Virtually all of Belgium’s 66km coastline is fronted with a superbly wide, hard-sand beach. However, while some remnant sand dunes survive, the coast is predominantly backed by a succession of bland, concrete-blighted resorts. De Haan, central Nieuwpoort and outer parts of wealthy Knokke-Heist are the only real exceptions.
Only the hardest of hearts are unmoved by historic Ypres (Ieper in Dutch). In the Middle Ages it was an important cloth town ranking alongside Bruges and Ghent. In WWI some 300,000 Allied soldiers died in the ‘Salient’, a bow-shaped bulge that formed the front line around town. Ypres remained unoccupied by German forces, but was utterly flattened by bombardment.
Prosperous Kortrijk (Courtrai in French) was founded as the Roman settlement of Cortoriacum, it grew wealthy as a flax and linen centre, but was severely bombed by the Allies during WWII. It retains a gorgeous begijnhof and an important historical resonance as the venue for Flanders' defining medieval battle.
Delightful little Veurne has an architectural charm that trumps all of the coastal towns put together. Historic spires and towers peep above the picture-perfect Flemish gables that surround its super-quaint Grote Markt (central square). The view is especially magical at dusk when partly floodlit.
The little Flemish city of Oudenaarde (Audenarde in French) grew wealthy in the mid-16th century, local weavers having switched to tapestry making. Enormous Oudenaarde wall tapestries, filled with exquisite detail and luminous scenes of nature, nobility or religion, were in great demand by French and Spanish royalty.
These days Nieuwpoort is the coast’s top sailing centre. But it is also a historic place, remembered for playing a key role in WWI. It was here that the German advance was thwarted by local partisans who opened (and repeatedly reopened) the sluice gates on the Noordvaart canal.
For centuries the Poperinge area has produced the quality hops required for Belgium’s beer industry. During WWI, Poperinge was just out of German artillery range so it became a posting and R&R station for Allied soldiers heading to or from the Ypres Salient. English troops, remembering it for its entertainments and prostitutes, referred to the town fondly as ‘Pops’.
The commune of Comines-Warneton (www.villedecomines-warneton.be) is an administrative curiosity, a detached enclave of Francophone Hainaut sandwiched between Flanders and France with Comines town cut in half by the Belgo-French border. On the French side the distinctive 1623 Comines Town Hall has a wildly bulbous Unesco-listed belfry tower, meticulously rebuilt after WWI.
The historic inland-port village of Damme is so super-pretty that in summer it’s all too often overwhelmed with cars, cyclists, walkers and boat-loads of day trippers jostling down the dead-straight 5km of road/canal from Bruges, the approach signalled by the scarlet sails of a working windmill.