Au Pays du Surréel

Walking the streets of my childhood through the narrow streets of Saint Idesbald on to the Belgian coast, I rediscovered what I once took for granted. A short distance inland, behind a barrage of tasteless modern apartment buildings, lay a hundred little architectural gems.

From the 1890’s, in two consecutive waves, each interrupted by the mayhem of the World Wars, wealthy families chose this location by the North Sea to build their summer residences. Tucked between the dunes, Old Saint-Idesbald and the ‘Quartier Dumont’ in La Panne hold a mix of about a hundred eccentric buildings, ranging from cottage to modernist, some influenced by art nouveau or art deco movements. These houses would lie dormant most of the year, weathering the winter storms cocooned behind wooden shutters, only awakening, come the summer, to the sound of children playing.

Some of the few year-round residents were artists. The most famous was surrealist Belgian painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), who joined this small artist’s community in 1945; this was for him the perfect place to express his offbeat creativity. His home and studio, now the Paul Delvaux Museum, lies somewhat hidden on a quiet narrow street of St Idesbald.

Most of the homes were named by the original owners: inscribed on the front walls in either French or Dutch, ‘The Cicada’, ‘Hop-o’-My-Thumb’, ‘On Daddy’s Land’, evoke moments of joyous childhood innocence.

But today's overcrowded Belgium is rife with tension between the French and Dutch speaking communities. Those old neighborhoods are located in Dutch speaking territory. A nationalist and separatist movement is sweeping the region and the local authorities have decreed only Dutch words can be displayed on any new construction.