Nieuwpoort by name – but not new-port by nature. In fact, this small North Sea fishing harbour actually became the 'new port' of the Westhoek almost a thousand years ago – back when the River Yser was a highway for traffic to Ypres. That maritime focus remains: two of the largest yachting marinas in Belgium flank the entrance to Nieuwpoort harbour. But the emphasis these days is firmly on the sand, sea and (if you're particularly blessed) the sun to be found in this corner of northern Belgium.
There is still a fishing port here, though. And there's still a bevvy of fishing boats trawling the North Sea. But most come to this town of 11,000 – squeezed between Ostend to the north and Koksijde to the south – for its long beaches, tumbling dunes and for a lungful or two of salty North Sea air. But there are a few interesting wrinkles to this 'old-new-seaside-town'.
There's that Belgian fondness for bizarre statues, which is taken up with gusto by the city's residents. They also take their medieval heritage very seriously, and are proud to promenade with what they reckon is the biggest 'giant' in Europe, when its time for a parade. And naturally, they do love their sea-food here. Mussels, shrimp and lobsters are staples, not luxuries – as is a range of Flemish fish-dishes that just beg to be matched to the right beer.
Not that they brew much of the stuff here. They were too busy trying to whip into shape that other unruly foam-flecked spirit – the North Sea. And the story of Nieuwpoort starts with that thousand year struggle to tame a sea that really didn't want a port here at all.
Like much of the North Sea coast for thousands of years, the line between sea and land wasn't clearly defined here at Nieuwpoort. There was a long string of sea-ward facing dunes, and behind them a swampy plain of rivers and meres. The North Sea was all too fond of reclaiming these whenever a storm hit. The first people living here, in the Iron Age, were a feisty Belgian tribe called the Morins. They colonised the dunes, and made themselves masters of the fens.
That caused some headaches for Julius Caesar, when he came here to see – and inevitably to conquer. But it was difficult to subdue a people who could just melt into the maze of the Flanders swamplands, and the Romans never had a strong hold around here. Then, soon after the German tribes swept in – chasing away the ragged Roman Empire – the sea returned with a vengeance. The dunes became islands again for hundreds of years. And it was only when it retreated, a couple of centuries later, that a town finally grew up here – Zandhoofd, a port on a sandy bank above the Yser.
That was when trade with England rising, and the need for a better port on the mouth of the Yser led to Count Philip of Flanders deciding that Zandhoofd needed an upgrade. The streets were straightened, new docks built, walls raised, and dikes dug. In short, a new port was built and Nieuwpoort was born. And it quickly flourished on the-then booming medieval trade in wool.
What was also booming, though, was the to-ing and fro-ing of European powers over the Westhoek's ports. France and England, Spain and Holland, the cities of Bruges and Ghent – all had a pop at little Nieuwpoort. Some 14 takeovers, including 10 sieges or assaults, were visited upon this city between 1213 and 1940. Many such encounters left Nieuwpoort in ruins. Perhaps the longest – and bizarrest – of the long line of conflicts, however, arose when Nieuwpoorters decided to become pirates.
The Dunkirkers of Nieuwpoort
It all started in 1568, when the Dutch up north revolted against the Spanish Hapsburg control. The Spanish decided to base their fleet in loyal Dunkirk, and paid good rates to private ship-owners for any booty looted – and for any Dutch ships sent to the bottom of the North Sea. These privateers from the Channel ports signed up as a private raiding navy, and became known as the 'Dunkirkers'. And the boat-owners of Nieuwpoort were among some of the most enthusiastic plunderers.
Such were the losses cause to the Spanish and English merchant ships that the Dutch sent an army to the area in 1600. Nieuwpoort is where they met the Spanish – and, in what was a shock for the era, the Dutch actually won. The Spanish infantry of the time had a fierce reputation, so the Battle of Nieuwpoort was seen as a real turning point. But Dutch couldn't take Dunkirk and retreated – so the piratical actions of the Nieuwpoort and the Dunkirkers continued.
The Flemish pirates weren't only feared on the Flanders' coast and the English Channel, either. The private warships from Nieuwpoort would roam as far as Russia or the East Indies, looking for valuable cargoes. It all came to an end though, when, in 1646, the French captured Dunkirk. Though not quite a clean-cut end: the French also hired those Flemish sea-dogs for a spot or two of piracy themselves, well into the 18th-century.
After that, the Nieuwpoorters made peace with their neighbours, and went back to their fishing. Sadly, though, the town had a rather miserable 20th-century. The two world wars had a good go at obliterating Nieuwpoort from the map. But like many of their fellow Flanders towns, this determined city remade itself again. No surprise really, as this is a town that even the North Sea couldn't erase.
Getting There & Getting About
Getting to Nieuwpoort couldn't be easier, if you're coming from the UK that is. There's a choice of Channel ports (Ostend and Dunkirk being the most obvious candidates), and just one road linking both of them to Nieuwpoort: the E40/ A18. From Zeebruge (if you're coming in by car) you'll need to take the E403 towards Bruges first, before taking first the E40/ A10 westwards, and then hooking left onto the E40/A18.
Public transport is an even better option, particularly if you're coming from the Channel ports. The coastal route between Dunkirk and Ostend is well served by buses, and even an inexpensive coastal tram-line linking Nieuwpoort to Ostend. Rail links, though, are more tricky. You'll have to make your way to the terminating stations of Ostend or De Panne, and then get the tram or bus into Nieuwpoort.
Flying in presents its own set of dilemmas. The nearest airports are at Ostend and Wevelgem – but these are only for regional (inter-Belgian) travel. Alternatively you can come in via Brussels or Lille. But then you'll have to make your way all the way back to the coast. Pay your money, take your choice, as they say.
Like the town itself, accommodation in Nieuwpoort is a game of two (or maybe three) halves. On the one side, along the beach-fronting Albert I Laan and Kustweg, there are long avenues of holiday accommodation of Nieuwpoort-aan-Zee. B&B's and apartment hotels take up much of the sea-side frontage, with the open spaces and dunes given over to large camping complexes. This is the best place to come to, if you want to get maximise your slice of beach-time fun.
That's because the proper 'old-town' of Nieuwpoort-Stad is set quite far back from the sea-front. It's reckoned that when the new port was built – nine-centuries ago – it was then on the coast, but silts deposited from the river have since pushed the sea back. It's here that you'll find most of the original town's history – and its quainter, more human-sized accommodation. There are boutique B&B's and stylish townhouses, as well as a clutch of modern hotels.
Perhaps the berths that best capture the essence of this sea-side town, though, are those offered by The Outsider Coast. Sat square on the Plassendale Canal – connecting the Yser to Ostend and Bruges – this activity centre has two boats available for use as accommodation, both by individuals or groups. The Jeanne Panne is a hotel boat capable of sailing the seas, while offering luxury berths; the Karl Cogge, by contrast, is now permanently moored at Nieuwpoort, providing a cheaper, more basic nautical option.
For The Love Of Beer
Nieuwpoort isn't a town that's too heavy on the creative side of its beer heritage. Set on the edge of the great beer-making Westhoek districts around Poperinge and Ypres, it has instead concentrated its efforts on drinking the stuff. Which isn't a bad plan for a stretch of coastline lying in the shadow of places like De Struisse and Abbey de St. Sixtus
So breweries are pretty much non-existent in and around Nieuwpoort. Drinking establishments, however, are another matter. This is, after all, a part of Flanders famed for its estaminets, that hybrid eaterie/café where beer and food go hand-in-hand. It's been said that 'an estaminet isn't a restaurant – but you can eat there – and an estaminet isn't a café – but you can drink there.'
A great local example is the Estaminet de Peerdevisscher, just outside of Nieuwpoort in Oostduinkerke. It may not look like much from the outside – and the inside is pretty much in agreement with that initial judgement. But lack of pretension is a virtue with the hearty-minded Flemish estaminet regulars. And there are excellent beers on tap here – the Grimbergen Blond (6.7% ABV), a simple, honest abbey beer being a particular favourite. The food is simple and honest too, as well as being tasty and invariably freshly-caught from the sea.
Food & Gastronomy
Which brings us to the dishes and cuisines of Nieuwpoort – inevitably dominate by all that is landed, fresh and wriggling, right here onto its quayside. Nieuwpoort is still one of the most important fishing ports on the Flemish coast, with sole, plaice, flounder and shrimp dominating its fish market. It's well worth checking out the guided-tours of the fish auction held every Friday. Not only do you get to experience the full sensual assault of a Flemish fish market – you'll get an education on the difference between a sole and an megrim. And afterwards there's a tasting of freshly-caught grey shrimp and the local favourite tipple, Rodenbach Original (5% ABV), to boot.
If you're looking to get your own sea-food fresh from source, there are several fishmongers (or vishandel) in Nieuwpoort-Stad. Perhaps one of the best-known, and most-crowded out with locals, is the Vishandel Jens. It's on the Kaai, overlooking the fish market and Yser estuary. Here you'll find plenty of fresh produce from Nieuwpoort itself, as well as shellfish and crustaceans, mussels and oysters from along the North Sea coast. They also offer smoked fish, sea-food soups and stews, and freshly-prepared salads – including that shrimpy Flemish favourite of tomaat garnaal.
This consists of Flemish grey shrimp (pretty much the ‘queen of seafood’ as far as Flanders-folk are concerned) stuffed into tomatoes, along with plenty of mayonnaise and lemon juice. These shallow-water shrimp may be smaller than their bright-pink Atlantic counterparts, but are renowned for their strong taste. The grey shrimp are also eaten as gaarnal kroketten – shrimp croquettes, deep-fried and delicious. And they're found in another favourite dish, smeus. It's made from buttermilk, mashed potato, poached egg and (naturally) plenty of fresh brown or grey shrimp.
One gastronomic outlet you can't avoid, especially in the resort of Nieuwpoort-aan-Zee, is the seaside friterie – some still traditional, but many now bundling their frites with a range of modern-day fast-foods. Great for a fast fix of food, in between sampling the pleasures of the beach. But if you want a deeper culinary experience, Nieuwpoort has that covered too. The Marktplein has several solid brasseries, offering a variety of menus and cuisines. Some of the best meals to be had, though, are along the estuary-fronting Kaai. The many excellent seafood restaurants found here get about as close to 'source' as is physically possible, in a sea-side town.
Shopping & Markets
You might think that this small sea-side town won't have much to offer in the shopping department – but it's reckoned that Nieuwpoort is the second-best seaside town for shopping in Belgium, next to Ostend. Then again, the competition is pretty thin. You can count the nation's sea-facing towns on one hand. But Nieuwpoort is a prime tourist destination these days. So it has considerably boosted its shopping facilities to keep its guests busy on no-beach, rainy-days.
Again, Nieuwpoort is a little bipolar here, offering two distinct shopping experiences in its two distinct halves. For the bustle and noise of the sea-side promenade, head to the Albert I Laan or the Lombardsijdestraat. Here you'll find a mix of modern chains, sea-side entertainments and tourist-slanted gift shops. But if you want a less frenetic meandering browse, among some more traditionally-minded shops and purveyors of local delicacies, head into Nieuwpoort's old town. There, the Marktplein, and the shops fronting the Kaai, manage to cover a broader spectrum of retail offerings, together with little more old-world charm. And on Thursday afternoons look out for the market in on the Marktplein, where the usual mix of fresh produce barrows is enlivened by the seafood stalls – and the circling of seagulls.
Sightseeing & Culture
Nieuwpoort had the bad fortune to be on the wrong end of the howitzers in both world-wars. That left most of its historic town reduced to rubble. The locals, however, did a great job in painstakingly reconstructing that heritage, so it's available (a little rearranged, admittedly) to today's viewing public. Foremost among these reconstructed attractions is the Flemish Neorenaissance Town Hall, with its rather magnificent belfry. This looks out over the central square of the Marktplein, pretty much jostling up against the Gothic Our Lady of Vrouwekerk. It seems that, when the square was rebuilt in the 1920's, there was a mood to make the place a little tidier, and it was decided to squish these buildings together.
Like Ostend to the north, Nieuwpoort has made a concerted effort to liven up its beaches and streets with a scattering of statues, occasionally beautiful and often wonderfully bizarre. None more bizarre, perhaps, than the Jan Fabre sculpture sitting on the beach front:'Searching for Utopia'. This giant golden-bronze of a turtle – mounted by what appears to be Elvis – is in fact a representation of the artist in search of his own piece of nirvana. There are also works celebrating Arctic traveller Dixie Dansercoer (who was from Nieuwpoort), Belgium's fishermen and the (rather saucy) 'Goddess of the Wind'.
A more sombre monument is found on the banks of the Yser: the Albert I Memorial, commemorating the heroic acts of the city during the First World War. It was in fact here at Nieuwpoort that the German advance was halted in October 1914. The sharp-thinking lock-master, Karel Cogge, opened the sluice gates on the river, flooding the area up-river from the estuary, and so preventing the Germans from pushing on to the Channel ports. As a result the war was slugged out around Nieuwpoort with particular ferocity – and the memorial honours the sacrifices made over 4 long years.
Activities & Entertainment
Nieuwpoort, with its miles of golden sands, has some very obvious attractions – especially when it's summer and the sun is shining. But off-season, or when the weather's being less kind, there's a whole host of things going on, beyond sun-soaking on the strand. In fact some of the most exciting things to do here rely on the weather being a little on the energetic side. On the beach there's wind-carting, kite-flying and kite land-boarding. Out on the waves, it's wind-surfing, catamarans and yachting that beckon the adventurous.
Heading out to sea is, naturally enough, one of the top things to do here. It could be a guided trip around the harbour, evening cruises with a dining on-board, or longer boating excursions and sailing trips. You can even hire a boat to take you out on a fishing expedition. Many of the town's events have a nautical theme too. The Nieuwpoort Sailing Parade takes place every August, and has 20 magnificent sailing vessels proudly sailing up the Yser channel, with onshore musical accompaniment. There's a more fishy feel to May's Fishery Festival, with its shrimp peeling competitions, and the tasting of local seafood delicacies.
Folklore still has a powerful hold here – the town is proud to be able to parade one of Europe's largest giants, Jan Turpin II, around the streets every other July. This is to commemorate a famous victory, in 1489, of the town's women against the assaulting French, Ghent and Bruges militia. The women entered the fray at the behest of Jan Turpin, the town's mayor, when the men were flagging in battle. Ever since, Nieuwpoort has been particularly proud of its fierce 'Amazonian' women.
Though there is also a flip-side to the veneration of its women – Nieuwpoort is one of city's that burned the most witches in the 17th-century. The last to be burned, Jeanne Panne, was burned in 1652, and became know as the Witch of Flanders. This dark history is remembered every two years, on the second weekend of July, in the city's Festival of Witches.
MICE, B2B & Conferencing
It may not have purpose-built conferencing centres by the fistful, but as a location gifted with the ultimate ever-changing prop – the drama and pleasures of the Channel coast – Nieuwpoort is well suited to hosting all kinds of events. It's many hotels have developed impressive conference and meeting facilities, superb for handling smaller and medium-sized parties.
This sea-side town also has plenty of scope for extra-curricular activity. As well as its beach and promenades, there are all sorts of outdoors and nautical things to get up to here –superb as a welcome break to the hard-work of conferencing and meeting. Or to provide the ultimate set of team-building challenges. And incentives don't come much better than a luxury yachting cruise, or dining on the country's freshest and finest sea-foods.
The local Nieuwpoort MICE office is totally focussed on helping businesses and events organisers to realise their convention, meeting and exhibition concepts. They can advise on the logistical side of organising meetings and conventions, and suggest the most appropriate venues and locations in Nieuwpoort. They may even be able to help you check the availability of venues, or to help get you discounted offers from resorts, hotels, convention and activity centres – and to group-book restaurants.