There is one country in the world in which you can travel almost all the way along the coast in a single tram journey. It’s Belgium.
This is made possible by the fact that the Belgian coastline isn’t actually very long. If you were to think of Belgium as a cartoonish stegosaurus with its head facing north-west and its spines interlocking with the Netherlands and Germany and its tail slipping under Luxembourg, only the smooth top of its saurian skull would be up against the sea. You can travel from one end to another in a couple of hours. It doesn’t go quite all the way to the frontier at either end; you could, if you were feeling particularly pedantic, walk the extra bits. We weren’t, so we didn’t.
We were staying in Bruges (Brugge, to the locals): a city built for trade and now operating almost entirely for the benefit of the tourists. The Kusttram is, if anything, the opposite. While its website makes some attempt to sell it as a tourist experience, the material on the ground and, above all, the clientele, make it clear that it’s now used pretty much exclusively by the locals.
We started in Knokke, at the Dutch end of the line, bought day passes from a machine, and got onto a waiting tram just as it started to rain. Result. It swung around a turning circle (the middle planted with sunflowers and cosmos) and I caught a sight of some of the older trams hibernating in a shed. I believe they come out sometimes for heritage days. After a brief glimpse into back gardens, we joined the main road along the coast.
We ran behind the docks at Zeebrugge, seeing various interesting looking cranes and boring lorries. Then we got into sand dunes. For a long way, the dunes were between us and the sea and mostly blocked the view of it; every now and again there were footpaths with signposts pointing to the strand. The exceptions were the towns: a wide open square at one end of Blankenberge; a marina at the other.
Tony was falling asleep as we approached Oostende, so we got off and found a health food café where we bought a distinctly unhealthy coffee (me) and Diet Coke (him). There was also a market of the sort that sells cheap socks and garish T-shirts, clustered around a bandstand decorated with the names of illustrious composers of bygone centuries. We glanced at this briefly, then, finding that there was quite a wait until the next tram, looked into a sportswear shop.
West of Oostende we finally got to see some beach. The road and the tramway ran on the north side of the dunes here, and there were campsites and wartime fortifications to look at too.
After that there were a lot of high-rise seaside flats, mostly between us and the sea. These were a running theme all the way along. I can’t say I thought much of them. They blocked the view when we were on the tram, and when we got off they made textbook urban canyons and sent the sea breeze hurtling along the streets. Towards the end of the line the flats shrank down to detached houses, and then the buildings gave out altogether and we were into trees.
The penultimate stop was Plopsaland, which is a name to conjure with. It’s a theme park. From the tram we could see an artfully crooked house and various roller coastery things. It looked quite fun, as theme parks go. And the car park was full, so it’s obviously popular.
The way back was an opportunity to stop at all the places that had looked interesting on the way through. Also to get some lunch in central De Panne, which hadn’t looked particularly interesting, but which had looked as if it might sell food. It did. We found various options on the seafront and ended up eating omelette and chips in, whenever the door was opened, a stiff breeze. I realised too late for it to be of much use that we were back in French-speaking Belgium. Our waiter was called Guillaume; it said so on the bill.
Then we got back on the tram. Niewpoort had looked interesting. The trams stopped under a big glass roof and there were a couple of restaurants I’d noted as possibilities for lunch. We were no longer in need of something to eat, but we wandered a few blocks inland and found that it was a very pleasant little town, mostly built in the 1920s for, one supposes, the obvious reason. There wasn’t much going on at that time of day, though as we approached the main square the bells were ringing cheerfully. Tony went into Carrefour and came away with a commemorative notebook. I never found out what the occasion was. Meanwhile, I ate an apple and tested myself on the flags of EU nations that were flying alongside the tramway.
We stopped again in Oostende, this time getting off at few stops before the city began in earnest so that we could walk a little way along the beach. A tall ship was darting about a little way offshore. The beach was a generous sweep of pale sand, scattered with seashells. I thought about paddling, but decided against it. The sea was quite a way out, and the wind was cold.
We hopped back on the next tram and then off again closer to the city centre, walking up toward the casino and through the streets, often coinciding with a couple of women trundling enormous suitcases. It was a pleasant wander through Oostende, looking at fantastic twiddly art nouveau buildings, and ending up at the railway station, where we got back on a tram.
Our next stop was De Haan, and it was magnificent. We got off at the main stop – which preserves some beautiful cast-iron signs and a fantastic little hut – and walked seawards. The 1930s had gone to town here. The 1930s had built a town here.Stockbroker’s Tudor, but by the beach. Kingston-upon-Sea. My only regret was that it was getting late and so it didn’t make sense to stop for an ice cream.
I looked with envious eyes upon someone who had brought a pizza box on the tram with them, and the rest of the journey was taken up with thoughts of dinner. Night was falling when we reached the end of the line. It took longer than we’d expected to find somewhere to eat in Knokke, if only because I wasn’t in the mood for giant lumps of meat. We did in fact end up at somewhere that called itself a grill, but they served me a huge dish of seafood pasta, and very nice it was too.
And that, apart from the train back to Bruges, was the end of the day.
Why do this? Well, obviously the main reason to do this is because you can. ‘The only reason’, my neighbour said when I told him where we’d been, but I think that’s a little unfair. There are other coastlines traversable by public transport with far better views (the bus around Land’s End, for example). But why not? It’s a cheap day out, you get a unique snapshot of a nation in a few hours, and it makes a change from the boat trips around the Bruges canals. (To be clear, we also took a boat trip around the Bruges canals.) You could even paddle.