The Flemish-speaking provinces of West Vlaanderen and Oost Vlaanderen (West Flanders and East Flanders) roll east from the North Sea coast, stretching out towards Brussels and Antwerp. As early as the thirteenth century, Flanders was one of the most prosperous areas of Europe, with an advanced, integrated economy dependent on the cloth trade with England. The boom times lasted a couple of centuries, but by the sixteenth century the region was in decline as trade slipped north towards the Netherlands, and England’s cloth manufacturers began to undermine its economic base. The speed of the collapse was accelerated by religious conflict, for though the great Flemish towns were by inclination Protestant, their kings and queens were Catholic. Indeed, once the Habsburgs had seen off the Protestant challenge in Flanders, thousands of Flemish weavers, merchants and skilled artisans poured north to escape religious persecution. The ultimate economic price of these religious wars was the closure of the River Scheldt, the main waterway to the North Sea, at the insistence of the Dutch in 1648. Thereafter, Flanders sank into poverty and decay, a static, priest-ridden and traditional society where nearly every aspect of life was controlled by decree, and only three percent of the population could read or write.
With precious little say in the matter, the Flemish peasantry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw their lands crossed and re-crossed by the armies of the Great Powers, for it was here that the relative fortunes of dynasties and nations were decided. Only with Belgian independence did the situation begin to change: the towns started to industrialize, tariffs protected the cloth industry, Zeebrugge was built and Ostend was modernized, all in a flurry of activity that shook Flanders from its centuries-old torpor. This steady progress was severely interrupted by the German occupations of both world wars, but Flanders has emerged prosperous, its citizens maintaining a distinctive cultural and linguistic identity, often in sharp opposition to their Walloon (French-speaking) neighbours.
With the exception of the range of low hills around Oudenaarde and the sea dunes along the coast, Flanders is unrelentingly flat, a somewhat monotonous landscape at its best in its quieter recesses, where poplar trees and whitewashed farmhouses still decorate sluggish canals. More remarkably, there are many reminders of Flanders’ medieval greatness, beginning with the ancient and fascinating cloth cities of Brugesand Ghent, both of which hold marvellous collections of early Flemish art. Less familiar are a clutch of intriguing smaller towns, most memorably Oudenaarde, which has a delightful town hall and is famed for its tapestries; Kortrijk, with its classic small-town charms and fine old church; and Veurne, whose main square is framed by a beguiling medley of fine old buildings. There is also, of course, the legacy of World War I. By 1915, the trenches extended from the North Sea coast to Switzerland, cutting across West Flanders via Diksmuide and Ieper, and many of the key engagements of the war were fought here. Every year hundreds of visitors head for Ieper (formerly Ypres) to see the numerous cemeteries and monuments around the town – sad reminders of what proved to be a desperately pointless conflict. Not far from the battlefields, the Belgian coast is beach territory, an almost continuous stretch of golden sand that is filled by thousands of tourists every summer. An excellent tram service connects all the major resorts, and although a lot of the development has been crass, cosy De Haan has kept much of its late nineteenth-century charm. The largest town on the coast is Ostend, a lively, working seaport and resort crammed with popular bars and restaurants.
Of all the cities in Belgium, it’s hard to trump GHENT, a vital, vibrant metropolis whose booming restaurant and bar scene wends its way across a charming cityscape, a network of narrow canals overseen by dozens of antique brick houses. If Bruges is a tourist industry with a town attached, Ghent is the reverse – a proudly Flemish city which, with a population of 240,000, is now Belgium’s third largest conurbation. Evidence of Ghent’s medieval pomp is to be found in a string of superb Gothic buildings including St-Baafskathedraal, whose principal treasure is Jan van Eyck’s remarkable Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the world’s most important paintings. Supporting the cathedral are the likes of St-Niklaaskerk, with its soaring arches and pencil-thin turrets; the forbidding castle of the counts of Flanders, Het Gravensteen; and the delightful medieval guildhouses of the Graslei. These central attractions are supplemented by a trio of outlying museums: S.M.A.K, a Museum of Contemporary Art; STAM, which explores the city’s history; and the fine art of the Museum voor Schone Kunsten.
The principal seat of the counts of Flanders and one of the largest towns in western Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Ghent was once at the heart of the Flemish cloth trade. By 1350, the city boasted a population of fifty thousand, of whom no fewer than five thousand were directly involved in the industry, a prodigious concentration of labour in a predominantly rural Europe. Like Bruges, Ghent prospered throughout the Middle Ages, but it also suffered from endemic disputes between the count and his nobles (who supported France) and the cloth-reliant citizens (to whom friendship with England was vital).
The relative decline of the cloth trade in the early sixteenth century did little to ease the underlying tension, as the people of Ghent were still resentful of their ruling class, from whom they were now separated by language – French against Flemish – and religion – Catholic against Protestant. Adapting to the new economic situation, the town’s merchants switched from industry to trade, exporting surplus grain from France, only to find their efforts frustrated by an interminable series of wars in which their rulers were involved. The catalyst for conflict was usually taxation: long before the Revolt of the Netherlands, Ghent’s merchants and artisans found it hard to stomach the financial dictates of their rulers – the Habsburgs after 1482 – and time and again they rose in revolt only to be crushed and punished. In 1540, for example, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V lost patience and stormed the town, abolishing its privileges, filling in the moat and building a new castle at the city’s expense. Later, in 1584, with the Netherlands well on the way to independence from Habsburg Spain, Philip II’s armies captured Ghent. It was a crucial engagement: thereafter Ghent proved to be too far south to be included in the United Provinces and was reluctantly pressed into the Spanish Netherlands. Many of its citizens fled north, and those who didn’t may well have regretted their decision when the Inquisition arrived and the Dutch forced the Habsburgs to close the River Scheldt, Ghent’s economic lifeline, as the price of peace in 1648.
In the centuries that followed, Ghent slipped into a slow decline from which it only emerged during the industrial boom of the nineteenth century. In optimistic mood, the medieval merchants had built the city’s walls a fair distance from the town centre to allow Ghent to expand, but the expected growth had never taken place until now. Within the space of twenty years, these empty districts filled up with factories, whose belching chimneys encrusted the old city with soot and grime, a disagreeable measure of the city’s economic revival. Indeed, its entrepreneurial mayor, Emille Braun, even managed to get the Great Exhibition, showing the best in contemporary design and goods, staged here in 1913.
Ghent remains an industrial city, but in the last twenty years it has benefited from an extraordinarily ambitious programme of restoration and refurbishment, thanks to which the string of fine Gothic buildings that dot the ancient centre have been returned to their original glory.
From STAM, it’s a brief stroll southeast to Citadelpark, a large chunk of greenery which takes its name from the fortress that stood here until the 1870s, when the land was cleared and prettified with the addition of grottoes and ponds, statues and fountains, a waterfall and a bandstand. These nineteenth-century niceties survive today and, as an added bonus, the park seems refreshingly hilly after the flatness of the rest of Ghent. In the 1940s, a large brick complex was built on the east side of the park and, after many incarnations, much of this now houses S.M.A.K, the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art; www.smak.be), one of Belgium’s most adventurous contemporary art galleries. It’s largely devoted to temporary displays of international standing, and recent exhibitions have featured the work of Simon Gush, Paul Thek and Paolo Chiasera. These exhibitions are supplemented by a regularly rotated selection of sculptures, paintings and installations taken from the museum’s top-ranking permanent collection. S.M.A.K possesses examples of all the major artistic movements since World War II – everything from Surrealism, the CoBrA group and Pop Art through to Minimalism and conceptual art – as well as their forerunners. Perennial favourites include the installations of the influential German Joseph Beuys (1921–1986), who played a leading role in the European avant-garde art movement of the 1970s, a characteristically unnerving painting by Francis Bacon (1909–1992) entitled Figure Seated, and Panamarenko’s eccentric polyester zeppelin entitled Aeromodeller.
From the Design Museum, it’s a short hop to Het Gravensteen, the castle of the counts of Flanders, which looks sinister enough to have been lifted from a Bosch painting. Its cold, dark walls and unyielding turrets were first raised in 1180 as much to intimidate the town’s unruly citizens as to protect them and, considering the castle has been used for all sorts of purposes since then (even a cotton mill), it has survived in remarkably good nick. The imposing gateway comprises a deep-arched, heavily fortified tunnel leading to a large courtyard, which is framed by protective battlements complete with wooden flaps, ancient arrow slits and apertures for boiling oil and water.
Overlooking the courtyard are the castle’s two main buildings: the count’s residence on the left and the keep on the right, the latter riddled with narrow, interconnected staircases set within the thickness of the walls. A self-guided tour takes you through this labyrinth, the first highlight being a room full of medieval military hardware, from suits of armour, pikes, swords, daggers and early pistols through to a pair of exquisitely crafted sixteenth-century crossbows. Beyond, and also of interest, is a gruesome collection of instruments of torture; a particularly dank, underground dungeon (or oubliette); and the counts’ vaulted council chamber. It’s also possible to walk along most of the castle’s encircling wall, from where there are pleasing views over the city centre.
The best place to start an exploration of the city is the mainly Gothic St-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral), squeezed into the eastern corner of St-Baafsplein. The third church on this site, and 250 years in the making, the cathedral is a tad lop-sided, but there’s no gainsaying the imposing beauty of the west tower, with its long, elegant windows and perky corner turrets. Some 82m high, the tower was the last major part of the church to be completed, topped off in 1554 – just before the outbreak of the religious wars that were to wrack the country for the next one hundred years.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
Inside the cathedral, in a small chapel to the left of the entrance is Ghent’s greatest treasure, a winged altarpiece known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (De Aanbidding van het Lam Gods), a seminal work of the early 1430s, though of dubious provenance. Since the discovery of a Latin verse on its frame in the nineteenth century, academics have been arguing about who actually painted it. The inscription reads that Hubert van Eyck “than whom none was greater” began, and Jan van Eyck, “second in art”, completed the work, but as nothing else is known of Hubert, some art historians doubt his existence. They argue that Jan, who lived and worked in several cities (including Ghent) was entirely responsible for the painting and that only later, after Jan had firmly rooted himself in the rival city of Bruges, did the citizens of Ghent invent “Hubert” to counter his fame. No one knows the altarpiece’s authorship for sure, but what is certain is that in his manipulation of the technique of oil painting the artist – or artists – was able to capture a needle-sharp, luminous realism that must have stunned his contemporaries.
The altarpiece is now displayed with its panels open, though originally these were kept closed and the painting only revealed on high days and holidays. Consequently, it’s actually best to begin round the back with the cover screens, which hold a beautiful Annunciation scene with the Archangel Gabriel’s wings reaching up to the timbered ceiling of a Flemish house, the streets of a town visible through the windows. In a brilliant coup of lighting, the shadows of the angel dapple the room, emphasizing the reality of the apparition – a technique repeated on the opposite cover panel around the figure of Mary. Below, the donor and his wife, a certain Joos Vydt and Isabella Borluut, kneel piously alongside statues of the saints.
By design, the restrained exterior was but a foretaste of what lies within – a striking, visionary work of art whose brilliant colours and precise draughtsmanship still take the breath away. On the upper level sit God the Father (some say Christ Triumphant), the Virgin and John the Baptist in gleaming clarity; to the right are musician-angels and a nude, pregnant Eve; and on the left is Adam plus a group of singing angels, who strain to read their music. The celebrated sixteenth-century Flemish art critic Karel van Mander argued that the singers were so artfully painted that he could discern the different pitches of their voices – and true or not, it is the detail that impresses, especially the richly embroidered trimmings on the cloaks. In the lower central panel the Lamb, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, is depicted in a heavenly paradise – “the first evolved landscape in European painting”, suggested Kenneth Clark – seen as a sort of idealized Low Countries. The Lamb stands on an altar whose rim is minutely inscribed with a quotation from the Gospel of St John, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world”. Four groups converge on the Lamb from the corners of the central panel. In the bottom right are a group of male saints and up above them are their female equivalents; the bottom left shows the patriarchs of the Old Testament and above them are an assortment of bishops, dressed in blue vestments and carrying palm branches.
On the side panels, approaching the Lamb across symbolically rough and stony ground, are more saintly figures. On the right-hand side are two groups, the first being St Anthony and his hermits, the second St Christopher, shown here as a giant with a band of pilgrims. On the left side panel come the horsemen, the inner group symbolizing the Warriors of Christ – including St George bearing a shield with a red cross – and the outer group showing the Just Judges, each of whom is dressed in fancy Flemish attire. The Just Judges panel is not, however, authentic. It was added during the 1950s to replace the original, which was stolen in 1934 and never recovered. The lost panel features in Albert Camus’s novel The Fall, whose protagonist keeps it in a cupboard, declining to return it for a complex of reasons, one of which is “because those judges are on their way to meet the Lamb …[but]…there is no lamb or innocence any longer”. Naturally enough, there has been endless speculation as to who stole the panel and why with suspicion ultimately resting on a certain Arsène Goedertier, a stockbroker and conservative politician from just outside of Ghent, who made a deathbed confession in 1934. Whether he was acting alone or as an agent for others is still hotly contested – some argue that the Knights Templar orchestrated the theft, others accuse the Nazis, but no one really knows.
The theft was just one of many dramatic events to befall the painting – indeed it’s remarkable that the altarpiece has survived at all. The Calvinists wanted to destroy it; Philip II of Spain tried to acquire it; the Emperor Joseph II disapproved of the painting so violently that he replaced the nude Adam and Eve with a clothed version of 1784 (exhibited today on a column at the start of the nave just inside the church entrance); and near the end of World War II the Germans hid it in an Austrian salt mine, where it remained until American soldiers rescued it in 1945.
The cobbled square to the west of the Belfort is Emile Braunplein, named after the reforming burgomaster who cleared many of the city’s slums at the beginning of the twentieth century. The west edge of the square abuts St-Niklaaskerk, an architectural hybrid dating from the thirteenth century that was once the favourite church of the city’s principal merchants. It’s the shape and structure that pleases most, especially the arching buttresses and pencil-thin turrets which, in a classic example of the early Scheldt Gothic style, elegantly attenuate the lines of the nave. Inside, many of the original Baroque furnishings and fittings have been removed and the windows un-bricked, thus returning the church to its early appearance. One feature you can’t miss is the giant-sized Baroque high altar with its mammoth representation of God the Father glowering down its back, blowing the hot wind of the Last Judgement from his mouth and surrounded by a flock of cherubic angels. The church is sometimes used for temporary art exhibitions, which can attract an admission fee.
At heart, IEPER, about 30km southeast of Veurne, is a pleasant, middling sort of place, a typical Flemish small town with a bright and breezy main square overlooked by the haughty reminders of its medieval heyday as a centre of the cloth trade. Initial appearances are, however, deceptive, for all the old buildings of the town centre were built from scratch after World War I, when Ieper – or Ypres as it was then known – was shelled to smithereens, the reconstruction a tribute to the remarkable determination of the town’s citizens. Today, with its clutch of good-quality restaurants and hotels, Ieper is an enjoyable place to spend a couple of nights, especially if you’re after exploring the assorted World War I cemeteries, monuments and memorials that speckle both the town and its environs, the most famous of which are the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot.
Ieper’s long and troubled history dates back to the tenth century, when it was founded at the point where the Bruges–Paris trade route crossed the River Ieperlee. Success came quickly and the town became a major player in the cloth trade, its thirteenth-century population of two hundred thousand sharing economic control of the region with rivals Ghent and Bruges. The most precariously sited of the great Flemish cities, Ypres was too near the French frontier for comfort, and too strategically important to be ignored by any of the armies whose campaigns crisscrossed the town’s surroundings with depressing frequency. The city governors kept disaster at bay by reinforcing their defences and switching alliances whenever necessary, fighting against the French at the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, and with them forty years later at Roosebeke. The first major misjudgement came in 1383 after Henry Spencer, bishop of Norwich, landed at Calais under the pretext of supporting the armies of Pope Urban VI, who occupied the Vatican, against his rival Clement VII, who was installed in Avignon. The burghers of Ghent and Bruges flocked to Spencer’s standard, and the allies had little difficulty in agreeing on an attack against Ypres, which had decided to champion Clement and trust the French for support. The ensuing siege lasted two months before a French army appeared to save the day, and all of Ypres celebrated the victory. In fact, the town was ruined, its trade never recovered and, unable to challenge its two main competitors again, many of the weavers upped sticks and migrated. The process of depopulation proved irreversible, and by the sixteenth century the town had shrunk to a mere five thousand inhabitants.
In World War I, the first German thrust of 1914 left a bulge in the Allied line to the immediate east of Ypres. This Salient preoccupied the generals of both sides and during the next four years a series of bloody and particularly futile offensives attempted to break the stalemate – with disastrous consequences for Ypres, which served as the Allied communications centre. Comfortably within range of the German artillery, Ypres was rapidly reduced to rubble and its inhabitants had to be evacuated in 1915. After the war, the returning population decided to rebuild their town, a remarkable twenty-year project in which the most prominent medieval buildings – the old cloth hall, the Lakenhalle, and the cathedral – were meticulously reconstructed. The end result must once have seemed strangely antiseptic – old-style edifices with no signs of decay or erosion – but now, after eighty-odd years, the brickwork has mellowed and the centre looks authentically antique and rather handsome.
KORTRIJK (Courtrai in French), just 8km from the French border, is the largest town in this part of West Flanders, a lively, busy sort of place with a couple of excellent hotels, several good places to eat and a smattering of distinguished medieval buildings. The town traces its origins back to a Roman settlement called Cortoriacum, but its salad days were in the Middle Ages when its burghers made a fortune producing linen and flax. The problem was its location: Kortrijk was just too close to France for comfort and time and again the town was embroiled in the wars that swept across Flanders, right up to the two German occupations of the last century.
Heavily bombed during World War II, Kortrijk’s Grote Markt is a comely but architecturally incoherent mixture of bits of the old and a lot of the new, surrounding the forlorn, turreted Belfort – all that remains of what was once a splendid medieval cloth hall. At the northwest corner of the Grote Markt stands the Stadhuis, a sedate edifice with modern statues of the counts of Flanders on the facade, above and beside two lines of ugly windows. Inside, through the side entrance on the left, things improve with two fine sixteenth-century chimney pieces. The first is in the old Schepenzaal (Aldermen’s Room) on the ground floor, a proud, intricate work decorated with municipal coats of arms and carvings of bishops, saints and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella of Spain; the other, upstairs in the Raadzaal (Council Chamber), is a more didactic affair, ornamented by three rows of precise statuettes representing, from top to bottom, the virtues, the vices (to either side of the Emperor Charles V), and the torments of hell.
On the other side of the Grote Markt rises the heavyweight tower of St-Maartenskerk, whose gleaming white-stone exterior, dating from the fifteenth century, has recently been cleaned of decades of grime. The outside of the church may be handsome, but the cavernous interior is a yawn and it won’t be long before you’re moving onto the neighbouring Begijnhof, founded in 1238 by a certain Joanna of Constantinople and preserving the cosy informality of its seventeenth-century houses.
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.
Heading east along the coast from Ostend, the undoubted highlight is De Haan, the prettiest and the most appealing seaside resort of them all. Beyond lie kiss-me-quick Blankenberge and the heavily industrialized port of Zeebrugge, both of which are best avoided – as is sprawling Knokke-Heist, though you might be drawn here by one of its many festivals, most notably the Internationaal Cartoonfestival (wwww.cartoonfestival.be), which runs from the end of June to the middle of September.
Established at the end of the nineteenth century, DE HAAN was conceived as an exclusive seaside village in a rustic Gothic Revival style known as Style Normand. The building plots were irregularly dispersed between the tram station and the sea, with the whole caboodle set around a pattern of winding streets reminiscent of – and influenced by – contemporaneous English suburbs such as Liverpool’s Sefton Park. The only formality was provided by a central circus with a casino plonked in the middle, though this was demolished in 1929. Casino apart, De Haan has survived pretty much intact, a welcome relief from the surrounding high-rise development. Flanked by empty sand dunes, it’s become a popular family resort, with an excellent beach and pleasant seafront promenade.
Fast and efficient, the Kusttram (coastal tram; www.delijn.be/dekusttram) travels the length of the Belgian coast from Knokke-Heist in the east to De Panne in the west, putting all the Belgian resorts within easy striking distance of each other. There are numerous stops and one tram station, in Ostend beside the train station. Services in both directions depart every ten or fifteen minutes in summer, every half-hour in winter. There are multilingual ticket machines at most tram stops and there’s a De Lijn ticket office at Ostend tram station. Tickets can also be bought from the driver, but in this case you pay a premium of around twenty percent. Fares are relatively inexpensive, and you can also buy multiple journey tickets (Lijnkaart) at a discount on the regular price, and tickets for unlimited tram travel.
To the west of the casino lies Ostend’s main attraction, its sandy beach, which extends as far as the eye can see. On summer days, thousands drive into town to soak up the sun, swim and amble along the seafront promenade, which runs along the top of the sea wall. Part sea defence and part royal ostentation, the promenade was built to link the town centre with the Wellington racecourse, 2km to the west. It was – and remains – an intentionally grand walkway that pandered to the grandiose tastes of King Léopold II. To hammer home the royal point, the king’s statue, with fawning Belgians and Congolese at its base, still stands in the middle of a long line of columns towards the promenade’s west end. These columns now abut the Thermae Palace Hotel, which was the epitome of luxury when it was added in the 1930s.
Situated some 25km east of Kortrijk, the attractive and gently old-fashioned town of OUDENAARDE, literally “old landing place”, hugs the banks of the River Scheldt as it twists its way north towards Ghent. The town has a long and chequered history. Granted a charter in 1193, it concentrated on cloth manufacture until the early fifteenth century, when its weavers cleverly switched to tapestry making, an industry that made its burghers rich and the town famous, with the best tapestries becoming the prized possessions of the kings of France and Spain. So far so good, but Oudenaarde became a key military objective during the religious and dynastic wars of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, perhaps most famously in July 1708, when the Duke of Marlborough came to its rescue and won a spectacular victory here against the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. Attacked and besieged time and again, Oudenaarde found it impossible to sustain any growth, and the demise of the tapestry industry pauperized the town, rendering it an insignificant backwater in one of the poorest parts of Flanders. In the last few years, however, things have improved considerably due to its canny use of regional development funds, and today’s town – with its fascinating old buildings – makes an enjoyable and pleasant day out.
Tapestry manufacture in Oudenaarde began in the middle of the fifteenth century, an embryonic industry that soon came to be based on a dual system of workshop and outworker, the one with paid employees, the other with workers paid on a piecework basis. From the beginning, the town authorities took a keen interest in the business, ensuring its success by a rigorous system of quality control, which soon gave Oudenaarde an international reputation for consistently well-made tapestries. The other side of this interventionist policy was less palatable: wages were kept down and the Guild of the Masters cunningly took over the running of the Guild of Weavers in 1501. To make matters worse, tapestries were by definition a luxury item, and workers were hardly ever able to accumulate enough capital to buy either their own looms or even raw materials.
The first great period of Oudenaarde tapestry making lasted until the middle of the sixteenth century, when religious conflict overwhelmed the town and many of its Protestant-inclined weavers, who had come into direct conflict with their Catholic masters, migrated north to the rival workshops of Antwerp and Ghent. In 1582 Oudenaarde was finally incorporated into the Spanish Netherlands, precipitating a revival of tapestry production fostered by the king and queen of Spain, who were keen to support the industry and passed draconian laws banning the movement of weavers. Later, however, French occupation and the shrinking of the Spanish market led to diminishing production, the industry finally fizzling out in the late eighteenth century.
There were only two significant types of tapestry: decorative, principally verdures, showing scenes of foliage in an almost abstract way (the Oudenaarde speciality), and pictorial – usually variations on the same basic themes, particularly rural life, knights, hunting parties and religious scenes. Over the centuries, changes in style were strictly limited, though the early part of the seventeenth century saw an increased use of elaborate woven borders, an appreciation of perspective and the use of a far brighter, more varied range of colours.
The technique of producing tapestries was a cross between embroidery and ordinary weaving. It consisted of interlacing a wool weft above and below the strings of a vertical linen “chain”, a process similar to weaving; the appearance of a tapestry was entirely determined by the weft, the design being taken from a painting to which the weaver made constant reference. However, the weaver had to stop to change colour, requiring as many shuttles for the weft as he had colours, as in embroidery.
Standard-size Oudenaarde tapestries took six months to make and were produced exclusively for the very wealthy. The tapestries were normally in yellow, brown, pale blue and shades of green, with an occasional splash of red, though the most important clients would, on occasion, insist on the use of gold and silver thread. Some also insisted on the employment of the most famous artists of the day for the preparatory painting – Pieter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and David Teniers all completed tapestry commissions.
Rural Flanders at its prettiest, VEURNE is a charming market town just 7km inland by road and rail from De Panne. Founded in the ninth century, Veurne was originally one of a chain of fortresses built to defend the region from the raids of the Vikings, but without much success. The town failed to flourish and two centuries later it was small, poor and insignificant. All that changed when Robert II of Flanders returned from the Crusades in 1099 with a piece of the True Cross. His ship was caught in a gale, and in desperation he vowed to offer the relic to the first church he saw if he survived. He did, and the lucky church was Veurne’s St-Walburgakerk, which became an important centre of medieval pilgrimage for some two hundred years, a real fillip to the local economy. These days Veurne is one of the more popular day-trip destinations in West Flanders, a neat and very amenable backwater whose one real attraction is its Grote Markt, one of the best-preserved town squares in Belgium.
All of Veurne’s leading sights are on or around the Grote Markt, beginning in the northwest corner with the Stadhuis, an engaging mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles built between 1596 and 1612 and equipped with a fine blue-and-gold decorated stone loggia projecting from the original brick facade. The interior displays items of unexceptional interest, the best of which is a set of leather wall coverings made in Córdoba. The Stadhuis connects with the more austere classicism of the Gerechtshof (Law Courts), whose symmetrical pillars and long, rectangular windows now hold the tourist office, but once sheltered the Inquisition as it set about the Flemish peasantry with gusto. The attached tiered and balconied Belfort (belfry; no public access) was completed in 1628, its Gothic lines culminating in a dainty Baroque tower, from where carillon concerts ring out over the town throughout the summer.
Behind the Belfort is St-Walburgakerk, a replacement for the original church that Robert II of Flanders caught sight of, but which was burnt to a cinder in 1353. The new church was begun in style with a mighty, heavily buttressed choir, but the money ran out when the builders reached the transepts and the nave – a truncated affair if ever there was one – was only finished off in 1904. The interior has three virtues: the ornately carved Flemish Renaissance choir stalls; a handsome set of stained-glass windows, some Gothic, some neo-Gothic; and the superb stonework of the tubular, composite columns at the central crossing.
In 1650 a young soldier by the name of Mannaert was on garrison duty in Veurne when he was persuaded by his best friend to commit a mortal sin. After receiving the consecrated wafer during Communion, he took it out of his mouth, wrapped it in a cloth, and returned to his lodgings where he charred it over a fire, under the delusion that by reducing it to powder he would make himself invulnerable to injury. The news got out, and he was later arrested, tried and executed, his friend suffering the same fate a few weeks later. Fearful of the consequences of this sacrilege in their town, the people of Veurne resolved that something must be done, deciding on a procession to commemorate the Passion of Christ. This survives as the Boeteprocessie (Penitents’ Procession; wwww.boeteprocessie.be), held on the last Sunday in July, whose leading figures dress up in the brown cowls of the Capuchins to carry wooden crosses that weigh anything up to 50kg through the streets. Until very recently, the procession was a serious-minded, macabre affair, but nowadays lots of locals clamber into all manner of vaguely “biblical” gear to join in, which makes it all rather odd.