Oostende Peter&Paul church

At 8 AM about 50 of us broke out of our Catholic boarding school. We pushed the two priests, guarding the school gate, out of the way, and we were outside. Free on the streets, skipping classes, adrenaline rushing through our veins, not thinking about the coming reaction of our parents. For sure, the Principal would contact them. It was an early spring morning in 1968, the year of 'make love, no war'. A committee of university students had come to Oostende a week earlier, and had called on all schools for a strike and a street manifestation. Sixteen years old and participating in the exiting culture clash of our generation. How energizing!

Detail of 'the sea' statue

The first thing we did, was running to the Catholic high school for girls, a school governed by nuns, and only 10 blocks away. In those days, Catholic schools were gender separated. We knew some of the girls, since they came to school on Monday morning, and left back home on the Saturday afternoon on the same trains and busses we took. Trying to block the local girls from entering the school, we yelled slogans in the hope the girls inside would hear us. We begged the girls to join us in the protest march starting at 10 AM. How fun! The nuns tried to disperse us, but they needed the riot police to make us run.

Eventually the manifestation started, and ended without incident shortly after noon. We didn't want to go back to school that day, and stayed in the pubs (with the girls!) until early evening. Love was in the air, and the pubs did great business. Finally we all had to go back to our schools. We lost most of our privileges for a week, and had a confrontation with our parents the next day. Another such insurrection, and we would be kicked out of school!

Living in the USA now, I had a chance to visit Oostende recently.

Oostende beach

Today, Oostende is the only Belgian seaside town boosting the feel and the long history of a city. The many shopping streets, three market squares and the high-rise buildings create an intimate ambiance. It is the largest population center on the Belgian coast with about 70,000 locals. That number easily quadruples during the summer vacation months. Over 100 nationalities choose Oostende as their playground. Oostende's assets are: a beautiful sandy beach stretching for miles and bordered by an elevated boardwalk set with restaurants, coffee shops and pubs, right downtown a working fishermen's port, also a destination for many pleasure vessels. The large modernized Casino with state of the art theater-complex blends in with a vibrant nightlife in the adjacent narrow streets. The green rural countryside is ideal for trips on bikes. The horse racetrack, the Wellington Racecourse, is of Louisville KY fame in Europe.

Oostende fishermen's wharf

Oostende was a settlement of fishing families on the east end of an island between the North Sea and a beach lake, probably since before Roman times. It became officially a city in 1265. Since the coastline was always under attach by the sea, dikes had to be built to protect the town. Its fortified location near the sea made Oostende a powerful and rich trading town, which eventually was also its undoing. Conquering armies seized the town several times.

Oostende harbor

The two first kings of Belgium, Leopold I and II, made Oostende an upscale bourgeois tourist destination in the second half of the 1900's. They built and maintained a royal palace on the beach. A direct train linked Paris with Oostende. The Dover-Oostende ferry was the most important link between London and the European continent. Some mansions of this dazzling time, and statues and other memorabilia on the kings and queens surprise visitors in the oddest locations. Fortunately, Oostende is now a modern beach resort for the rich and not so rich, with all the delights and the trappings of a popular tourist destination.

Things to do besides enjoying the beach and the surf: restaurants along fishermen's wharf serve fresh North Sea fish every day. The house of the famous Belgian pre-expressionist painter James Ensor (1860-1949) displays reproductions of his fantastic and sexually ambiguous masterpieces set in his original living quarters. A must see. 'Café Botteltje' (Louisastraat 19) serves the largest selection of Belgian beer in Oostende. On March 6, 2010, about 2,500 costumed partygoers will celebrate Mardi-grass in the Casino during the most famous yearly dance-party of Belgium: the 'Bal Rat Mort' (party of the dead rat). See you there!

Practical travel information on the Oostende tourist board website. Ostend is the common spelling in English literature of the town's name.

Oostende detail of Rat Mort poster