Ostende La Reine Des Plages

Affectionately called ‘La Reine Des Plages’ (Queen of the beaches), Ostende developed into one of the most important beach resorts in Northern Europe and was greatly favoured by the British. But during the First World War it was in the front line and suffered. As the 1920s dawned it made a comeback and attracted an international and cosmopolitan clientele that rivalled other fashionable places like Deauville and Biarritz.

The Ostende Sea Front, 1920s with the Kursall Casino
The Ostende Sea Front, 1920s with the Kursall Casino

The playground of aristocrats and the crowned heads of Europe the seaside resort of Ostend combined all the elements of climate, comfort and pleasure with a sandy beach, pretty parks, squares and avenues, numerous entertainments and a beautiful promenade with sumptuous waterfront buildings and luxurious hotels.

Set half way along the forty mile Belgian coastline, Ostende was originally a small fishing village. The city was protected from the North Sea by a series of large dikes built in the late 14th century but its importance as a harbour rose in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a railway link to Brussels was built in 1838. At the same time it allure as a seaside retreat grew and when Kings Leopold I and II spent their summers there it became even more fashionable. In 1846 it became a transit harbour to England, sending its first ferry boat to Dover. The British love affair with the seaside resonated with this development and eventually hundreds of passengers travelled between Ostende and England in a space of just two hours, which made it a perfect long weekend destination for British travelers in search of slightly ‘foreign’ flavour. Indeed, it was British demand that helped stimulate the growth of Ostende and it became one of the most cosmopolitan and popular of European resorts by the turn of the century.

The First World War caused serious damage to Ostende but shortly afterward the business entrepeneur Edmund Sayag took charge of revitalising the resort and within a few years it was flourishing even more so than before with nearly one million visitors per year. In the 1921 season over 50% of visitors were Belgian, 30% British and nearly 17% French. By 1931 the statistics had changed with the British predominating with 41% , 40% Belgian and only 10% French. Sayag did such a good job that in the mid 20s Ostende was being described as ‘the most aristocratic Belgian seaside resort’ and Americans called it the Atlantic City of Belgium.

A view of the beach at Ostend, 1920s
A view of the beach at Ostend, 1920s

Getting to Ostende was straightforward. As a port and major fishing centre, Ostende had a modern, well equipped harbour with a series of docks that could accommodate the most modern merchant vessels.It was also a train hub. There was a Southern Railway boat and rail service between Dover and Ostend with two express services in each direction throughout the year. The journey from London took six hours with only two hours on the boat itself. Ostende was also the starting point for a variety of express trains to all parts of Europe. There was a regular service
to Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, Brussels and Antwerp and it took two hours to get to Brussels and six to Paris.

Although Ostende was a place to visit most of the spring and summer it was at the height of the season during June to August that it became a cosmopolitan assemblage of rank, fashion and beauty. Deauville, long the champion of society throughout August soon learned that a visit to Ostend was added before or after its season.

The sea air was invigorating and deemed to be a restorative of lost strength and shattered health and excellent for recuperation. Ostend also had mineral springs with remarkable properties. The spring in the park was taken from an artisan well bored out in 1858-9. It was impregnated with chlorinated sodium sulphide, alkali, arsenic, lithia, silicate and borate and regarded as a valuable combination in the treatment of various ailments and so was considered to be one of the most remarkable spa sources in Europe.

The esplanade or promenade (called the Digue) was an unrivalled edifice and was a paved walk way about 100 feet wide which followed the coast as far as Westende – a length of 12 miles. It looked out over the North sea and a glorious, expansive sandy beach that extended for miles and was covered with bathing machines painted white with black stripes that were towed into the sea by Flanders horses (miniature wooden houses on wheels). The playing sands were ever animated and ever picturesque.

The sea front promenade at Ostend, 1920s
The sea front promenade at Ostend, 1920s

All along the promenade were magnificent hotels, splendid palatial residences and pretty private houses for the rich with every modern convenience and boarding houses for the less fortunate. One of the most salubrious place was the Royal Palace hotel on the Digue (at end of Rue de l’Hippodrome and the rue de l’Hotel) was a palatial establishment situated between the racecourse and the sea front and was only open during the summer with a luxurious restaurant, concert hall and gardens. Other notable establishments included the Royal Phare hotel and restaurant (with 150 apartments, a salle de danse and an American bar); Helvetia Hotel, Digue (40 rooms with restaurant and terrace facing the sea); Westminster Hotel, 22 Boulevard Van Iseghem (40 rooms and restaurant); Hotel Continental, Digue; Wellington and Globe Hotel, Digue (100 rooms with restaurant); The Grand Hotel, Digue; Continental Hotel; the Grand Hotel; the Splendid Hotel; the Majestic Palace Hotel; the Ocean Hotel with the Carlton restaurant and the Grand Hotel Osborne.

There were extensive shopping opportunities especially on the Rue de la Chapelle which was the main artery leading from the station to the Digue. Almost every conceivable type of shop was there from ladies or gentleman attire to souvenir shops and bazaars. Other interesting streets for shops were the Rue Adolph Buyl, Rue de Flandre, Boulevard Van Iseghem and Rue Longue.

There were many lovely restaurants and tea rooms including the tea room at the Bouguet Royal just opposite the main bathing sands. There was also a rather wonderful establishment called Femina Dancing at 7 Rue de Flandre, that was described as a smart, high class rendezvous and seemingly was a form of nightclub with refreshments, dancing, music and some form of entertainement. However, the most important entertainment edifice was the vast and impressive Kursaal complex which contained every conceivable facility and became one of the most prestigious venues in Europe in the mid 1920s.

Throughout the season there were endless society events in all the hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues that included balls, bouquet and fan competitons, beauty shows, festivals, bazaars, fancy-fairs, firework displays and floral processions. Horse racing at the Hippodrome Wellington formed one of the big events and on the outskirts of the race course were to be found tennis courts, golf courses, butts for pigeon shooting and a polo ground, providing endless recreational activities for the more athletic and lively.

Generall acitivities included bathing, lying in the sunshine, strolls along the seafront, endless shopping, surfing, sailing, sampling the local cusine, gambling, watching horse racing and tours of the old town and fishing harbour. Also, it was the best place to start a visit to the Flanders battlefields.

A map of Ostende, 1920s
A map of Ostende, 1920s

 

 

All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent

Take a look at the page about The Kursaal

Take a look at the page about Edmund Sayag

Sources:

The New York Times
The Golden Guide to the Belgian Resorts
Blue Guide Muirhead’s Belgium

Ostend Tourism

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