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issue 25 — march / april 2009 € 7,00

hidden europe the magazine exploring Europe’s special spaces

including Belgium’s coastal tram a manifesto for slow travel Belarus: Tanya’s story Latvia: song is power Northern Cyprus: Famagusta follies: architecture of deceit www.hiddeneurope.co.uk


source: hidden europe 25 (March / April 2009) text © 2009 Nicky Gardner copyright of images as indicated all unattributed images © hidden europe www.hiddeneurope.co.uk

feature

from Plopsaland to Preventorium: Belgium’s coastal tram

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he gnome peered out from under an enormous plastic rain hat and announced in the manner of one promulgating an important government decree: “There’s nothing remotely Canadian about Manitoba.” Gnomes with white beards are surely well informed, so we began to have second thoughts about travelling all the way to Manitoba. The matter of Manitoba seemingly settled, the gnome turned his attention to a little girl who was standing in the drizzle holding a huge waffle

above: coastal tram at De Haan in Belgium, about halfway along its seventy kilometre route

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in each hand and looking up in awe at the bearded figure. “If you eat both those waffles, you’ll be so big you might explode,” said the Gnome. “Then we’ll have to send you to the Preventorium.” The five-year-old’s face crumpled, a blueberry waffle dropped to the ground, and Plop the Gnome apologised to the child’s parents, ushering the whole family to the front of the queue. Then it was time for Plop to get back to his toadstool, leaving the waffle girl and her extended family to buy tickets for admission to Plopsaland. And leaving us still wondering about Manitoba. Plopsaland is a theme park on the edge of the Belgian village of Adinkerke, a place where Plop


The mists of Belgium softened surrealism's sharp edge and fantasy was what came out. from Kim Connell, 'The Belgian School of the Bizarre' (1998)

and his friends are utterly at home. Plop is as Belgian as waffles and only those with Belgian blood in their veins can really be expected to understand either. Just a short distance away to the The Kusttram is the south, Brits bound for world’s longest tram home pull off the E40 route. And it confers motorway and stock on Belgium the up on cheap ciggies at distinction of being Tobacco Alley. Adinthe only country on kerke has the greatest concentration of the planet whose cigarette shops of any entire coastline can village in Belgium. be surveyed in a Sociologists must single tram ride. look with wonder at an entire community powered by gnomes and cheap tobacco. All stations to Preventorium, Manitoba and beyond. That’s the coastal tram. Even in the low season drizzle, it runs at least every twenty minutes. It is the easiest way to escape from Plopsaland. Like waffles and Plop, the coastal tram is peculiarly Belgian. The Kusttram is the world’s longest tram route. And it confers on Belgium the distinction of being the only country on the planet whose entire coastline can be surveyed in a single tram ride. From the French border near Plopsa-

land to the dune landscapes of Knokke on the Dutch border it is about seventy kilometres, and the coastal tram route takes in the entire coast, with about seventy tram stops along the way. Preventorium, Krokodiel and Manitoba are among them. Others have names of beguiling simplicity like Park, Station, YMCA, Esplanade and Casino. Some countries are best understood by their coastlines. Paul Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea came to terms with Britain by exploring its coastline. Some authors have even invented coastlines for landlocked countries. Didn’t Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale make reference to travelling by ship to Bohemia? But no-one needed to invent the Belgian coast. It is magnificent, all one hundred and forty three minutes of it. The tram ride is

right: the Thermae Palace Hotel at Oostende on the Belgian coast

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one of Europe’s most engaging pieces of cinema. Rattling down the main street of De Panne, cutting through the forest at Koksijde, speeding along the coastal promenade east of Middelkerke, lurching through the The backdrop changes dramatically back streets of Oostende and slipping past by the minute: back gardens on the you get glimpses final run into Knokke. of art nouveau All Belgian life villas, Gothic town is captured in the run halls, geometric art along the coast, from deco, and heaps of gnomes at Plopsaland monstrous modern to a thousand teaconcrete. rooms where pensioners linger for hours over a single coffee or a Leffe beer. Kings, mainly called Leopold and occasionally Albert, make cameo appearances in showpiece monuments. The backdrop changes dramatically by the minute: one moment a feast of classical colonnades and now piles of containers arranged like avant-garde art as the tram skirts the edge of the docks. You get glimpses of art nouveau villas, Gothic town halls, geometric art deco, and heaps of monstrous modern concrete. As a perfectly framed piece of cinema, the journey is

utterly engaging. The best 143 minute distraction anywhere around the North Sea. Like any good film, the coastal tram journey can be repeated many times to good effect, each new viewing revealing subtle details missed at first sight. At every single one of those seventy stops along the way, there is the chance to hit pause and stop the film. Just hop off the tram, explore the surroundings, and then later continue on your way. As we jogged along the coast, we pondered why the coastal tram route isn’t hyped by mainstream travel media as one of Europe’s really great journeys. Belgium just isn’t fashionable. Yet tucked away along the seventy kilometres sweep of the Belgian coast are some quite remarkable spots. The entire route is an essay in surrealism from René Magritte’s magnificent murals in the casino in Knokke to professorial gnomes at Plopsaland. In between those two end points there are giant bananas dangling from flagpoles, piers that lead nowhere and sedate belle époque hotels that have had their sea views obliterated by apartment blocks. Bay windows that surely once boasted displays of orchids and calla lilies now survey concrete and glass blocks where once they overlooked sand dunes with the sea beyond. Yet there is a quiet beauty in this architectural madness. The dunes may have been sacrificed to high-rise passions, but some perspectives are simply stunning. To walk east on a good day from the terrace of the Thermae Palace Hotel at Oostende towards the port is utterly memorable. There are elegant arcades, the inevitable statues of one or the other Leopold, and then the graceful curves of the casino. This is a town that once affected to be the Monte Carlo of the North. It is not for nothing that the square on the landward side of the casino is called Monacoplein. left: the casino at Oostende; opposite: figures originally created for the 2006 Beaufort art festival by David Černý can still be seen at Blankenberge (photo Westtoer, Blankenberge)

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travel facts The first section of Belgium’s coastal tram route was opened in 1885, with most of the existing route being completed by the First World War. The extension south from the coast at De Panne to serve Plopsaland and the railway station at Adinkerke (misleadingly called De Panne in the rail timetables) was opened only in 1998. The tram links with the Belgian national railway network at each end of its route (viz. at De Panne station in Adinkerke at the western end and at Knokke-Heist station at the eastern end). It also stops outside the rail stations at Oostende and Blankenberge. To reach the coast from Brussels, simply take the train. Services run hourly from all three main Brussels stations to Knokke-Heist, Blankenberge, Oostende and De Panne, generally taking 80 to 110 minutes for the journey. Details on www.nmbs.be. For travellers from further afield, there is a once daily fast Thalys train from Paris (www.thalys.fr). From England, there is a very convenient overnight ship from Kingston-uponHull to Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast. The service is operated by P&O Ferries (www.poferries.com). The coastal tram is very modestly priced. A flat fare of just two euros will take you the entire length of the

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And then there is De Haan, easily the most attractive of the communities along the coast. Until the coastal tram arrived in 1886, De Haan was a poor seaside village, populated by shrimp fishermen and their families. It was just a scattered col-

route. A day pass allowing unlimited use of the service is five euros, and a three day pass is ten euros. Services operate from before six in the morning until about midnight. The basic service interval is every twenty minutes in winter, and every ten minutes during the peak summer season. Trams may run less frequently on certain stretches of the route during the early morning and the late evening. With the exception of a small number of morning fast commuter journeys from Nieuwpoort to Oostende, all trams are timetabled to stop at all halts along the route. But you do need to ring the bell to alert the driver to your wish to alight at the upcoming stop. There is plentiful accommodation along the length of the coastal tram route. The two towns at either end of the route are very different — yet both are superb places to stay. De Panne is lively and full of energy. We stayed at the Hotel Maxim (www.hotelmaxim.be). Knokke is more sedate, and boasts an improbably high density of art galleries. A wonderful place to stay is the Manoir du Dragon (www.manoirdudragon.be) which occupies a plum position overlooking the golf course and dunes.

lection of huts, regarded with disfavour by folk in neighbouring villages who judged De Haan to be the haunt of scoundrels and thieves. Within a few years of the arrival of the tram, De Haan developed into a select coastal resort — one that was later to number Albert Einstein among its visitors. While in Middelkerke the train is hidden away behind apartment blocks, in De Haan it sits gracefully at the very heart of the village, the showpiece art nouveau tram station surrounded by a galaxy of fine cafés. Pick of the bunch is the Beaufort tearoom, housed in a decadent belle époque villa right by the tram lines. No longer does anyone in De Haan rely on sea fishing for a living, yet reminders of the sea are everywhere. Even in the name of the Beaufort tearoom, which recalls the Irish sea left: De Haan's art nouveau tram station

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captain whose wind force scale captured the power of the elements. You can sit for hours by the window of the Beaufort, consuming quantities of cake that would surely have Plop the Gnome protesting in disbelief and threatening a senThe coast’s artistic tence at the Prevenheritage is recalled torium. every three years in But the Prethe Beaufort Festival. ventorium is choosy During that time, as to its guests. This one-time isolation the coastal tram hospital has its own allows visitors to ride tram stop, but rarely from Plopsaland to does anyone board Preventorium on a or alight. Most of wave of surrealism. the two hundred places in the Preventorium are now occupied by obese teenagers who are trying to come to terms both with themselves and with a society that tends to offer one waffle too many. The buildings are tucked away behind the dunes, out of sight and out of mind. The Preventorium is a one-off along a coast where everything else is engagingly up-front. In your face. Like Plop the Gnome. Brash, noisy and fun. The Las Vegas bar in Zeebrugge… the Arizona tea café in De Panne… bars in Oostende named after French ski resorts, regions of Spain and Belgian artists. For, yes, there is art too amid the apartment blocks, water towers and sand dunes. The Belgian coast was home to an extraordinary galaxy of artists from expressionist James Ensor to surrealist Paul Delvaux. Then there were Léon Spilliaert and Constant Permeke who for years shared a studio above a café overlooking Oostende harbour, between them recording on canvas every aspect of coastal life from the lines in the faces of fishermen’s wives to the haunting beauty of the North Sea at night.

And the coast’s artistic heritage is recalled every three years in the Beaufort Festival. This year is a Beaufort year, and from late March till early October communities along the coast from Knokke to De Panne collaborate in an extraordinary display of installation art — all commissioned for the triennial event. So for the summer months, the coastal tram ride takes another dimension, allowing visitors to ride from Plopsaland to Preventorium and beyond on a wave of fantasy and surrealism. Fake elephants and bronze nudes on beaches have all been part of previous Beaufort displays. And yet amid the contemporary art by the sea, there are the reassuring routines of coastal life: moules et frites, North Sea bouillabaisse, the clanging bell of the soup man’s white van as he makes his morning deliveries to apartment blocks, the joggers with their dogs running along the promenade, and Plop who every day greets young visitors to the theme park at Adinkerke. And Manitoba? Half way between De Haan and Blankenberge. No mounties, no moose, no maple syrup. But a wizened old lady peered out from under a large plastic rain hat and explained that the area was named in honour of the Manitoba Dragoons who in 1944 liberated the area from German occupation. “Well done, Canada,” we thought as we sought cover from the rain under a giant toadstool.

right: Jan Fabre's statue 'searching for Utopia' at the beach of Nieuwpoort (photo Westtoer, Nieuwpoort)

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Kusttram: Belgium's coastal tram  

Belgium’s coastal tram (De Kusttram) is the longest tram route in the world. Running the entire length of the Belgian coast, the tram blends...

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