Saturday, March 25th 2017
This map shows where today’s expedition took us and the next one gives some idea of the area we explored.
We first came to Blankenberge in 2013 when exploring Belgium’s sea coast by tram (see Brussels 2013). Blankenberge is a seaside town, well known for its amenities and pleasant aspect, a good place to spend a sunny day. It is also fascinating for its beautiful buildings, many of them designed or decorated in Art Nouveau style, which date from its heyday during the Belle Époque. It was mainly these we had come to see and the Belle Epoque Centrum, the museum that commemorates that happy period.
Blankenberge lies on the coast of the North Sea and is in West Flanders. The language spoken there is Flemish but we had no problem conversing either in English or French. The population seems virtually tri-lingual! We met the same friendliness and courtesy that we have found in Brussels.
Our first contact with the people, so to speak, was when we took refreshment in a cafe called Chopin.
After this pleasant interlude, we continued our explorations and here we are looking along Kerkstraat (‘Church Street’).
Next, we walked up Molenstraat (‘Mill Street’) where we found a piece of public art.
It is entitled Meisjes op bank (‘Girl on bench’) and is by Hanneke Beaumont.
At the top of Molenstraat is a square fronting Sint-Rochiskerk, the Church of St Roch, dating from the 1880s. The last time we were here, there was an exhibition of sculptures by Belgian sculptor Irénée Duriez in the square but today it was empty.
Running beside the church is a street called Elisabethstraat which contains a number of fine houses dating from the Belle Époque. We had come to see three of these in particular because they have been combined to form the Belle Epoque Centrum which we hoped to visit. (Though ‘Belle Époque’ has an accent in French, this is left off in the name of the Centrum and other places where the Dutch language is used. I have therefore included the accent or left it off as the context indicates.)
It turned out that we had slightly miscalculated because the Centrum opens only at 2pm and we were too early. I took a photo of the handsome Hotel Belle Epoque and then we went to have a look at the seafront.
This view along the beach shows the pier in the background. A pier would have been a must-have feature in a town that was developing itself as a major seaside resort. The pier is called Pier van Blankenberge and Jetée de Blankenberge in Dutch and French, respectively, but when it comes to English, a grander name is applied: the Belgium Pier! The original, built of cast iron in 1894 no longer exists, having fallen victim to the war in 1914. A concrete replacement was erected in 1933 but the present pier dates from 2003. We did not visit it this time but perhaps will manage to do so on another occasion.
The beach is clean and well kept and, to me at least, evokes a feeling of yesteryear. One almost expects Monsieur Hulot to come charging out of one of the beach huts, ready to plunge with gusto into the sea.
We turned inland again, thinking for have lunch and, on passing through Manitobaplein (‘Manitoba Square’), I photographed the finely modelled façade of the Hotel Manitoba.
Back in Molenstraat, we found a courtyard and within it the entrance to a cafe-restaurant called Taverne Edenhof. Here we spent an agreeable hour over lunch.
The Belle Epoque Centrum was now open and so we entered, bought our tickets and proceeded to view the exhibition. The recommended route is to take the lift to the top of the building and work your way down. Three adjacent houses have been combined to make the museum. The museum’s own introduction is as follows.
The Belle Epoque is not a style period in the arts but a period from 1870 to 1914. During the Belle Epoque period Blankenberge gained European recognition as a seaside resort.
These three Belle Epoque villas date from 1894 and are built to plans by the Antwerp architect-contractor Hendrik Van Gastel. Initially this was a set of four narrow middle class houses in mirror image. Three villas were restored to their original state and turned into an information and visitor centre where people can learn about the glory of the Belle Epoque (1870-1914) in an interactive way.
The exhibition covers a wide range of topics in art, design and the life of the times. I cannot give a complete report of all this here and will content myself with providing a few visual samples. We started on the roof terrace.
On the terrace is displayed a stained glass window from one of the component villas. The tower of Sint-Rochuskerk is seen in the background.
The mosaic sofa is made with tiles from Belle Epoque villas and is very pretty to look at if a little hard on one’s derrière.
This reconstituted section of tiled flooring was original on the terrace of one of the constituent villas.
Period Dress for Women
(Left) Ball gown with bustle (in fashion up to 1890)
(Centre) How a woman would appear with a tightly laced corset
(Right) ‘Ball gown for the liberated woman’ (influence of Suffragette movement post 1903)
This display gives a glimpse of women’s clothing during the period under scrutiny. The ball gown with a bustle would be difficult enough to manage but imagine the discomfort increased by the wearer being tightly laced into a corset designed to make her waist seem impossibly slender. It is unsurprising that fainting fits were common among women of the time. The rise of the Suffragette movement did more than (eventually) give women the vote: it began a process of re-evaluation of the status and rights of women and their relationships with men. The hated corset was dispensed with and women’s clothes became looser and more comfortable, as exemplified by the red gown.
This photographer obviously counts the wealthy and influential among his customers and feels the need to dress accordingly to avoid embarrassment. Should I dress like this when out taking photos? If I did, I would attract the sort of attention that I am at pains to avoid…
Many of the exhibits feature beautiful ceramic work, from the mosaic sofa through the floor tiles to the cabinet shown above which contains a set of beautiful tiles used for decoration of house interiors and exteriors. The name plate with its fanciful plant motif provides a sample of the imaginative fonts that proliferated particularly during the Art Nouveau period.
These hall stands combine delicacy and apparent fragility with elegance.
The plant is a fern rather than the much (and unjustly) scorned aspidistra but the plant holder is a fine piece of work featuring what I believe is intended to be a griffin rather than a dragon. (A griffin traditionally features the body of a lion with the head of an eagle.)
These stained glass windows were once in place in the constituent villas. Work of this quality and creative beauty is not usually seen today, no doubt because the cost would be prohibitive. We are lucky that such examples remain to be enjoyed by us still today.
Leaving the Centrum, we began making our way slowly back to the station but keeping our eyes open and admiring the many examples of beautiful house façades encountered along the way. Blankenberge is a treasure house of Belle Époque, Art Nouveau and eclectic styles of building and decoration.
We stopped for refreshment at Bolly’s Grill. The temperature in Belgium is a few degrees higher than in London, making cold drinks welcome whereas at home we would probably prefer tea or coffee. When we are in Europe, our favourite drink is ice(d) tea, usually Lipton Ice. We seem to develop a passion for it perhaps because we have unconsciously come to associate ice tea with being in Europe.
One of the consequences of the increasing use of English as a world lingua franca is that businesses on the Continent use English much as we once used French in the UK for its supposed cachet. The difference, I think, is that, whereas the English used French to give themselves an air of superiority and sophistication, English is used on the Continent today in the opposite way, to indicate what is popular and trendy. And, I insist, the English that is used throughout Europe is British English, not the American variety.
And so, finally, to Blankenberge Station to catch our train back to Brussels. The railway reached this seaside retreat in 1863 though the station building is obviously of much later date. The line passes through the city of Bruges (Brugge) that we visited in 2011 (see Bruges 2011), recalling happy memories.
The Belgian Railway, SNCB (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Belges) or NMBS (Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen), is nationalized, unlike the ridiculous mess that is the British railway system. Our experiences of it has so far proved positive. Many trains in Belgium (as in the Netherlands) are double deckers, which not only increases capacity but means that you have a good view of the landscape if you can find a seat on the upper deck.
On our first trip to Blankenberge (see Brussels 2013, September 7th), we made a note then to return. We have done so and our second visit proved as rewarding as the first.