If you are familiar with the Lithuanian expression ‘as calm as a Belgian’ and have ever wondered how that would look like, you can see it live at an unusual coastal heritage event – shrimp fishing from a horseback. This traditional type of coastal fishing is said to be the last of its kind in Europe. Since 2013, it has also been on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.
If you’re used to fishermen casting their nets from a boat, you might be curious to see how it is done from a horse. Well, for one, the nets are not thrown. They are in fact dragged through the shallow waters by extremely large and sturdy horses. Which is where the ‘calm Belgians’ come in – the Lithuanian expression refers to the Belgian horse breed whose quiet strength has managed to leave a lasting impression on a nation at the other side of Europe.
The Belgian horses (Belgian Draft Horse, Brabançon, or Belgisch Trekpaard) are heavy, working horses, used mostly in farming – and fishing. Their calm disposition and muscular build make them a good match for the rough Belgian sea. They seem completely unfazed by the cold ocean waves that lash at them as they pull the nets across the coastal shallows. It is a sight to behold – the yellow-clad fishermen seated on top of these bulky brown beasts, confidently treading the green-grey waters as if they were just strolling through a grassy field.
The horseback fishing tradition in Belgium goes back a long way, with first written records dating from the 16th century. While this was never a mass industry, the fishermen’s number dwindled from about 40 just before the WWII to as low as 3 by the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to the revival of the interest in this tradition, their numbers have grown to a healthy 16. Most of the horseback fishermen come from a long line of fishermen families.
The Koksijde tourism office and the local horse fishermen’s association are working hard to preserve this tradition, which includes organising regular demonstrations of this type of fishing. In high season, July and August, there are several events per week, one per day, depending on the times of the tide.
Arrive on time and you can admire the great beasts as they trot across the streets of Oostduinkerke, pulling their carts with the nets and baskets. This ‘horse parade’ even stops for a bit so that children (big and small) can come closer for a meet and greet with the horses (and their owners). Take the opportunity to inquire about their craft, have a good look at the traditional equipment and perhaps chat with the only female horseback fisherman … errrr, fisherwoman.
Stay a bit behind for a good view of the ‘dance’ – the fishermen guide the animals across the sandy beach towards the waterline, where they spread out in formation. The carts are dismantled, the nets attached to the horses and each horse is saddled with two large woven baskets for the shrimp. The nets are trawled parallel to the coastline back and forth several times. Afterwards the catch is examined and the sand washed out.
The official website gives the total timing of the event as 2-3 hours, but it depends on the weather conditions and the catch. On a bad day, they might be done sooner. Hang around for a chance to have a peek into the baskets, or even taste the famous grey shrimp fresh from the sea.
The updated list of planned demonstrations of horseback shrimp fishing is available on the website of the Koksijde tourism office. The dates and times marked with an asterix are followed by shrimp cooking on the beach. Whether you manage to taste the daily catch will depend on the size of the catch that day and your ability to squeeze your way through the crowds eager to get their taste. In any case, the freshly caught and steamed grey shrimp look and smell delicious. Keep an eye on the Facebook page of the horse fishing association for additional events.
While the horseback fishing is officially located at Koksijde, the events take place at Oostduinkerke beach. In general, the horses leave from Astridplein in the centre of Oostduinkerke, but sometimes the starting point might be a bit different, so check the website/Facebook page beforehand.
You can combine the trip with …
- Learning more about this tradition and fishing at the North Sea at the Oostduinkerke’s National Fisheries Museum Navigo.
- Swimming at the beach pool on the Oostduinkerke beach (same beach as the shrimp fishing event). This beautiful open air swimming pool is heated and protected from the wind, so it is a great option for windy days. The swimming pool – the only beach pool in Belgium – has been completely renovated in 2015, but kept most of its lovely 1950s appearance. A part of the pool water is taken from the sea, so you could even claim you have been swimming in the Belgian sea. It is relatively small, though, so the entrance is organised in shifts – you can choose the morning or the afternoon one.
- Water sports at one of the several beach sports clubs in the area. Choose from sailing, windsurfing, stand-up paddling and kayaking.
- Hiking – follow one of the many hiking trails around Koksijde. You can choose the walks over the dunes or explore the polders. Or create your own hiking trail using the network of coastal hiking trails.
- Visiting the former abbey Ten Duinen (Dune Abbey) at Idesbald which is now a museum/history centre. There are regular exhibitions and a historical fair (usually in August). The abbey museum has a good family-friendly programme. The museum cafe is open in July and August. More information is on the Dutch version of the museum website.
- Visiting Veurne. This old Flemish town has a splendid main square, several renaissance buildings and a fascinating history, including being the first town that welcomed the first Belgian king Leopold I. Veurne is about 6km from Koksijde and can be reached by train (from Ghent), bus (from Koksijde) or bicycle (from wherever you feel like).
How to get there
By public transport
- Officially, Koksijde has a train station and any train going from Ghent to De Panne stops at that station. In reality, the train station is about 5km from the beach, in the suburbs of nearby Veurne. You are better off taking the train all the way to De Panne and then taking the coastal tram back to the centre of Koksijde.
- Koksijde is approximately 90km from Ghent. It takes about 1h of driving on the motorway – if there is no traffic jam. I recommend going early in the morning to avoid other day trippers. Be careful where you park your car and make sure you pay your parking fee as appropriate.