Oostduinkerke, a quaint Belgian beach resort, paints a picturesque scene reminiscent of vintage postcards. Rows of striped windbreakers, families engrossed in mini-golf, and children joyfully constructing sandcastles fill its shoreline. Yet, there’s an intriguing, almost mystical aura that makes this place unique: Oostduinkerke is the last bastion of the ancient practice of shrimp fishing on horseback.
As the tranquil rhythm of the beach is interrupted, all eyes turn to the spectacle unfolding before them. A procession of immense Brabant dray horses, each weighing about a tonne, trots gallantly across the sands. Their riders, donning radiant yellow oilskins, guide them towards the waves. These riders are the paardenvissers, Flemish horseback fishermen who have continued this legacy for over half a millennium. Their lineage traces back to times when horseback shrimp fishermen were a common sight across the North Sea coast, from Germany to France. Oostduinkerke now stands as the final stronghold of this tradition, which, in 2013, was recognized by UNESCO as an invaluable piece of intangible cultural heritage.
The paardenvissers and their towering horses are supported by the local municipality, ensuring the tradition’s preservation and sharing its magnificence with intrigued visitors. From April to October, during low tides, these fishermen venture into the North Sea waters, captivating vacationers who flock to witness the riveting display.
Belgium might not be the go-to choice for beach holidays, but its shimmering, 60km stretch of coastline is garnering increased attention. Nestled between France and the Netherlands, these beaches offer a cooler and serene alternative to the bustling Mediterranean and Adriatic resorts, especially given the rising temperatures and wildfires in Southern Europe.
Travelers with an eco-conscious bent will be delighted by the electric Coastal Tram. This hop-on, hop-off tram connects various points along the coast, rendering car rentals redundant. Oostduinkerke’s neighboring coastal towns also offer distinct charms. Be it the vintage appeal of Blankenberge and Le Coq-sur-Mer, the artistic allure of Ostend, or the sophisticated tastes of Knokke with its Michelin-star eateries and the breathtaking Zwin Nature Park, there’s something for every visitor.
Yet, the sight of paardenvissers preparing their horses for the shrimp hunt remains unparalleled. Equipped with wicker baskets and an elongated net, these horses and riders head into the waters. The waves embrace them, rising just above the horse’s legs, as they skillfully maneuver the beach to capture the tiny grey shrimp, an esteemed component of Belgian cuisine.
The camaraderie among the paardenvissers community is evident. Each household boasts its unique expertise, from net weaving to culinary skills. While their shrimp catches are coveted by local eateries, the paardenvissers typically have secondary professions for a sustainable living.
For gastronomes, the journey culminates in a tantalizing feast. The D’Hulster family’s tavern, Estaminet De Peerdevisscher, offers a taste of history. From crispy croquettes crevettes to tomate-crevette, and to truly immerse oneself, pairing the meal with a local brew from the Jus de Mer brewery is a must.