, 2022-07-29 18:01:00,
It is a magic moment when a railway skirts the sea — when passengers bundle to one side of a carriage to coo and click cameras at the silvery celebrity of the ocean, before the train dives into a tunnel and the cameo is over. In the UK, trains flirt with saltwater at Dawlish and north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Some tease the estuaries along the Welsh and Cumbrian coasts. But as a rule, practicalities of engineering — craggy cliffs, thundering waves — make close encounters between rail and sea fleeting and precious.
Not in Belgium. Belgium is the only nation in Europe where the entire coastline is closely chartered by rails (barring a few dunes at either end). The Kusttram — the Coast Tram — makes 68 stops on its 42-mile journey, chuntering and chiming from Knokke-Heist, on the Dutch border, to De Panne, by the French one, ever in the company of the sea. This is the longest tramway in the world, the only inter-urban tramway on the continent. For rail fans it is a unicorn-rare example of a mass transit system surviving in a coastal context. If you made it to the end of that sentence, chances are you’ll make it to the end of the Kusttram too.
Even if you’re not part of the tram-loving community, as I am, a day pass on the Kusttram is a perfect way to dip in and out of Belgium’s brief, bracing coast. My journey begins among the boutiques and parades of Knokke, often said to be the most “chic” town on the Belgian Riviera. This is a claim to be taken with a pinch of sea salt — the Belgian Riviera isn’t especially chic. This is a place where socks are traditionally worn with sandals, where you see more crazy golf than pétanque, and where Paul Anka this month performed his greatest hits. It is an unselfconscious sort of place with the recognisable whimsy of our own shores. The beaches I visit are busy with suntanned tummies full of Trappist beers and all the frites the seagulls couldn’t steal. I like it. This is a place for which I am beach-body ready.
I spend a happy afternoon wallowing around on the sands at Knokke, hypnotised by the goings-on at Zeebrugge’s container port down the coast — the slow waltz of ship, crane and Eddie Stobart — a kind of Lego of the gods. Knokke’s hinterland is also oddly alluring, full of Anglo-Norman villas and a little English church, a mirror of medieval churches built by Low Countries immigrants in East Anglia, and a hint of a kinship that once reached across the narrow sea.
The next day I hop on a…
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