Knokke-le-Zoute, what of this strange name?
Zoute means ‘salt’ in Dutch. But there are two conﬂicting theories on the origin of Knokke. First is the Celtic word ‘cnoc’, which means hill, and which has lent its name to many Irish villages. The other option is the Germanic term ‘knok’, which means ‘land located in the water’. But the local director of tourism prefers to put it like this: “We’re the town of Asterix... and we have the magic potion!”
What are these villagers called?
Knokkers. It should be recalled that the Zoute is simply a neighbourhood of Knokke-Heist, the real name of this cool little Belgian town located on the Dutch border. And “as for Zoute, it’s our Porsche 911!” the tourism director clariﬁes once again. The souls of this Eldorado are therefore the Zoutians. However, for the surrounding locals, as we are told by comedian Virginie Eﬁra, who spent her summer vacations at the popular neighbouring locations of La Panne, du Coq or Middlekerke, the inhabitants of Knokke were all called by the same name: ‘the cowards’.
Does it deserve its nickname as the St. Tropez of the North?
The mainstream media also regularly compares it to Deauville, Monaco, Cannes or even Puerto Banús, the ﬂashy Andalusian Marina in Marbella. Some, such as the Financial Times, even compare it to the Hamptons on Long Island. As for us, at a hotel as deliciously antiquated as the Britannia, with its immaculate bathroom linens, its king-size canary cages and that senior citizen couple wearing a marine blazer and royal blue jersey dress to breakfast, this is what we would imagine Dinard was like in the 1960s.
Plus, its urban planning is inspired by England.
At the end of the 19th century, the new beach fashion ﬁrst attracted British tourists to these thousands of hectares, which were recuperated, dyked and purchased a century later by engineer Pierre-François Lippens. A garden city was thus born in Zoute, scattered with cottages inspired by Flemish farms, designed by renowned German architect Josef Stübben, a close associate of King Léopold II of Belgium. Maurice-Auguste Lippens, grandfather of the current burgomaster of Knokke, was behind the spectacular rise of this tourist destination at the beginning of the 20th century. The names of its villas, where gardeners ﬁnish their sculpting with curved gardening scissors, demonstrate this: Past Times, Flanders Mast, St. Andrews, Firmin, Graziella, St. Ann’s Woods, The Friary...
Is this beach destination still elitist?
You can’t help but think this from the real estate prices, which are a bit more expensive than Paris but less expensive than London. But in the end, the director of tourism corrects this perception: “We aren’t elitists; we provide quality.” This is nothing new. We unearthed a text by journalist and writer Joseph Vilbort, which isn’t judgemental but which observes, in 1864 in the Revue de Paris: “Your gaze will be pleased by beautiful greenery, so thick that you will barely be able to make out the houses. That’s Knokke. A town without beggars, which is uncommon in the countryside since the ruin of the textile workers.” He saw people “eating well, drinking well and in good humour”. This is still true today, considering the 21 Michelin stars within a radius of 20 kilometres.
But where can you grab a quick bite to eat?
Nowhere: fries huts and hot dog vendors are prohibited, a deliberate gesture of the authorities to give work to restaurateurs. During the 1980s, ﬂamboyant burgomaster Léopold Lippens started a war against the curious tourists that came to spend the day in Knokke with their picnic baskets. He prohibited the use of coolers on the beach by decree. To refer to these undesirables, he created two expressions: “touristes-tartines” (“tourist-pies”) or “frigoboxes,” (“fridge-boxes”) referring to their propen sity to bring all of their food along with them. He even suggested moving the train station several kilometres from the city centre to dissuade them from coming. Fearing the incursion of mi-grants from Calais, he called for the creation of “a Guantanamo-style camp but without the torture” for people whose tourist status isn’t in order. The town therefore cultivates a certain ‘keep-to-yourself’ mindset. “But Knokke is changing,” a restaurateur tells us. “For the last four or ﬁve years, we have been able to have black employees in the front of the house without worrying about the reactions of the local population.”
Who comes to the Zoute?
First of all, we should mention King Philip of Belgium and his family, who can come and enjoy the peace, without ever risking being hassled by requests for selﬁes. However, visitors are mainly the elite behind Belgian industry, its banking sector and its media. This is so true that one witness even declares: “On the economic level, everything happens in Knokke today; nothing is decided in Brussels any more.” On the ﬁrst balcony is Albert Frère, the Belgian king of the CAC 40. He’s known for being successful in reconciling two enemy brothers, Bernard Arnault and François Pinault, since inhabitants of the town. Even Bill Gates came to the Zoute to accompany his daughter at a horseback riding competition.
Do the French appreciate these parts?
Especially politicians in search of tranquility. Last autumn, François and Penelope Fillon participated in the Zoute Grand Prix car rally, the resort’s big social event. Asked by a Belgian journalist, the former Prime Minister responded, whilst at the wheel of the Aston Martin DB III, that it did not belong to him. In full turmoil, DSK had found a moment of respite at the Si Versailles table in Knokke. François Baroin and Gérard Longuet were received by the strongman of the town. A touching tribute to a regular visitor, the daughter-in-law of a great Belgian industrialist named her Pomeranian “Sarko”.
What about celebrities?
Back in its golden age, its ancient casino adorned with a spectacular fresco by Magritte welcomed concerts by Josephine Baker, Édith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, the Platters and Marlene Dietrich. On the beach, the Beach Boys played almost 30 years ago. But today, we count only the self-proclaimed ‘Fred Astaire Karate’, whose mother lives here during the year. Jean-Claude Van Damme still owns a residence in Knokke.
On the contrary, Knokke maintains more long-lasting relationships with artists.
In addition to its artistic windsocks and the Cyclops-like statues of men and giant hares scattered through the town, it has one of the highest concentrations of art galleries in the world (80 over 2 km2). Family residences are also home to incredible collections. At the end of the 1980s, Knokke even became the only place where New York artist Keith Haring felt “at home” in his own words. There, he would learn that he was ill, spending the last three summers of his life in the town, which is the reason why a large number of its residents have T-shirts, games or surfboards decorated by this famous street artist.
At the time, he lived at the ‘Dragon’, a monumental work made by Niki de Saint Phalle (another inhabitant of the region) for the children of artist Roger Nellens, a former chicken farmer transformed by the artistic circles. This bizarre golem is still home to unlikely furniture by Tinguely and frescoes by Keith Haring.
Don’t these riches risk attracting malicious coveters?
Knokke, and especially its luxury boutiques, is somewhat of “the honeypot that attracts the crooks”, as emphasised by one of the burgomaster’s assistants. However, he hastened to add: “We have a zero-tolerance policy.” With 20 police stations, 230 police officers (for only 34,000 inhabitants and 150,000 in the high season), 600 control screens and new cameras that can see up to 10 kilometres, the town is as secure as Zaventem Airport. After growing tired of car chases ending up in ramming the cars off the road, the authorities made the decision to scan and analyse all license plates coming into the commune in real time to detect stolen cars. Even with the slightest doubt, the vehicle is pursued and spike strips are thrown at each exit from the city, just like in a futuristic medieval ﬁght. This method just prevented an attack at Louis Vuitton. Plus, if you fall off a bike, an ambulance will come to save you before you can even get up.
What’s the strangest news item recounted by the local press?
The robbery of the hands of the statue of Léon Lippens, founder of the Zwin Nature Reserve and father of the current burgomaster. These severed hands, which held binoculars, reappeared one month later, placed on top of several €500 bills – a photo worthy of Amélie Poulain that was sent to the newspaper La Libre Belgique. It came with a text entitled “Just punishment for the thieves!” making an allusion to the collapse of Fortis Bank, which ruined its director Maurice Lippens, the mayor’s brother, all the while destroying thousands of people’s savings. Even though the police investigation didn’t unearth the statue’s vandals, we can see that the hands have been given back to their owner. “Oh those hands…” a nature reserve employee tells us. they sure did cut off the hands of Africans back in the times of King Léopold!”
What is Knokke’s Epicentre of Power?
Its Royal Golf Club, designed by architect Harry Colt, who also designed the Saint-Cloud golf club and the new St. Andrews course in Scotland. Here is where the down-to-earth financial matters are dealt with. The number of members is kept secret. Even still, one of its elders admits to us that now people come and go as they please, because she recently saw a family joyfully sitting at breakfast, even though none of them had a club membership card. This precious membership card is the stuff of dreams for the hundreds of names on the waiting list. “Through this door-opener”, one member admits, “you will no longer be the owner of company X, but rather a ﬁrst name.” You need two sponsors and then have to go through a voting committee to get one. The all-powerful Count Léopold Lippens has the ﬁnal say. We managed to catch him on a Sunday morning at the end of his golf match.
Did he give you some tips for becoming a member?
Do not try name dropping with him! He has a vivid memory of a German who sent him letters of recommendation signed by François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors. In a stroke of bad luck for the candidate, a translation error in the registration form made his wife a ‘housekeeper’ instead of a ‘housewife’. A dealbreaker for Léopold Lippens. “It's a shame”, the burgomaster said, “all Hermann Strenger had to do was tell me he was the chair of Bayer!” The best is to be sponsored by a few cousins because golf should stay in the family. “What can I say”, he quotes an adage, “it’s important to tend your (human) chickens.”
Burgomaster since 1979, will Léopold Lippens run again in the communal elections in October?
Of course! With only 39 years in power, he is still far from Jacques Chaban-Delmas’s record of 48 years as mayor of Bordeaux. But the one they affectionately call ‘King Leo’ is on track, because he claims to be “still on the offence for 20 years”. He tells us that when Milošević died, a friend sent him this SMS: “This time, that's it, you really are the last living dictator in Europe!” It must be said that with a grandfather who was governor general of the Belgian Congo, the man is definitely a throwback.
Will one of his children someday succeed him?
Many wish to, but none of his children. Attention dowry hunters! His youngest daughter is a lovely graduate of Paris-Dauphine University on an internship at Microsoft. You’ll only have to get past the singular burgomaster. To achieve an 86 per cent satisfaction rate among those who frequent the station, the tireless traveller since his apprenticeship with the Kennedy clan draws his ideas from all over the world. Turbo roundabouts he borrowed from Spain. “I inherited the gift of wonder from my father, the creator of the Zwin Reserve!” As for the gallant fauna of his city, he wouldn’t want to change anything. “The rich create jobs but show me an unemployed person who has created a job.”
What’s in store for Knokke in the future?
The town is getting ready to become the ﬁrst smart and connected commune in Belgium. The installation of sensors pretty much everywhere will soon allow us to collect all sorts of information. “As soon as a garbage can is full”, the burgomaster says with amazement, “we’ll send someone to empty it. We don’t want to play at Big Brother, but it’s the future!”Another critical challenge is Knokke-Heist’s history marked by the battle between humans and the advance of the sea. “It’s not the end. We’ll move,” he jokes. “I already bought a bunch of land inland!”
WHERE TO KNOCK AROUND?
Zwin, the magnificent ecological reserve founded by the burgomaster's grandfather is a paradise for white-fronted geese, white storks, rustic swallows, elegant avocets and even bison. It was one of Marguerite Yourcenar's favourite places.
WHERE TO KRUISE?
Among the many art galleries, MPV Gallery houses a rare décor by designer Gaetano Pesce. The Guy Pieters galleries are also trailblazers. In the city centre, the Zwarte Huis or ‘ black house’, built for a doctor in 1924, is a splendid example of Belgian modernism. The house of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Dragon, now unfortunately closed, cannot be visited but can still be seen from the road.
WHERE TO KNOCK SOME BACK?
The best nighttime hangout is without question The Pharmacy, a speakeasy with British comfort. So posh that the place doesn’t even serve beer, only luxury highballs made with beverages from local distilleries. Same as for golf, if you want a seat, drop the name dropping!
WHERE TO BE SEEN?
Place Albert, nicknamed ‘the place you've seen me’, where people come to rev the engine of their Bentleys. Or pass by Démaré ’s every 45 minutes to buy bread or pastries. Or of course, go to the fish restaurant Si Versailles, a Knokke institution, to taste the chervil mussels.
WHERE TO TAKE KARE?
In the new ultracontemporary hospital Az Zeno, inspired by Magritte’s surrealist work, which hovers like a cloud over the landscape. Speaking of which: "This is not a hospital, but a healing environment." An original and ecological setting for the city's most advantageous lunch package. 15 euros gets you a starter, main course, and dessert, along with a soup.
WHERE TO KLOWN AROUND?
At Marie Siska’s, where they serve waffles in the shape of a ‘five-leaf clover’ and whose recipe has been kept secret since 1892. The property features a fascinating playground with its candy castle, terror tower and labyrinth.
WHERE TO KAVORT?
Not at the private beach tables, where the music stops after 8pm. The very harsh deputy burgomaster for tourism keeps an eye on any excesses. As for the clubs, they are the shame of this aging city. Only in case of insomnia and to shelter from a downpour should you drop by the Scoop.
WHERE TO KNOCK BOOTS?
Feckless photographers for Zoute People magazine have just unmasked an illegitimate couple. But as a rule, the famous ‘Tango’ of Brel has lost none of its freshness: “It's raining in Knokke-le-Zoute / Tonight like every night / I'm going home / My heart is beating / And I’m alone as usual.”