When we were asked where was our next trip would be and we replied Ostend, most people weren’t interested in finding out any more. Someone even laughed. Not known for its glamour – although it was once a fashionable resort – Ostend is mostly associated with its long sandy beach, its collection of seafood restaurants and its windy weather.
What you may or may not realise is that Marvin Gaye spent two years living Ostend, recovering from a difficult period of his life and a career in the doldrums. There must have been something in the salty sea air because during his time in the city Marvin recovered enough to write what would be his final album, Midnight Love. The album featured the hit Sexual Healing; just what was it about this place that inspired someone to write one of the most recognisable songs in history?
On first impressions, easily the city’s main highlight is its long sandy beach which extends along almost all of the coast. Ostend marks the midway point of the Belgian coast and has all the typical trappings of a popular seaside resort – ice cream stands, waffle shops and (on our visit) an international kite festival. Although the scenery behind the seafront is a little less cheery, there is precious little left of the historic side of the city and now the majority of Ostend is covered with a wave of greyish apartment blocks and long, flat stretches of residential roads.
The gloss and the glitz of Ostend’s heyday may have faded but a slightly alternative vibe has taken its place – gigantic modern art sculptures are clustered at one end of the beach and our hotel had enough decorative details to probably give it a boutique status. It’s almost like Ostend is toying with the idea of being a bohemian city but it just doesn’t feel quite brave enough.
It’s also a place where the simple pleasures have been stripped down to the basics – the natural beauty of the coastline, the sea air and a strong sense of community. A place where if you were left to live for a while, away from the dazzle and distractions of a big city, soul searching could probably come quite easily. It did just that to Marvin Gaye, as we found during our “walkumentary” – an iPod audio-visual walking tour created by Visit Ostend.
Not just for serious fans, the video is a slickly made production detailing Marvin’s two years in Ostend after Belgian tour promotor Freddy Cousaert invited Marvin to live with him and his family. It’s emotional stuff, probably helped by the original footage and snippets of Marvin’s dulcet tones lifted from interviews taking place from around that time.
Smaller details aren’t glossed over and the tour is all the better for it; we learned where he liked to play basketball, jog along the beach, and even his favourite breakfast cafe (the promenade’s Cafe de Floride in case you were interested). Arguably more exciting is Residence Jane, the apartment where he wrote Sexual Healing and Langestraat, the street that first inspired the song.
Back in the 1980’s Langestraat was a vibrant but notorious place, lined with bars and sex clubs. Today most of the seedier joints have long gone but perhaps coincidentally it’s where Marvin’s presence is most felt.
In stark contrast to the family-friendly attractions along the seafront, the long street is home to a collection of heaving bars with dark and moody interiors. The bar which stands out the most is Lafayette. It regularly hosts a DJ playing an eclectic mix of music and today the place still has the kind of relaxed atmosphere and soulful vibe Marvin himself would probably approve of.
As the video ends you can’t but help but see Ostend in a new light. That wasn’t just a faded building, it’s where Marvin penned one of the world’s most famous songs, the city isn’t just a seaside resort that has seen better days, this is where Marvin Gaye eventually found some much-needed peace.
Ostend does have a certain charm, and on warmer days when the wind isn’t quite so bracing you could easily tag a weekend here onto a Belgium trip and not be disappointed, especially if you’re a music fan. You never know you might even find yourself doing a little soul searching yourself…