determined to impress other European rulers with their sophistication, Belgium’s first kings, Léopold I and II, turned Ostend into a chichi resort, demolishing the town walls and dotting the outskirts with prestigious buildings and parks. Several of these have survived, but others were destroyed during World War II, when the town’s docks made it a prime bombing target. Subsequently, Ostend resumed its role as a major cross-channel port until the completion of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 undermined its position. Since then, Ostend has had to reinvent itself, emphasizing its charms as a seaside resort and centre of culture. There’s a long way to go, perhaps – and parts of the centre remain resolutely miserable – but there’s no denying that Ostend is on the up.
It is perhaps hard to imagine today, but for generations of Brits Ostend had a particular resonance as their first continental port of call. It also played a key role in World War II when, with the German armies closing in, thousands made a desperate dash to catch a boat to the UK; one of the escapees was the young Ralph Miliband, the father of the Labour politicians Ed and David. Another temporary resident was Marvin Gaye, who hunkered down here in 1981 until family and musical ties pulled him back to the US the year after – and just two years before he was killed by his father in bizarre circumstances in Los Angeles.