The Zwin nature reserve near Knokke-Heist is one of Flanders’ natural treasures. There are two ways to describe it. One is that it’s a 159-hectare lagoon which sea water enters on each tide. It comprises dunes, salt marshes, salt pans and two large inlet channels with adjacent tidal flat and creek systems. The whole region extends 2.3 km along the North Sea coastline on the Belgian-Dutch border.
And the alternative? The Zwin is one of those glorious, mystical areas where sky, land and sea merge to create a wonderful wilderness. It’s where the eerie call of the curlew will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s where you can lie on your back in the sand and watch the clouds scudding overhead, taking your anxieties with them. And it’s a place full of contrasts. Sit on the seaward side of a dune and the wind will cut through your coat and chill you to the bone; move to the sheltered side and the sun will turn your face red in minutes.
However you describe the Zwin, the good news for lovers of wilderness and nature is that a new cross-border hiking network has been opened in the area. It consists of more than 50 kilometres of hiking trails both in West Flanders and Zeeland.
At the centre of the network is the Zwin nature reserve, but in West Flanders the footpaths also run through the surrounding dunes and polders, along the coastline and even through the streets of Knokke-Heist. On the Dutch side the paths pass through the charming municipalities of Cadzand and Retranchement, and connect with Zeeland’s own network of footpaths.
This means that one of my favourite coastal paths, from Breskens to Cadzand-Bad, has suddenly been extended. Now I am able to keep going by crossing the Uitwateringskanaal and walking along the edges of the Zwin nature reserve itself. I can even go further and walk into Knokke-Heist to do some shopping if feeling decadent enough. However, as the total distance from Breskens to Knokke-Heist is over 25 kilometres, I think I will get the bus back to Breskens.
Feet, wheels or hooves?
The Zwin nature reserve and surrounding polders are largely undeveloped, so the footpaths provide spectacular views of the sea, the vastness of the estuarine marshes, and the dunes. But don’t forget this is a network. It’s not just a string of paths laid out randomly. This is an expertly devised criss-cross of well-developed and excellently signposted and maintained paths. Thanks to a useful and informative water-resistant map (6 EUR from local tourist offices) you can devise your own walk, making it as short or as long as your time or energy allow. You simply go from one numbered junction to the next. Each junction is clearly marked and points you in the direction of the next one.
The network isn’t just for walkers, but for cyclists and horse-riders too. Some of the paths are like a three-lane rural motorway, with dedicated lanes for feet, bikes and horses.
Just make sure you stay in the right lane.