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Swanning around Flanders

Ruth Allan raises the gastronomic bar in Belgium

Written by . Published on February 28th 2011.


Swanning around Flanders

If this is Belgium I must be hungry! Ruth Allan has a swell time on the ocean wave – and sampling Belgium's calorific delights...

AS I relaxed into the slow to-and-fro of the ocean’s swell, I started to enjoy the boat trip from Hull to Belgium. Memories of the ferry terminal receded as I stared out over the North Sea, contemplating feasts that lay ahead.

I was travelling to the Belgian coast to sample the region’s delicacies and over the course of three days, I got to try fish, ale, chocolate and cheese, all of which made the voyage worthwhile.

IMG_1866.jpgThis particular ferry journey is described by my friend Ben as ‘the backdoor of Europe’. It’s not the route we normally take these days, but if you’re not in a massive rush, it’s got charm.

Clocking in at 12 decks tall, the P&O Pride of Bruges sails the route from Hull to Zeebrugge and back every 48 hours and with darkening sky sucking the ship into the night, I felt more ‘away from it all’ on board than I had in a while.

The lack of phone signal helped, of course, as did my cute cabin. It wouldn’t win any awards for luxury but the fold-down bed, and curvy bathroom were just the change I was after. And having never travelled on a ferry overnight before, I was delighted that it took all of a gin and tonic to find my sea legs.

Entertainment on board included bars, a cinema and casino, bingo sessions, a handsome Irish covers bands (steady on) and a single malt selection. Two restaurants kept me fed and watered too.

I had a medium rare rib-eye with a bottle of Portuguese Dao in Langan’s Brasserie (the posher of the two restaurants) on the way out and a mega buffet platter with designer ice creams on the way back. I wouldn’t recommend drinking single malts in an aquatic environment after dinner – but it was fun at the time.

We docked in Zeebrugge at 9am and I took a bus directly to Knokke-Heist. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, performers such as Marlene Dietrich and Frank Sinatra frequented this coastal town and its casino. Today, it’s more modernist-chic than bling but plans are afoot for a new casino to add some spice. The site will be updated with a new ‘sail’ design, inspired by the René Magritte mural, The Ship Which Tells the Story to the Mermaid.

This work was which was one of eight Surrealist paintings commissioned for the original casino in 1953 and, in nodding to past and future, planners hope the casino will prompt a return to the good old days, when Knokke was the Vegas of Europe.

Completion date is TBC, but there’s still plenty to see and do. Shopping, white sand and beach huts are always a bonus, and it was beside one such sandy expanse that I sampled my first Belgian meal at Brasserie Rubens  (Zeedijk-Knokke 589, 8300 Knokke, Tel: ++(0)5060 3501).

Dating back to 1926, the restaurant exudes an old-fashioned charm. Bringing to mind scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s controversial Nazi flick, Inglourious Bastards, I imagined army captains swigging beer with cherry-cheeked barmaids amid the wooden panels and wrought iron lanterns.

Shrimp croquettes and steak tartare are specials and a waiter told me that wealthy customers sometimes book tables for themselves and their lapdogs. As it was, a glass of hoppy Corsendonk beer and a plate of tartare, with its gherkins and creamy mayo-mustard was a tasty introduction to Belgian cooking.

IMG_1910.jpgAfter lunch, I took a tram ride from Knokke to de Haan. The tram is famous among tram spotters for being one of the planet’s only coastal routes and the trip offered vistas of the North Sea as well as introduction to Flanders’ easygoing ‘vibe’.

Beaches, bars and concrete terraces trundled past while heavy-set bungalows set off by flamboyant chrome sculptures or a burst of puce paint transported me far from Manchester’s streets. Rusting battlements and gun rigs poke out of the dunes.

The spoken language is Dutch, although most people speak English, French, German and probably Spanish, too. And everyone is into modern art. Public plazas and private properties are adorned with the stuff; Barry Flanagan’s ‘running rabbit’ sculpture, Hospitality, located in a public park is an example of the good (http://bezoekers.knokke-heist.be/product/1568/default.aspx?_vs=0_&id=1276), while the ugly ‘noses’ in the square outside Brasserie Rubens are an example of the bad. There are several contemporary art museums including PMMK in Ostend to also check out (http://www.pmmk.be/en).

After a light fish supper at Hostellerie Astrid in Weduine, I spent my one night on dry land in de Haan in a hotel turned out to be the town’s main attractions. The Grand Hotel Belle Vue is an old wooden premises built in the ‘Anglo-Normandy’ style.

Back in 1933, Albert Einstein took tea and cake on the hotel’s terrace when he was hiding out from the Nazis. Then, as now, it’s a quiet, off the beaten track spot and, several storeys above street level, my room was the perfect place to take it in with its wooden rafters and real turret.

IMG_1837.JPGThe Flanders coast is also home to the National Fisheries Museum in Oostduinkerke. It’s about an hours drive west of Zeebrugge, and a tour of this establishment took up most of my last morning. Recently overhauled to the tune of 12 million euros, the museum tells tales of fishermen who lost their lives on voyages to Iceland in the 1800s through a series of smart tableaux and artefacts. Waxworks modelled on the town’s surviving fishermen straddle net-laden horses, staring sternly ahead, sending a shiver down the sternest spine. 

I though it was great – especially the huge fish tanks filled with indigenous species in the basement – and found out more over lunch with the museum’s director, Maja Wolny. This Polish ex-pat has recently taken over and is intent on promoting the region’s fish. Between mouthfuls of ‘slip sole’, she told me that the museum’s café secures the pick of the daily catch. Paired with a dressed salad and a glass of traditional Flemish red-brown beer, Rodenbach, they made a tasty end to my trip.

If a holiday is supposed to take you out of yourself, my trip to Belgium had worked its magic. The focus on day-to-day life, local food and history was refreshing, and I liked it enough to plan a return visit taking in Bruges, Brussels – and plenty more ferry time, too.

 

 

Fact file

For further information about the Flemish Coast, contact Tourism Flanders-Brussels on 0207 307 7738 (Live Operator Line, Mon – Fri) or visit www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.

Accommodation
Grand Hotel Belle Vue – Koninklijk Plein 5 – 8420 De Haan 0032 59 233439 www.hotelbellevue.be
A full range of room rates is available on the website. I stayed in a New Comfort Rooms which start at €145-175 per room per night. The hotel does have other rates for other rooms that start at €105 per room per night.

Transport
Vespa (moped trips) are possible. There is a tour company that offer trips of Bruges and the Coast. http://www.vespatrips.be/tripdetail.php?vpc=vpt004kbvd

Ferry
On the Hull-Rotterdam and Hull-Zeebrugge route prices start from £149 each way for a car and two passengers, inclusive of a standard cabin.
For a two night motorist mini cruise on either route, fares start from £74 per person,  based on two people sharing a standard 2-bunk cabin.

On the Dover to Calais service prices start from £30 each way for a car and up to nine passengers. Upgrades to include Club Lounge cost £12 per person each way when pre-booked and Priorite is £12 per car each way, or £6 per car each way if booked with Club.
For more information, or to book, call 08716 64 64 64 or visit www.poferries.com

Tram tickets can be bought at any ticket booth at any major stop on the line. Tickets can be bought on board the tram but are cheaper if you buy in advance of your trip.

Attractions
Admission for the National Fishery Museum start from €5. www.visserijmuseum.be

Eating out
Knokke is home to a number of other superb restaurants. Second only to Paris in the Michelin star stakes, more than 13 restaurants are blessed with at least one star.  Bartholomeus (Zeedijk-Heist 267, 8301 Knokke-Heist) and De Oosthoek  (Oosthoekplein 25, 8300 Knokke-Heist) are both recommended.

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