Day 3: Ostend – Diksmuide

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‘Have fun at the front today’. It is a heartfelt message from our host at Les Cabanes d’Ostende which, in view of the turbulent history of West Flanders, can only be uttered relatively recently without a wry interpretation. Although our cycling day is short, the contrasts today are stark.

From the coast to the trenches. From small brand new conceptual ‘wikkel houses’, equipped with every convenience and completely climate-neutral, to a classic, rustic bed & breakfast on the outskirts of a sleepy little town. And along the way too, the contrasts flow richly. No other coastline in the world alternates between beauty and ugliness as often as it does in Belgium. Golden beaches so wide and flat that we can cycle over them with our gravel bikes, interspersed with the gigantic concrete high-rise that characterises the coast here. Rows of apartment buildings appear to be one large windbreak in front of the hinterland. The dunes between the various coastal towns show how it once was here, before the insatiable urge to sit in the front row with as many people as possible to get a glimpse of the sea.

We pedal the fifteen kilometres along the promenade, which takes us through Middelkerke and Westende, peacefully in the morning sun. If we know one thing for sure about this trip, it is that we are not going to see the sea again. On the pedestrian ferry at Nieuwpoort, I take a last sniff of sea air before heading inland.

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Over an old railway line towards the IJzer. More and more scars from the Great War loom large. The Christmas Truce of 1914, where, via the artwork of William Livermore, a British, French and German soldier will enjoy a drink together into eternity. We pass military cemeteries, the white headstones glittering peacefully in the sunlight. The Trench of Death memorial site at Diksmuide inspires awe just by cycling past it. The end point of today’s route is so self-evident that even the Iconic cycle routes direction signs are momentarily unnecessary. The Ijzer Tower can be seen from miles away. Belgium’s most famous peace monument as a beacon in a flat and empty landscape.