The Bunkers – A guesthouse in Knokke-Heist

Knokke-Heist is a famous seaside resort and a select destination for Belgian tourism – a popular holiday destination situated along the white sandy beaches of the North Sea, surrounded by natural dunes. If I chose to travel in mid-February to this part of West Flanders, located on the border with the Netherlands, it is to discover a unique guest house, a successful combination of pure, raw design.

The Bunkers is located next to the Zwin Nature Park, an area of marshes, mudflats and salt meadows situated in a former inlet, which is a unique biotope for many birds and plants. The Bunkers is thus in direct connection with its natural surrounds, that polder environment in the middle of which the house is located, which I am going to discover for the occasion.

The Bunkers is a guest house that has already been widely reported in the press since its opening in 2018. I am therefore very touched to have managed to get this collaboration and proud to be able to write in my own way about this special place.

The five bunkers surrounding the property have given their name to this property, which boasts a rich, historic, tumultuous and family history. 

The « indefinable grey, velvety sky » as immortalised in the words of the Belgian poet, Georges Rodenbach, welcomes me. From time to time, the sun of that morning would manage to make its way through this grey ceiling. During those brief moments, the pure Elysian light reflected iridescent absinthe green over the camouflaged fields as far as the eye could see. It is a melancholy beauty.

Finally I can see the brick fortifications in the distance, testimony to the German occupation and iconic relics of this house where I am about to spend the weekend. The old farmhouse, which once belonged to the owner’s parents, becomes clearer and clearer as I get closer.

I had informed Margaux that I would arrive early this afternoon. The lady of the house had given me the codes to access to the property. Once past the entrance gate in dense opaque black, the reinvented lines of the old farmhouse reveal themselves – pure, simple, linear in a successful blend of modernity and rusticity, brick and wood, glass and tile.

You can already hear chickens cackling from the guest car parking area. As if to welcome me, two sheep come out of the bunkers that they now use for shelter. I am already in thrall to the bucolic and rural charm of the place.

I cannot keep myself from taking a few moments to take a look at this place, which seems unique in its design. It is therefore in this wild green space, redesigned by the landscape architect Léon Van Haesebrouck, that I will spend my next two days. Two genius architects have also contributed to this marvellous place – Benny Govaert & DamiaanVanhoutte, based in Bruges, were able to meet the challenge of a smooth transition between past and present. Here, several eras overlap, whilst respecting the balance of the place. The contemporary result brilliantly enhances the existing heritage by propelling it into the 21st century.

The former barn has been transformed into a guest house, extended and doubled in the process:While the older part has a brick facade, the extension opts for a wooden façade, both united by a huge plate-glass opening. The modern ramification is covered with Afromosia slats, a wood from Africa. A shingle of slats spaced with regular gaps allowing light to pass through is mounted on removable structures acting as roller shutters. The ensemble opens and closes in an accordion fashion, according to the needs and the desired effects. It is visual and magnificent, transforming the house into a more natural looking bunker.

The entrance is located in the modern part: an impression of a house with a well-defined « brutalist » style comes to mind. I enter into an all-glass hall. My gaze is immediately drawn to the perfect line of the interior design. From floor to ceiling, the choice of deactivated concrete with its distinctive gravelly appearance proves to be of the greatest effect. It stands out from the green of the countryside; it blends in with the grey of the bunkers that bear witness to the recent past; it harmonises with the torpor of the sky.

I’m impressed by the huge kitchen worktop, like a central island with coal-tinted bar chairs, arranged in a strict alignment. The open kitchen extends to become the dining room, which ends in a corner with a large living room.

I make a note for teatime later; a big soft couch is calling out to me. Opposite it, a fireplace with a gas insert. Side tables as well as a library collect books on art, design, fashion. A cosy space where you can sit quietly and lazily watching the seasons go by.

The ground floor forms a single luminous space in a series of bay windows offering up a direct panorama of the region. I might as well tell you that I have already picked out the place where I want to have breakfast tomorrow – have a front-row seat so as not to miss anything of this extended visual escape. I will squat this perfect table running along the entire length of the windows for breakfast. This counter is a perfect and welcoming idea.

Tonight, I will be able to relax as if I were at home, having dinner in this very well thought-out kitchen, equipped with all the necessary state-of-the-art utensils and high-tech appliances that are as beautiful as they are convenient. Nothing is lacking.

The Bunkers has five rooms on offer, each with its own unique character. There are three rooms in the old building and two in the new building. My room is in the new extension. I hasten to discover my room whose name alone guided my choice: theTerrace Room.

Like all the other rooms, it is located on the first floor of the house. To reach it, I take the access staircase of rough concrete with its mysterious and intriguing beauty. The sober lighting accentuates this supernatural first impression.

The « Terrace » room is spacious: a double bed on my right, a living room area on my left with a sofa, a leather armchair called a « Butterfly Chair », an astonishing rough concrete table on its iron base, like a work of art; floor carpet, mirror, four custom-made cupboards judiciously staggered in each living space. I often regret that cupboards are quite often the “forgotten children” when designing a room. However, here their function and number have obviously been well thought out and designed by a practical critical mind. A wooden bench at the end of the bed adds to the conviviality of the room.

I linger a few moments to better appreciate certain decorative details: such as these wall lamps stuck in niches dug in the waxed concrete wall. They are arranged at the headboard and living room side on each side of the sofa. In one of these niches, there is a retro stereo set with Wifi function.

The bathroom extends the idea of deactivated raw concrete with a gravelly appearance. Its layout and design are functional. The volumes of the shower impress me. I like the shape and dimensions of the military-style slit window that stretches above the washbasin. It is in direct contact with nature, as if on the lookout, symbol of an observation post.

The interior design firm behind all these beautiful discoveries is none other than Cabinet Anversa of Antwerp. Its team has managed to breathe a very lively soul into this unified grey and concrete side wall. The blend grows on you slowly, giving place to a feeling of warmth. This ‘all-concrete’ approach gives The Bunkers a very relaxing minimalism. It is this pure design that makes its beauty.

Finally, I’ve saved the best for last, the appeal and attraction of this « Terrace Room » is obviously its 18m2 private terrace. You can see it as soon as you step through the front door. On that day, it was partly hidden behind large shutters made of removable blinds that swivel around glass doors. A terrace that goes from front to back with a floor with large wooden slats and glass balustrades. Well sheltered from this vantage point, we are at roof level in a mix of modern and old buildings. The direct view on both sides of the property is ideal. There is a complete set of garden furniture.My stay can begin.

Each room at The Bunkers has a direct view of nature. The lettering for the Field-Terrace-Rooms is soberly written on the walls to indicated the directions. 

But where is the pool hiding – this pool that seduced me and whose pictures whetted my appetite for this unusual house? You just have to follow the discreetly signposted indications, push a recessed door next to the first staircase to find yourself on the other side of the building, still on the ground floor: this is where it reveals itself in all its splendour.

The pool runs alongside large bay windows that can be opened and slid open in the summer. The space with concrete admixture is in keeping with the house: sober, elegant, practical, shimmering honeycomb bathrobes, bath towels with the same effect. Everything is high-spec, comfortable and just makes relaxing sublime. Even today, several weeks after my stay, my memories of the changing reflections of the Flemish sky during my breaststroke sessions are still intact. 

I was able to enjoy the relaxation and well-being area at every moment of my stay. And if, like me, you also like to enjoy nature and take a stroll in the fresh air along the paths, The Bunkers is ideally located, like an island, a chartreuse in the countryside. I really enjoyed basking in this warm pool when I came back from my morning jogs. I enjoyed the sauna in the basement of the house. You will be surprised, as I was, by its layout, its location and its Scandinavian design. 

Pushing another door, I discover the very complete, high-tech gym. I discover the games room in the same set of rooms in the basement. A very good idea by the owners: table football, ping-pong table, vintage pinball machine, large sofa. A great place for fun and sharing.

Tonight, I will enjoy the house to the fullest as the kitchen is available. All guests may use the kitchen at their own discretion. All you have to do is bring your own products. It’s so good to have such a convivial space. I wanted to collect my shopping done in the Netherlands and taste some specialities that I appreciate so much like these pickled herrings, salads and raw vegetable mixes that you can only find here but also local fruits and dairy products. Tonight, all the guests went out for dinner so I can enjoy the place as I please, lounging on the sofa in front of the fireplace, surrounded by the peace and quiet.

My night was cradled with absolute silence. I woke up at first light to witness the awakening of the surrounding nature. The iridescent dawn lights up the sky in fiercest red. It is sumptuous!

This morning, breakfast is also served in this large living room. Presented as a buffet, it begins at 9:00 am and ends around 10:30 am. Placed on the large table with sober aestheticism, it is distributed around the central counter of the kitchen.

It’s tasty, fresh, attractive. An assortment of breads arouses my curiosity and my greedy appetite. A choice of pastries, jams, fresh local yoghurts, muesli and granola are available. Fresh red fruits presented in beautiful bowls raise my interest, but also cold meats, cheese, for those who love savoury food. Alain Milliat brand fruit juice with rare flavours such as beetroot, which I recommend: just excellent! A large basket of fruit, homemade honey and fresh eggs.

This morning my taste buds are feasting as much as my eyes. I’m seated at the large table counter that runs along the large bay window, facing the surrounding nature: it’s spectacularly beautiful! Margot, the owner of the house, is also there to welcome us, attentive to everyone’s wishes, serving hot drinks and preparing freshly-boiled, omelette or scrambled eggs. To start a day by reading through such pleasurable menus is a rare privilege! Breakfast always sets the tempo of my days. At The Bunkers, my day kicked off with a special tempo indeed.

I enjoyed discovering Knokke-Heist during my stay at The Bunkers, whilst visiting the surroundingareas and nearby Holland. If you haven’t done so yet, you should discover Knokke. A chic seaside town in the nice sense of the word, where life is good, built around very beautiful properties, offering a selection of many shops of all kinds and all types of clientele. The waterfront is best explored on foot.

If you push the visit a little further, you will soon find yourself in nature, in large parks, along wide, tree-lined, perfectly maintained avenues lined with sublime villas. Beyond the city, you can reach the Zwin, this huge park open to visitors, which is also a protected nature reserve. This plain, a formerinlet of the North Sea, is the work of Léon Lippens, a member of a well-known Belgian family who is very involved in the political and economic life of the country. He created this reserve in 1952.

I found an excellent bakery in Le Zoulte: the De Baere establishment, famous for its pastries, chocolates, macaroons and home-made bread. I was able to taste some of their specialities.

One of my favourite villages seen on this trip is called Damme. A picturesque and historical village situated in one of the polders of the region. Damme has an atypical atmosphere, many monuments including the Gothic Town Hall on the Market Square, its windmill along the canal, the 13th century St. John’s Hospital and the Church of Our Lady. In its beautiful narrow streets, the atmosphere is still very rural.

I really enjoyed getting lost in this little postcard maze, a village with low buildings, preserved architecture, not disfigured.

I liked discovering this part of the Netherlands next to The Bunkers. Nothing more astonishing than crossing the border without even noticing it and reading, all astonished “Welcome to the Netherlands!” To think, here I am in the Netherlands and I immediately feel like I’m in a different harmonious environment: subtly different architecture, a distinct way of life, shops, lots of fruit and vegetables, the invasion of bicycles. L’Ecluse, or Sluis in Dutch, was also a nice discovery.

I’m surprised to see stalls with free sale of eggs, onions, fruits, vegetables in front of farms on the side of the road. This exudes an atmosphere of trust and peace. Here everyone can help themselves. The prices are displayed in front of each stall, you just have to put the money in a box, an urn. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought it was no longer possible in this day and age to trade in this way. In France, it’s obvious, it’s no longer possible. This country gives me hope.

Walking along the banks of the canal in Sluis, I came across a herd of Highland cattle, the Scottish cattle breed with its immediately recognisable hairyprofile. Judge for yourselves. This hardy breed can graze wet or marshy areas better than any other breed. It is used to maintain these types of landscapes. 

The final word goes to Margaux, whom I thank once again for her trust and welcome. Thank you for having allowed me to discover a place, The Bunkers, whose raw architectural beauty will remain a very beautiful discovery in my memory. A unique place for a unique experience. The memory of my morning laps in the swimming pool, the images of the surrounding nature at breakfast time, the light of this West Flanders will remain with me for a very long time to come, all this has not finished accompanying me for a long time to come.

Crédit photos : David Deslux – https://www.instagram.com/david_deslux/

Crédit photos : Lionel Desruelles – https://www.instagram.com/lionel_desruelles/

The Bunkers – Burkeldijk 18, 8300 Knokke-Heist, Belgique – +32 476 70 72 73 – http://www.thebunkers.be

Govaert – Vanhoute Architects – https://www.govaert-vanhoutte.be

Anversa.be – Cabinet d’architectes – https://www.anversa.be

Leon Van Haesebrouck Landschapsarchitect – https://www.vanhaesebrouck.eu

Boulangerie De Baere – Avenue Heydenberg 20, 1200 Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, Belgique – +32 2 770 62 16 – www.debaerepatisserie.be

Alain Milliat – Jus de Dégustation – https://www.alain-milliat.com/fr/

Zwin Nature Park – Graaf Léon Lippensdreef 8, 8300 Knokke-Heist, Belgique – +32 50 60 70 86 – www.zwin.be

Belgium.be – https://www.belgium.be/nl

Visit Flanders – https://www.visitflanders.com/fr/

Vlaanderen.be – https://www.vlaanderen.be

Myknokke-heist.be – https://www.myknokke-heist.be

Visitdamme.be – https://www.visitdamme.be

Damme-online.com – http://www.damme-online.com/fr.htm

Holland.com – https://www.holland.com/fr/tourisme.htm

vvvzeeland.nl – https://www.vvvzeeland.nl/nl/

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