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The Belgian Coast Line

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A beer-savvy train ride down the Belgian Coast.

By Joe Stange

The sky is gray, habitually, and a slight chill blows in from the North Sea as I join the throngs. Most of us wear jackets and pants, but nobody seems to think this odd in view of the cocktail-sipping sunbathers or their tots in swim gear, bouncing on trampolines, as we stroll past beach club after sandy beach club.

Nor does anyone seem to mind dodging the bikes, trikes and battery-powered, toddler-driven suicide machines that scoot up and down the “pedestrian-friendly” seaside promenade, which separates a sheer wall of high rises, casinos and cafés from the beaches.

The juxtaposition of grandiose Belle Époque galleries and mansions with neon-lit kebab shops and man-size Smurf sculptures, well, that’s just flavor. Marvin Gaye once came here, of all places, to find some sanity and get his shit together. A more cynical man might question that choice. There is a palpable absurdity to the coast of Belgium, a country that handles absurdity more gracefully than most.

Then there is the other thing that it does better than most—I speak of earthly pleasures—and those are also found seaside, in abundance. Typically there are 30 or 40 beers in any of the 500 or so cafés that line the coast. Sadly, they are often the same beers, with two or three Trappist ales before the list drops into usual suspects.

But an ever-evolving handful of establishments take a deeper interest in better beers. Those places are what bring me here, to see as many of them as possible in a single day, to sit for beer and nibbles and jot my notes for a guidebook and, maybe, an article for a finer beer magazine—to be useful to those who might come, or to share it with those who never will.

Getting to those cafés is part of the fun. Running 42 coastal miles from Knokke-Heist in the north to Adinkerke in the south, the Kusttram claims to be the longest single tram line in the world. And it’s cheap: A day pass costs €5, or about $6.50. Longer-term passes are even better values.

Single-ride tickets are available too, but a pass means the freedom to disembark, explore, find a café, have a drink, get back on the choo-choo and repeat, all without worrying about more tickets. For holiday beer hunters it turns the whole coast into a veritable amusement park—which it is, really, in more ways than one.

Starting in Knokke-Heist, on the northern end of the Kusttram, it is a 15-minute walk from the Heist train station to the seaside Schildia tavern. Like the town itself, Schildia is posh and quiet, with its white tablecloths, wine and baby lobster. And like others on the promenade it has a more casual beachfront terrace. Unlike the others, it stocks more than 150 beers with lots of local West Flanders treats. These include De Dolle’s strong, bitterish and lightly acidic Oerbier, a punk-rock-era riff on Flemish sour ale, from a craft brewer who was making “extreme” beer long before it was cool.

Two blocks south lies the Heist Heidenplein tram stop; then it’s on to the city of Blankenberge. If Knokke is posh and quiet, Blankenberge is democratic and bustling, especially in late summer when crowds pack the streets from seaside to station. There the cozy if utilitarian Terminus café, with wide booths inside and wider terraces outside, is ideal for watching the hordes. It also procures more than 90 beers and massive portions of spaghetti, with the kid’s plate being enough for all human adults, save Belgians on holiday. A block off the seaside and behind the Blankenberge casino is the Royal, a brownish, all-purpose corner café with a wraparound terrace and about 150 beers, including—rare for these parts— a few Wallonian saisons. Then it’s time to walk the promenade six blocks to the Luxembourg, a modern brasserie that is quiet enough to pull off old-fashioned, with its 70 beers, wizened clientele and sea-view terrace. Like most of these cafés, it has plenty of what the Belgians call “snacks,” an understatement that can include anything from a bowl of Gouda cubes on up through omelets, grilled ham sandwiches and slabs of lasagna.

To move on to the next stop is simple: A quick stroll inland and you’re at Blankenberge Markt tram stops; digest for eight stops south to De Haan Aan Zee where the café De Torre, a yellow-painted Belle Époque mansion hugs the tracks. From terrace tables you can see the board that announces upcoming trams while enjoying a bottle of tart, lively Drie Fonteinen gueuze or a glass of draft Dupont Moinette, a strong blond ale with rustic leanings.

Get back on the tram, to trek to the coast’s largest city and oldest port, Ostend. From Ostend station, a 10-minute walk northwest toward the coast finds a handy lodging option plus one of the coast’s best, most venerable beer bars: the Bottletje at the Hotel Marion. The latter has a range of 27 rooms from $60 to $139 per night. The pub is a blend of Belgian comforts—including more than 300 beers—and British style, from roaring fire to foot rest under the bar. Indeed, for many travelers from the UK, this is the first and last stop of a Belgian tour.

Ramble down to the next town on the coast, Middelkerke, a more modern resort peppered with statues of Belgian-born comic characters like the Smurfs and Lucky Luke. It also has Den Toogoloog, with its clever list of 130 beers full of better regionals and authentic lambics, such as black-labeled Gueuze Girardin, classy, sparkling and sourish. To get there it’s a 10-minute walk down Kerkstraat from the Greefplein tram stop on the seaside. Besides the beer they cook regional classics like shrimp croquettes and steak-frites, along with some mysterious unpronounceables on a menu written in West Flemish dialect. Less clever but more tranquil is the Iceberg, a seaside café near the casino that has about 90 beers, 400 stone mugs on display and a sandy beach terrace.

From the Middelkerke Casino tram stop, it’s on to the south end of the line at De Panne, home to the Plopsaland amusement park much beloved by Belgian tykes. It is also home to the Verloren Gernoare—the “Forlorn Shrimp”—a cozy family-run tavern across from the train station. It stocks a handful of beers that happen to include the dark, rich and strong Pannepot from Struise Brouwers. The ale gets its name from the fishing boats that used to sail out from the town.

Frequent trains from De Panne jog inland to quaint Veurne and its well-preserved town square. The Old House B&B makes a natural home base, with good breakfast and a bistro that stocks the reliably superb abbey ales from St. Bernardus. The Grote Markt cafés all have personality, but the Flandria at No. 30 has the strongest list with about 90 beers.

With slightly fewer beers but quality in spades, the Kunstemaecker is a 4-kilometer cycle or bus southeast of Veurne in the village called Steenkerke. The young proprietors are smart enthusiasts who show great taste on a list that bounces around 80 beers, emphasizing lambic, hops and smaller local breweries.

The pub’s sign offers a reminder taken from an old tune: “In Heaven there is no beer.” Which is, of course, why we drink it here. •

Consider the croquette Belgian cuisine has a particular penchant for seafood—mussels with frites being the national dish and all—and the coast is an especially fine place to find the fruits of the sea. But no single treat is as emblematic of the coast as those crusty, creamy, rich croquettes stuffed with tiny grey shrimp (croquettes de crevettes in French; garnaalkroketten in Dutch). Belgians expect them to be fresh and handmade, and restaurants oblige while charging a premium—usually about $15 for two or three golf-ball-sized croquettes. It’s a worthwhile splurge when paired with a sourish Flemish red-brown ale like Rodenbach; the beer’s acidity and carbonation cut the creaminess while the sweetness meets that of the shrimp. It is one of the beer world’s can’t-miss pairings.

 

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