Blankenberge pier celebrates 120th birthday
An Art Deco landmark and a key attraction of Flemish coastal tourism, Blankenberge’s pier is celebrating not only its long, phoenix-like history this year, but also its recent renaissance under the stewardship of one savvy local entrepreneur
On any given day, but especially during the warm summer months, the pier attracts holiday-makers taking in the sights, locals meeting up for a stroll or drink, families with children enjoying a day-trip to the coast and older folk parked on benches soaking up the rays. The pier still serves the purpose for which it was originally built – giving people the pleasure of walking over the water towards the horizon, and of looking out over the sea and shore.
On the other hand, a lot has changed since the original pier was built in 1894. At that time, coastal tourism was a relatively new phenomenon, only recently imported from England. “Taking the cure” was all the rage then: Seawater and sea air were thought not just to be enjoyable but to have restorative health benefits. British tourists first arrived in Ostend in the early 19th century, looking for new seaside bathing destinations.
At the time, Blankenberge was just a small West Flemish fishing village. Tourism there only began to take off in the mid-19th century, with the greatest expansion occurring after 1863, when the rail connection between Blankenberge and Bruges was completed. Joining tourists from the surrounding region and from across the Channel, travellers from all over the country as well as France and Germany now began to find their way to Blankenberge.
An English invention
So-called “pleasure piers” were also an English invention. Travellers arriving at seaside resorts by ship enjoyed the view from the quay and the thrill of walking over the water. Soon enough, strolling along the quay became an attraction in and of itself, and pleasure piers were built all along the English coast. An Englishman was the first to propose building a pier in Blankenberge in 1873.
Trains and sea – they don’t go together
But it took another 21 years, and three consecutive proposals, before the city got its pier. Built by the Société Anonyme du Pier de Blankenberghe, a private partnership, it was the first and last pier built on the Flemish coast. Across Europe, only the pier in Scheveningen in the Netherlands is comparable.
The original pier in Blankenberge was an expression of Belle Epoque optimism and wealth, constructed in iron, wood and glass. A 350-metre promenade on iron pilings jutted out from the shore, with a wide section in the middle where a music kiosk stood. At the end, an octagonal platform supported an elegant pavilion topped by a decorative cupola, which housed a restaurant and ballroom. Visitors bought a ticket at the shore end to walk along the pier.
It was very much a novelty and a treat in those days to visit the pier, and by all accounts the new attraction was a great success. Unfortunately, the pier, like the Belle Epoque society that produced it, disappeared during the First World War. The Germans set fire to the pier in 1914, fearing that England would use it as a landing point. All that was left was a blackened skeleton.
And so it remained for nearly 20 years, until the city drew up plans to rebuild the pier in 1930. The old pilings and foundations were re-used, but the main construction material was concrete. The new pier opened in 1933, with a domed pavilion in Art Deco style.
During the Second World War, the pier escaped destruction at the hands of the Germans a second time when a local commander, Sergeant Karl Hein Keselberg, disobeyed orders to blow it up. He reasoned that the water in which the pier stood was too shallow to be accessible to enemy ships, so destroying it was unnecessary. In 1994, the city of Blankenberge honoured him for his role in saving the pier.
Between 1955 and 1999, the pier was part of the Meli amusement park, which is now Plopsaland. By the 1980s, the concrete was already showing signs of severe deterioration from constant contact with the sea. Plans were drawn up to begin restoration, but the works only began in 1999 after repeated attempts to have the structure listed as a protected monument.
The restoration of the pier was completed in 2003, the same year that it was finally declared to be part of Flanders’ architectural heritage. Besides repairing and reinforcing the weakened concrete, additional floors under the level of the platform were built so that the centre of the structure now sits in the water, giving it extra stability.
The physical structure might have been saved, but the pier’s troubles weren’t over yet. For the first couple of years after it reopened, attendance was low and the city struggled to find a successful concession for the pavilion. The first tenant was an attraction called Train City, which folded at the end of 2004. By that point, the self-service cafeteria had already shut its doors after a disastrous summer season.
In 2007, local entrepreneur Francis Vandendorpe took over management of the pavilion. Since then, he has developed a winning combination of tourism and business activities that have had the pier back in the black. Today, the pavilion houses a modern brasserie, an exhibition about storms and a multi-purpose event venue, while the promenade and the open walkway circling the pavilion remain freely accessible.
Vandendorpe says he saw potential in the pier where others saw only financial failure. To him, the problem wasn’t the pier itself, but a lack of vision in its development as a tourist attraction. “Trains and sea – they don’t go together,” he says. “That’s a problem; that’s why it failed.” His approach was to build on the original function of the pier and its connection to the sea.
Wining and dining
The Storms Expo was another logical extension of the pier’s maritime history and setting. The educational attraction was developed with the Royal Meteorological Institute, the coastal division of the Agency for Marine Services and Coastal Affairs, and the World Wildlife Fund. It consists of interactive exhibits on meteorology, weather systems and natural disasters, two storm simulators and a theatre showing documentaries on how to survive a major storm.
People have a whole day’s worth of entertainment
According to Sebastiaan Defoort, manager of the pier, about 100,000 visitors have passed through Storms Expo since it opened two years ago. Explaining that the exhibition works because it complements the other activities at the pier, he says: “People have a whole day’s worth of entertainment – they can go to Storms, they can have a drink, they can enjoy the beach, so it’s a whole package.”
A large part of the pavilion, including the former ballroom, is available to hire for private functions such as weddings and corporate events. Defoort sees a historical link with the pier’s past in organising parties with dancing and cocktails where Blankenberge’s high society once wined and dined. The second-floor balcony is especially popular for receptions with its 360-degree view of sea and shore.
The landmark has once more become a popular destination, but its struggle against the elements and the weather continues. Last autumn, during heavy storms that buffeted the coast, several wooden planks and part of the metal walkway were torn loose. It wasn’t the first time in recent years that the pier had to be partially closed due to storm damage.
Still, these are temporary setbacks. The pier has survived worse and will likely weather many more storms.
Vandendorpe, too, is optimistic about the future and is bent on continuing to develop the pier as a tourist destination. This summer, the pavilion will be transformed into a nostalgic Golden Age cafe with exhibits on the 1950s and ’60s, a ’70 s retro pool hall and a sunset bar. No doubt this will attract more visitors and add to the holiday atmosphere.
And yet everything the visitor needs to enjoy a day at the pier is already in place: the sea, the sand, the wide horizon, the wind off the water and the beautiful pavilion, rising like a great round Art Deco castle above the waves.
A new virtual tour of the pier can be viewed here.
million visitors annually