Cocktails and casinos? Try a trip to Ostend
If you love the Mad Men-inspired ’60s fashion revival, you’ll love Ostend.
Dining al fresco in Ostend: one of many outdoor restaurants in Belgium’s Flemish seaside city
Ostend enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s, '60s and early 70s but - like the clothes, furniture and hairstyles of the period - it is making something of a comeback. And with LD Lines offering a new direct ferry service from the UK, autumn - or spring - is a great time to acquaint yourself with the Flemish seaside city that was a favourite of Belgium's kings, Leopold I and II.
This lively city is dominated by the Kursaal, Belgium's biggest casino. Newly renovated and refurbished, it is sleek and glossy, and even if you don't gamble, it is worth visiting for the lavish new penthouse seafood (and that includes lots of permitted fish) restaurant whose vast windows offer amazing views over the sea.
The elegant Albert I promenade follows the curve of the beach. Pretty and perfectly manicured, this broad ribbon of soft sand is neatly fringed with a long line of white beach huts. It is perfect for a stroll or an amble on a bike, with plenty of seafront restaurants and cafes to stop off at for some al fresco refreshments and people watching.
If you can break away from the beach, head to Kapellestraat and the parallel Christinastraat where high-end shops peddle their luxury goods. On the corner of Kapelstraat and Wapenplein, a shopping arcade offers outlets such as Esprit and L'Occitane.
But the real reason to go right now is for the local artist James Ensor, who was born here in 1860 and died in 1949. Famously big on gastronomy and quite an eccentric, this is Ensor's 150th anniversary. He would feed the dark corners of his imagination by sauntering through the streets of Ostend, and although he was not a transvestite, he found his inspiration viewing the flamboyant Ostend lifestyle dressed in frocks and hats.
His was a dismal view of humanity, graphically depicted in images which feature skeletons, phantoms, masks and other grotesque fantasies.
LD Lines/Transeuropa Ferries operate the only passenger ferry service between Kent and Belgium, with four Ramsgate-Ostend return sailings daily. From £78 return for a car and two passengers. Autumn fares from £59 single for a car and up to nine passengers. A 24-hour City Pass with access to 11 attractions costs 12E from the tourist office at Monacoplein 2, () James Ensor Museum, Vlaanderenstraat 27, closed Tuesday, entry 2E. Napoleon’s Fort, open 10am to 6pm daily.
Art historians credit his art with planting the seeds of expressionism and surrealism.
Ostend is exceedingly proud of its Ensor legacy, and until April 3 next year, the city's restaurants are celebrating his anniversary by offering themed dining experiences, entitled "Dinner with Ensor".
Eight gastronomic restaurants across the city are participating, and diners each receive an exclusive cotton napkin with one of Ensor's eight deadly sins woven into it, and a silver-plated napkin ring engraved with James Ensor's signature as a highly collectable gift. A four-course dinner costs 95 (£83.70) per head, including wine and beer, and for kosher diners, sole and salmon are widely available on all menus in Ostend - indeed sole is a speciality of the city.
Start your sins at the gastronomic restaurant De Bistronoom (Vindictivelaan 22) where your napkin will depict the sin of laziness.
If 95 is a tad expensive then choose from 17 other participating bistros and restaurants such as the Toi, Moi et la Mer bistro on the Albert 1 promenade. Their gift is an appetiser napkin woven with a part of the James Ensor painting Baths at Ostend - a painting once banned for containing too much nudity. A four course feast here costs 45 (£39.70) excluding wine.
You can view the complete Baths at Ostend painting, and James Ensor's miniature artworks of the deadly sins, in the house in which he was brought up in. It has been turned into a museum, but is set up like a souvenir shop similar to the souvenir shops his mother ran, with odd curiosities such as masks - some grotesque - and sea shells.
Be sure to also capture a little World War history: on the outskirts of Ostend at Damain Raversijde is the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans. It stretches from Norway to Spain and comprises 60 bunkers, storage facilities, personnel quarter and machine gun nests interconnected by two km of trenches, designed to protect the Germans from an Allied invasion.
There's also Napoleon's Fort built to withstand a British invasion that never came. Napoleon fell in 1814, but the fort was used by the German military. It's not much to look at, but these days it is used by big corporations for team building games. And tourists can enjoy a gourmet lunch in its restaurant where specialities include sole limande en robée de courgette and tournedos de saumon grillé.