Bruges; Monday, 22 December, 2008

Having made sure that I had consumed considerably more food than the 13 charge would cover; I checked out from the hotel and headed through town to the station. Normally at this point I would have left my luggage in the lockers here to pick up later, but as it was a Monday, and everything was closed, I was going to spend the day travelling along the coast, and would leave my luggage in a much more convenient location of the lockers at Oostende station.

The Kusttram (costal tram) runs virtually the whole length of the Belgium coast, from Knokke in the north on the border with the Netherlands, down to De Panne in the South, almost on the border with France and a town which has played a largely unknown, but vital, role in two world wars. Having purchased my Day card for the princely sum of 5 I boarded the first tram and headed north up the coast towards Knokke.

My plan was a simple one, and for part of it worked very well. I would catch the tram all the way up to Knokke taking in the views, and making a note of places I wanted to get off at and have a longer look, then once I had made my way back to Oostende I would repeat the process going all the way South to De Panne and then stopping off on the way back. It was a cunning and well thought-out plan that only had two major flaws. One being that I had to be in Brussels for my Eurostar no later than 8pm, and the other, that even as far west as the Belgium coast, it still gets dark just before five!

The first part of the journey went very well, with a comfortable trip up the coast to Knokke, and after a brief stop to make use of the facilities at the station and a quick look around the area around the station (not much to see, but by here you are a good 2KM from the coast and most of the town is up the road on the sea), I caught the next tram back a few stops to Heist.

At Heist I got off the tram and walked the short distance to the beach. Towards the North it was just possible to make out the coast of the Netherlands and the sand dune disappearing off into the distance. To the south the view was pretty much obliterated by the port in the next town on the coast, the port town of Bruges, but more famous to most people for the disaster that happened just outside the harbour on a cold March night in 1987, with its bow doors left open and running at full speed to make up a delay the Townsend Thorensen ferry the Herald of Free enterprise was overwhelmed by sea water and capsized a little outside the harbour. Since then the town of Zeebrugge has been linked in the mind with this tragedy, with the rise of Eurostar the port now handles very little in the way of passenger traffic, but still a significant amount of freight if the containers stacked up everywhere is anything to go by, but it is clear in the area around the port that the lack of passenger traffic has had an effect with lots of empty buildings and vacant lots.

Slightly further down the coast, and after a long interrupted run of dunes the beauty is suddenly brought to another grinding halt by Wenduine. A long strip of high-rise developments look out across the beach. From the beach looking along the coast towards Zeebrugge there are the beautiful dunes, directly in front of you is the cold grey, but beauty of the North Sea, to the left, its best not to comment.

Having taken in the sites of Wenduine I got back on the tram and headed back towards Oostende, and then on out to De Panne, and this is where the plan start to o a little wrong. As Oostende is in the middle of the coast, I had assumed that the journey from Oostend North which took not more than an hour would be the same heading south. Whilst the number of stops may be similar, the tram runs on the street for most of its journey south and consequently moves much slower and the stops are busier. Id worked out in my mind that as long as I got to De Panne by 16:30 I would still have enough time to come back up and get off in a couple of locations.

The tram duly pulled into De Panne a couple of minutes before 16:30 and I had a look around the town, but by now the light was rapidly starting to fade, which is a bit of a shame as De Panne is a town that should be more famous than it is. In World War I it was capital of the only part of Belgium that wasnt invaded by the Germans. And in World War II it wasnt just the town of Dunkirk that witnessed the mass evacuation of Allied soldiers. It was the entire coast from Dunkirk to De Panne where soldiers were able to leave on the flotilla of little ships, given shelter by the dunes.

I got back on the tram and started my journey back towards Oostende. By the time I reached the first stop I had identified as a jumping off point it was already dark, and impossible to see the dunes, so I stayed on the tram all the way back to Oostende. By the time I got back I was left with 45 minutes to wait for the train to Brussels, but with not enough time to do anything else, so I collected my luggage, pulled out my book and waited for remainder of my journey home to continue.

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