Where is Ostende?
After eight days of visiting some of the most beautiful cities in Europe, we felt like a change. We still had one more city to cross off our “hidden gems” list, but first, a detour. Of course, with Belgium being so compact, any detour really doesn’t take you off the chosen path by too much.
Today it was time to visit the seaside resort of Ostende. We thought a trip to the coast would be great, and it was another chance to see a different side of Belgium.
Ostende is the Belgian seaside town. In a largely landlocked country, the white sand and open promenade draws in thousands of visitors every year during the summer months.
Weird is the first word that came to mind as we drove toward the ocean. Ugly was the next one. Did we cross some invisible border? Were we time warped into another place? Where has my beautiful Belgium gone?
With a coastline lined with huge, grey concrete apartment buildings, to me, it resembles a communist style of living. There’s no colour here. Anywhere. The buildings have seen better days. Many are crumbling or at least in need of some major repair. It feels almost Cuba-esque.
But then the saving grace. The building that shines a torch on a bygone era. The centrepiece of the Belle Epoque grandeur and the high society that once existed, before World War I brought it all to an end. Occupying an incredible amount of real estate along the shore of the North Sea is the Royal Galleries and Thermae Palace Hotel.
It is the building that makes me both happy and sad at the same time. Happy, because it truly is an amazing piece of architecture, designed a lifetime ago, for a King. It is completely at odds with the grey, soulless buildings around it.
Sad, because, closer inspection showed a significant state of disrepair, that if not corrected soon will almost become impossible to save. It’s had a tough life though, having to endure German occupation and ultimately destruction across two World Wars. That it’s even standing at all is a feat in itself.
The saving grace is that the Thermae Palace Hotel continues to operate out of a part of it, meaning that at least some maintenance, restoration and care is being provided. But even so, parts of the hotel are starting to show serious structural issues of rusted reinforcements and concrete cancer.
The Royal Galleries were built in the early 1900s for King Leopold II. The undercover walkway, lined with Doric columns, was built to allow the King and Queen to walk to the racetrack at one end, without being impacted by the weather. They must have loved their horse racing!
The Hotel Thermae is built on top of, and adjacent to, the Royal Galleries.
On the ocean side, Brasserie Albert is open and I am dying to take a peek inside. Stepping inside the doors, I am transported to yesteryear. Large posters dating back to the 1930s and 1950’s transport you to a time of elaborate ball gowns, parties that were the talk of the town and old fashioned etiquette.
This was the only place in Ostende that made me want to stay. We sat down at one of the booths and ordered a hot chocolate. We sat fascinated as we watched the Maitre’d carefully slice salami on a manual slicer, positioned in the middle of the dining room, for maximum effect. Every so often, a waft of peppercorns and garlic came floating our way. Perhaps that is their marketing strategy to get us to stay for lunch as well?
Soon our hot chocolates arrive and we are surprised with a glass of piping hot milk and a bag of Belgian chocolate drops. I think, only for a moment, about being a little restrained and putting a small number in my milk. Quickly I come to my senses and pour every single one of these delicious drops into my milk before my husband can steal any from me.
To cap it all off, a complimentary box of Jules Destrooper Almond Thins are accompanying our beverage. It’s times like these that I wish I was more like my Mum, being able to stop at one, and savouring the others for another time. Not so with me. Once I start I know there won’t be any need to worry about how I will keep the rest of them fresh.
We finish our visit here by following Ostende’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame along the promenade.