Dunes and Yser at the coast
Because Vertigo welcomes a new family member in the Albert I-laan in Nieuwpoort, we go there by bike. Not along well-trodden paths, but along dunes, polders, De Moeren and the Yser. The best the region has to offer, condensed into sixty varied kilometres. And we start at Vertigo Nieuwpoort.
Drive or walk in the direction of the channel and the Westerstaketsel (mole) and look for the large golden turtle. Past Searching for Utopia - the turtle - and halfway through the Sint-Mauritspark, there's junction 82, the real departure point of this route.
We stay away from the sea dyke and choose a route that leaves the traditional coastal hustle and bustle to the right. The Louiseweg is a cycling and walking path which, parallel to the sea, provides the ideal first few kilometres. Just keep your eyes open when you cross one of the busy roads from inland and then round a well-known holiday park, to dive into the Hannecart forest at junction 24. Via the - ah yes! – ‘Loze Vissertjes’ path, the trail follows the back side of Oostduinkerke Bad up to the dune area of De Doornpanne. This seamlessly merges into Hoge Blekker, named after the highest dune on our coast. Fishermen could see the white top from afar ('blekken' as they call it in local dialect) and knew where they were.
Passing Hotelschool Ter Duinen and Koksijde Dorp, you head inland to Veurne, the link between the West coast and Westhoek. The belfry proves that this is a town, but in this former salt mining area, people are often thinner than crops. Nevertheless, the passage over the historical Grote Markt is a must.
Past Veurne, you cross the highway and the closer you get to Bulskamp, the more De Moeren reveal themselves. Take that literally: this agricultural area, torn open by canals and brooks, is the lowest point in Belgium. Apart from water, wind is the natural element that determines the environment here. Tradition has it that days after Gent-Wevelgem, Spanish and Italian riders still wander through the fields, calling for their mother. In Wulveringem, at junction 27, is Beauvoorde Castle on the right. This moated castle surrounded by a park is now a museum and has a terrace with an e-bike-charging point.
In an almost straight line the trail leads to Lovaart. A left turn means a straight return to Veurne, a long way to the right the Lovaart flows into theYser river. We will meet this later on, so for now we go straight ahead, crossing the bridge. The next few kilometres remain flat and at junction 33 it's worthwhile to look to the left, to Zoutenaaie. The smallest village of Veurne has 16 inhabitants. We turn right and ride over the Oude Zeedijk into the polder area and the basins of Lampernisse. Once peat was cut here on a small scale, today this area is a nature reserve and bird watcher's paradise.
Oostkerke, the next stop on the trail, belongs to Diksmuide and so we are approaching the Yser. Pay attention when crossing the N35 and drive along the Dodengangstraat until you reach the ... Dodengang - Trench of Death. The last complex of preserved Belgian trenches from the First World War is definitely worth a visit. They come for it from Canada and Australia.
After the war heritage, keep the Yser on your right for the time being. In the meantime, try to spot a grebe, auk, moorhen, egret or kingfisher. Just when you have ticked them all off, the Viconia Clay pits are on your left and you better start a new list there: bluethroat, avocet, curlew and hen harrier are at home there, just like tufted ducks, widgeons and teals. Among others. After the nature, we head for the village with the passage through Stuivekenskerke, where, between 1914 and 1918, 'the usurper was brought to a standstill'.
A few moments later, the Yser comes up again. We cross the artery of the region via the Schoorbakke bridge and keep the river on our left. At junction 46 you enter the territory of Mannekensvere, which is more than just the name of a highway parking lot. Cross the next bridge and immediately follow the bank of the Yser again. Under the motorway, past the campsite, where the beauty and spatial planning that characterise the Belgian coast unfold in all its glory. Here the tourist is the boss for a while.
The goose paw makes up for it: lockkeeper Karel Cogge flooded the Yser plain from here and thus halted the advance of the German imperial troops in 1914. Under the feet and above the head of Albert I, the Visitor Centre Westfront Nieuwpoort reminds us of this event, and from the monument you can immediately see why the lock complex is called 'the goose paw'. It's worth the side-step, after which the trail heads for the fish market and the commercial quay, to rejoin the Sint-Mauritspark along the old marina.
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