My experience of the Belgian coast was limited to a couple of weekends in Oostende and an hour or two in Blankenberge. Until last weekend. Which the whole family spent in Oostduinkerke.
We began by taking the train from Amsterdam to Antwerp. How many times have a made this journey? Dozens. And that's just this year. Here's a tip if you're making the same trip. Get to the platform well in time, so that you're there when the train arrives. And walk along the platform until you're beyond the massive glass canopy. Then you'll have a chance of a seat.
We sat in the second carriage. On leaving Amsterdam Centraal there was still the odd free seat. After Schiphol they were standing in the aisles. Most of the way between the airport and Roosendaal a succession of fat arses were thrust into my face. Wonderful when you're trying to concentrate on sudoku.
The train from Antwerp to Oostende was much better. Not exactly empty, but the air-conditioning was full on. No flabby buttocks a millimetre away from my nose, either. By the time we hit Oostende, I felt I deserved a beer. (Shite beer warning for Tandleman. Look away now.) Many features distinguish Belgium as a civilised country. Having drinks machines on many platforms is one. Having beer in them is an even bigger one. Even if it is just Jupiler. It was cold, too.
In case you don't know, an intercity tram runs most of the length of the Belgian coast. It's a brilliant way of getting form one resort to another. I say one resort to another. The coast is so heavily built up, it's more like one mega-resort stretching the whole of it's length. The Atlantic Wall Museum (Domain Raversijde) is one of the few gaps. Our tram journey took about an hour. Much of it standing up. Just as well I had that can of delicious Jupiler to drink. (Tell Tandleman he can look back again now.)
There was a tram stop right at the end of our hotel's street. Unfortunately, the hotel was at the other end. I've become very acclimatised to the Netherlands. So much so, that I now find any sort of hill scary and exhausting. The hotel was up in the dunes, possibly as much as 50 feet above sea level. How was I expected to climb that with all my luggage (two shirts and a change of underwear; the kids have to carry their own stuff)?
I found the bar 30 seconds after throwing my bag into a corner of our room. My expectations weren't high. First impressions - when I spotted Maes Pils and Grimbergen taps - confirmed this. Then I noticed signs advertising Brugse Zot and Slaapmutske. Not had any Slaapmutske beers before. The Triple was sold out, so I made do with a Bruin. Alright, but a bit homebrewy. I had time to squeeze in a Chimay Blue (not the world's greatest, I know) and a huge jenever before Dolores dragged me away.
The hill didn't appear quite as mountainous on the way down. But there was another to struggle up to reach the promenade. The kids didn't fancy a dip in the sea so we dipped into seafront pub (De Zeemeermin, Mermaid) instead. Just chosen at random. Five draught and about two dozen bottled. In parts of Holland, that would classify it as a specialist beer pub. Petrus Oud Bruin and Petrus Dubbel Bruin were on tap. But I opted for something else.
Have I mentioned the Ton Overmars disaster? He's my local purveyor of all things alcoholic. In most cases St. Bernardus by the case. When I dropped by last Tuesday, the shop was closed. The bastard's gone on holiday for a fornight. How selfish can you get? I'd been a week without St. Bernardus. So obviously, when I spotted it on the menu, I ordered an Abt. It came in a proper St. Bernardus glass rather than a Chimay one, but you can't have everything.
I wasn't allowed to linger. We had a supermarket to find.
You can't accuse Niuewpoort Bad of being pretty. 10-storey blocks hunch shoulder to shoulder along the whole seafront. The high street behind is little better. A forlorn little church is about the only building more than five minutes old. But I wasn't on an architectural tour. I had a pretty good idea of the aesthetic qualities of the Belgian seaside before I came. At least there are plenty of shops.
We found a little Spar hiding amongst them. Neither the largest, poshest nor cheapest supermarket I've encountered. It didn't have a huge beer section. But guess who I did see smiling cheerfully out at me from an azure blue label? That's right. The St. Bernardus Abt. I'll have six of those, thank you. (They were only 1.32 each. What a bargain.)
I've forgotten to tell you why we were in Oostduinkerke. One of Dolores's university mates was there for a fortnight. Staying in the same hotel. We spent the evening with them, drinking wine in the hotel garden. The others were drinking wine. I'd got my Abt. Why the hell would I drink wine? Kerstin and Klaus live in Leipzig. And their house has a guest room big enough to sleep all of us Pattinsons. I'm always very nice to them. It's because I'm such a friendly, open-hearted bloke. Really.
That's the end of part one. You know the score. One post per day of holiday. This time, there should be a film version, too. Andrew was on video camera duties. He's editing it today. I doubt I'll publish it on the web. I don't want you to swoon at my manly beauty. Or laugh at my beer gut.
Our hotel was on land purchased by socialist politician Emile Vandervelde and first housed a camp for children fleeing the Spanish Civil War. After WW II it was a socialist holiday camp. It was rebuilt as a hotel in 1996. Why do I mention this? Vandervelde was the man responsible for banning the sale of spirits in Belgian pubs for 60 years. I'm equivocal about his legacy. The abundance of strong beers in Belgium has partly been attributed to the ban on hard liquor in pubs. I drank an extra large jenever to Vandervelde's memory in the hotel bar.
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