A photographic look back over some of the favourite places we visited in 2017
A photographic look back over some of the favourite places we visited in 2017
We left a very busy Bruges to the milling tourist hordes and continued on our way, this time heading south. We overnighted in a functional aire in the village of Aartrijke, parked next to a lorry trailer and some recycling bins. From there we drove along quieter roads to reach Ypres ( Ieper ) near to the border with France. We had pre-booked a night in the central Ypres campsite, €15 with electricity and all services, and situated only five minutes from the historic town. We checked in and parked up, finding ourselves directly opposite Benny’s virtual twin, a same aged Benimar Mileo 202, driven by a British couple from Preston whom we later chatted to about our subsequent travels.
It was an easy walk from the site to the town’s tall stone walls, and from there to the Menenpoort, the Menin Gate. Each night at 8pm, rain or shine, a short service is held and the Last Post is played in remembrance of all those lost in both the World Wars. We spent some time reading the names on the Menin Gate memorial, its walls inscribed with over 54000 names of soldiers fallen in nearby battles. We checked the register for mention of my late great-uncle, but his name was not listed, so he must be commemorated elsewhere on the Western front. From there we walked up through the gate to visit the top of the town walls, following the easy paths and enjoying the elevated view of St. Jacob’s Church and the nearby rooftops of Ypres. Rain was threatening, but it kindly held off for now.
We descended a flight of stone steps and followed the cobbled roads around to reach the centre. The Main Square was an immediate ‘wow’ moment, seeing for the first time the enormous clock tower of the gothic Town Hall and the In Flanders Field museum building, with the tall stone towers of Cathédrale Saint-Martin visible behind. We had known little about the town of Ypres, thinking it mainly a centre for cemeteries and commemoration, so we were very surprised and impressed. We walked slowly around the square, squeezing around parked cars and through archways, before visiting the cathedral. We spent a few moments looking inside, watching the coloured light streaming from the stained glass dance across the white stone and the statue-filled alcoves of the tower’s interior.
We walked through the back streets of the town and joined the paths along the top of the walls circling town and the furthest point. From there we walked back slowly, on leafy paths scattered with interesting defensive runs, seeing the foundations of circular towers and pill-box artillery points. On our right we could look out over Groenpark lakes, watching the sun flicker on the calm water overhung with willows. We had the occasional ten seconds of raindrops that threatened to dampen our day, but they never fully materialised, with the bright sun winning through after each failed attempt. The wall-top path would have returned us to the Menin Gate, but instead we cut down a flight of hidden stone steps to follow a timber decked path around to a pedestrian bridge that led us back to our campsite.
After an early dinner, we returned to visit the town in virtual darkness, around 7pm. We planned a gentle town walk before returning to the Menin Gate for the anticipated 8pm recital. We were slightly astonished to see a long row of buses parked up nearby and a milling crowd three or four people deep already standing expectantly at the ropes, an hour early, awaiting the Last Post being played. Sunday night, it turned out, was the most popular time for visits to the Menin Gate, and with it being half-term as well, there were more than a few British school parties in attendance. We first walked through the crowds and into the town centre again, enjoying seeing the Gothic buildings and flowing fountain beautifully lit up at night, alongside the large Halloween decorations that lit up each street and many shops.
We arrived back to the Menin Gate around 7.45pm and joined the expectant crowd, now many hundreds in number. The event began when three members of the local Fire Brigade, the organisation tasked with performing the Last Post each night, stood and played their bugles. A row of young cadets in grey uniforms nervously lined up behind them. A small choir, singing a cappella and all with identical red buffs on, provided a beautiful rendition of Abide with Me as several commemorative wreaths were laid on one wall of the Menin Gate. Laurence Binyon’s famous fourth stanza from “For the Fallen” was solemnly read out to the stilled crowd. This was followed by a minute of thoughtful silence, broken finally by the elongated notes of the final emotive portion of the ever-moving Last Post.
The recital was complete and the crowds began to disperse, with an earnest, contemplative mood now hanging in the air. The streets outside the walls were pitch black, the darkness being revoked only by the glow of the Menin Gate, an apt metaphor for the sacrifices of those serving men and women it stands to represent, and remember. We carefully walked back to the campsite with the aid of head torches, the voices and words ringing in our thoughts. Lest we Forget.
Belgium – Bruges (Brugges)
We left the busy central aire in beautiful Ghent quite early, just as the arriving tourist buses were beginning to build up near us. We fought the morning traffic out of the city, finally heading northwest in the direction of our next Belgian city-break target – Bruges. We arrived from the south and reached the wide ring road adjacent to the canal, circling the historic centre. The road was lined with ample parking spaces and we parked up easily and freely on the side of the canal, only a few minutes’ walk away from the centre. We happily mused how this was the simplest and most stress-free parking for a city visit we’d so far found on our travels; an auspicious start.
We walked back along the canal and through the Gentpoort, our nearest city gate, to approach the centre. Bruges was known to us predominantly through the movie In Bruges, a very dark, almost surreal, black comedy with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. We hoped our short time in the city would pan out rather differently than theirs did. There were few people around and we, prematurely, thought Bruges must not be visited much in late October, out of season. How very wrong this first impression was to be. Arriving quite early had drawn us into experiencing a false sense of the town. We had a lovely hour or so of quiet wandering, but by 11am the centre was transformed into a swirling mass of bodies all vying for space on the narrow streets and jostling to take that perfect photograph.
We arrived by way of Koningin Astridpark, a neat park with a simple pond. We reached the main Market square with the sun rising brightly behind the Belfry, lighting up the decorative façades of the surrounding buildings. We made our way into the foyer of the museum at the central tourist office, where we played a while with the interactive touchscreen tables, looking up information about Bruges. We found a small shop nearby and purchased a few postcards and stamps. With no particular plan, we walked away from the main centre, the streets immediately empty, and found solace in the back streets of the residential areas north of the town. It was comprised of a more standard, simple, Dutch-like domestic architecture with canal paths and crow-step gable frontages.
Everything changed in the time we had walked north and returned; the peaceful stillness was shattered. On our arrival back in the central square, we were constantly being passed by large sullen groups being quickly led by guides to the next important site of interest. More tourists rolled past, sat inside open carriages drawn by snorting horses. We stood out of the way, in the corner of the market square, stunned by the sudden influx of people and noise. Nearby, packed boats carried yet more sightseers along the now-busy canals, floating noisily under numerous stone bridges, all passengers with phones in hand. The beautiful, historic town was all but invisible under the cloud of bodies here to see it. We could only imagine what it must be like to visit in the dizzy heights of the summer months.
Leaving the square in search of quieter areas, we walked towards the Concert Hall, along a frenzied shop-lined avenue. From here we cut across small alleys to Oud Sint Jan, a council building, surprised at how each side street was almost entirely empty when the main thoroughfares where jam-packed with visitors. It was like no-one thought to walk anywhere other than where everyone else was, as if being part of the crowd was the only acceptable behaviour. With avoidance futile, we re-joined the masses at the covered market, then under an archway bridge to the square behind. The Burgplatz, close by the main Marktplatz, was the highlight of the centre for us, with its 14th century City Hall dominating the impressively decorated façades. There had been a wedding inside, the bridal party now having to time their group photos between the lines of passing tourists keen to visit the foyer of the City Hall.
We had a brief look inside the City Hall, before crossing the square to visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood, snug in the corner. Climbing the complex statue-heavy staircase, we reached the small gothic chapel and took a seat to relax for a moment. A large gold altarpiece framed with complex painted frescoes behind gave the chapel a glow, and the quality of light from the side stained-glass windows was wonderful. The sermon pulpit was a topless copper globe of the world, with a lid and cross above that made it look like a giant pumpkin. A queue to the right allowed visitors to the chapel the possibility of, by way of a generous donation, touching a phial that purportedly contained some blood extracted from Jesus Christ. Many were willing to queue and each pilgrim was patiently given as much personal time as they wished for their devotional visit, all the while being watched closely by a silent but ever-vigilant priest.
We ate our packed lunch on a bench back in the main market square, overlooking the domineering 83-metre high Belfry tower. The queue to climb the tower starts behind the square, up a flight of steps to the rear of the tower, and yet we could see the tail end of the patiently waiting patrons through the ground level archway. It must have been a long time coming, and a tight squeeze at the top, but on such a clear, blue sky day it may just have been worth the wait. We reflected on the profound difference a multitude of visitors made to the experience, and how circular and selfish was our wish that we could experience Bruges without the crowds; a thought no doubt shared by most of the other visitors. It was undoubtedly beautiful and interesting, but has become a mobbed, defenseless casualty of its own beauty and marketing success.
Perhaps we had made a mistake in visiting Bruges directly after Ghent. We inevitably drew comparisons, and after the wide and plentiful beauty of Ghent, Bruges felt a little small, quaint and twee rather than grandly impressive, and more affected by the success of its rampant tourism. The shops and restaurants, beautiful as they were, appeared to be geared towards separating tourists from their money, rather than serving local commerce. It felt unauthentic as a living, bustling city, more of a Disney version of a perfect medieval town, recreated solely for visitors, not built for local lives. It was still achingly beautiful in many ways, but being overrun by tourists, us included of course, made it lose something intangible, its living spirit or the low eventful buzz of a city fully lived-in by busy, invested residents, not one overrun by snapping day-trippers.
Exploring Ghent (Gent)
Leaving Chris and Peter’s hospitality in Antwerp, we next drove to Ghent (or Gent, locally), taking a long time to escape the clutches of the Antwerp traffic jams. We were just beginning to believe ourselves safe and clear when we next fell into the sticky web of Ghent’s own traffic issues. We slowly made our way to the busy mixed car-park near the centre, the free aire noted in CamperContact. We parked in the end bay of the long bus parking spaces, as the main motorhome row at the canal side was already full of other motorhomes, interspersed with the odd small car. There were three vans in the bus spaces already so we didn’t feel out of place. We both had thumping headaches when we arrived, likely from dehydration, so we had a short canal-side walk to taste fresh air and clear our minds.
We passed a quiet night in Benny, with the intention of spending all of the following day exploring the city. We rose early and made our way towards the medieval centre, around 3km away. Ghent is now a young and hip university town, lively, artistic and buzzing with students at all times of the day, but it was once a very important port and trade city, specialising in wool production. Since its birth in 630 CE until the late Middle Ages, Ghent was second in size only to Paris, with wealthy merchant families driving growth, until the city lost all royal privileges in 1540 after their refusal to pay taxes was violently quashed. The industrial revolution and the 1913 World Fair boosted Ghent’s far-reaching ambitions again, but these were brutally curtailed by war, until their stylish rebirth in the late 20th century.
We passed by the neo-classical Opera on the way to the centre, seeing it from a beautifully decorated wrought-iron bandstand in a plaza paved with stone and inset with giant bronze leaves. After threading along a few narrow, twisting streets, we popped out right by the domineering 13th century Gothic castle of Gerald the Devil. Set on the river’s edge, the building had seen life as a seminary, school, monastery, mental asylum, prison and, more recently, as a fire station. We walked around its walls, away from the adjacent cathedral, crossing a bridge behind to then approach the cathedral square from the opposite corner. The view as we entered the square was breath-taking.
We looked inside the cathedral briefly, before making our way to the opposite Belfry. Construction began on the Belfry in 1313, the city’s monument and symbol of dogged independence. The tower, topped with a dragon-shaped weather vane, accommodates a 54-bell carillon that rings out loud around the city. Behind the Belfry sits the new City Pavilion, a modern covered external space utilised for local events. From here we walked north, passing lots of notable and impressive buildings, where we ran into many busy markets around St. Jacob’s Vlasmarkt, distinctly separated in adjacent squares into bric-a-brac stalls, food stalls and clothing stalls. The streets were filled with busy buyers and loud sellers touting their wares. We weaved through the crowds, enjoying the lively ambiance.
As we were walking in Gravensteen, past the circular-planned Castle of the Counts, we encountered some grave danger. We were loudly ‘rarrrred’ at continuously by a long line of primary school children, scarily transformed into various monsters or superheroes by their Halloween costumes and elaborate make-up. The haunting effect of their roars was somewhat lessened by them being steered past us in neat pairs, hand-in-hand, led by their jolly witch teacher. We cut across a residential area to reach the banks of the river Coupure and followed it back to a small bridge that led over in the direction of the aire; it was time for some lunch and a few hours of restful downtime.
We began again afresh in the late afternoon, looking to glimpse a few more areas we had missed on our first outing. First we visited the Station Gent-Sint-Pieters to briefly examine the architecture, before walking through Citadel Park, on gravel paths under the hanging branches heavy with autumn leaves. The park sits on high ground and was massively fortified in the 16th century, although the protective walls have now been mostly removed. The original reason was because the low-lying wetlands surrounding the city were very vulnerable to deliberate flooding, a weak point in the city defences, so this was a fall-back position should the city face attack. There were small ponds and stone grottos within the park, almost hidden within mounds of discarded copper leaves and camouflaging trees.
We walked to St. Peter’s Church, a 13th century Romanesque building converted into a Baroque church in the 17th century. The huge square in front looked spacious and bare, and after examination we realised that it was because all parking for the area had been moved underground, below the plaza. We wandered through to the rear gardens, which had a small herb garden and neat rows of red-leafed vines. We sniffed their sage and curry plants, and ran our hands through lavender as we passed by the ancient foundation ruins of a previous part of the abbey. It was peaceful, an oasis away from the buzz of the city streets, and we spent long moments soaking up the silence.
We next wandered along the banks of the river Schelde, back in the direction of the centre. We passed the prominent BookTower and the Vooriut Arts Centre before reaching the very horizontally-layered city library building. We enjoyed a short rest inside before taking in the view, over the historic centre, from the rear terrace walkway. We revisted the Belfry and the City Pavillon as we passed, before continuing to see St. Nicholas’ Church. The streets were throbbing with pedestrians, cyclists and trams, and crossing the busy road was an exercise in vigilance and caution. We crossed St. Martin’s bridge and descended steps to view the decorative façades of the Graslei buildings, lining the riverside walk. There were large gangs of students relaxing all around, beers in hand and chatting loudly. There was a happy, friendly Friday afternoon vibe in the air.
We took our fill of the view, then decided a reward was in order for our efforts. We relaxed with Belgian beers at an outside table near Grasbrug bridge, soaking in the view and enjoying a dose of people-watching. We could see along the river Leie, looking at the Korenlei quay set opposite the famous 12th century Graslei guildhall façades. A female busker played a piccolo and pan pipes nearby; familiar, ancient tunes that provided a suitably soothing backdrop as we sipped our tasty beers. The clear blue skies had departed and it was a little drizzly, but we sat and enjoyed our beers regardless, the rain not dampening our enthusiasm for the view. I dropped our €1 change (from €10) into the busker’s bowl, who never once opened her eyes to acknowledge my donation, so lost in the moment and music was she. That made her playing even more moving and special.
We walked our socks off in Ghent; we covered 9km in the morning, returning for some lunch and downtime in Benny, before completing a further 9km in the late afternoon. The turn of each corner revealed something new; buildings, sounds, colours, people, music, as we revelled in the tight-knit beauty and artistic depth of the historic centre. We had not planned or researched Ghent before our arrival, and were happy we had not, as being fully prepared with expectations of grandeur may have lessened its impact on us; we were dazzled. The impressive buildings just seemed to keep coming, and we were amazed to discover on our second outing that we had missed some portions of main centre, but this had allowed us to happily continue our discovery of new streets and different vistas. We loved our time exploring the city of Ghent; it’s well worth a visit.
A & N x
Rolling off the ferry in Holland, with a quick overnight stop before heading into Belgium. Our first stop was on the outskirts of Antwerp to meet up with Chris & Peter, a motorhoming couple who invited us for dinner, before a quick city explore.
We began this trip in the same place as our previous Scandinavian tour ended – in the carpark of the Bricklayers Arms, near Harwich port. We had a tasty meal in the pub, our final fling with good British grub before re-joining the continent and relying on our own home cooking. The next morning, facing an early start, we packed up and drove the final few miles to catch our 8am ferry to the Hook of Holland. The crossing was uneventful and passed by quickly. Off the ferry, we drove through stuttering rush-hour traffic to finally pass around Rotterdam, before cutting south to reach a quiet, parkland aire at Oud-Beijerland where we overnighted. We walked through the park in the morning, glad to see the area well used, with runners, cyclists, dog walkers and trainers, and even a grass-munching horse.
From Holland, we moved quickly on into Belgium. We had received a kind invitation from Peter and Chris, fellow Motorhomers and followers of our travel blog. They were in the early stages of planning a long Scandinavian trip, similar to our recent travels, and wished to pick our brains on various aspects of the experience. We were happy to be able to share with them what meagre knowledge we had accumulated. We first called into a nearby leafy aire in Brasschaat for a few minutes to examine its available services, before making our way to their address. After a short dilemma with local road signs seemingly denying us entrance, we found Chris and Peter’s home and parked up on their drive, a little nervous to be meeting, effectively, total strangers. Our initial fears were soon assuaged as we were warmly greeted by this lovely Belgian couple and immediately treated as their honoured house guests.
We relaxed into their beautiful home as we all completed full introductions over cups of Yorkshire tea accompanied by Belgian chocolate. After tea, we drove to a nearby park and casually walked well-worn paths sprinkled with a thin covering of fallen leaves, through long avenues of tall late-autumnal trees. The low buzz of traffic on a nearby road mixed with the crisp crunch of our feet on the multi-coloured dried leaves. Our conversations continued as we wandered under cloud-filled skies filled with a hanging, constant threat of rain. Thankfully, the day remained dry for our walk and the sun even made a brief appearance as we reached the central Orangery building, brick-built with high arched windows. Its formal gardens were filled with neat planted beds of various plants and vegetables, many still in colourful bloom. Some volunteers were tending the vegetable beds, preparing them for the coming winter.
We were treated to local Belgium beers as aperitifs, accompanied by tasty savoury snacks and more lively travel-orientated chat, from all parties. We were then beckoned to the dinner table for yummy mushroom soup followed by a tasting table of cheeses and complementary local beers, a social, sharing meal that enhanced our interaction over the table. We talked long and late into the evening, swapping stories, before saying our goodnights and retiring to Benny for some welcome sleep. In the morning we returned to enjoy breakfast with Chris (Peter unfortunately had to leave for work early), where we received detailed instructions for a flying visit into nearby Antwerp. The city was currently in the midst of major traffic issues due to construction works for a new tunnel. We caught a local bus, about a half hour journey to the end of the line, close to Antwerp Central train station. Due to the extensive works and subsequent road closures, all further progress towards the historic centre had to be on foot.
The day was cool and overcast, with a muted grey sky that seemed bright but somehow sucked all the colour out of the city’s buildings. Everything looked pale, lime-washed, devoid of deep shades or shadows, and the ever-present expectation of a deluge following us with each step. We first visited Antwerp Central, a huge style-defying building (Neo-Classicism, Baroque, Rococo, Art Deco?) constructed in the early years of the 20th century. From there we wandered towards the historic centre, only stopping off briefly to purchase a new pair of walking shoes for Nicky. We passed a statue of Rubens in a lovely square before reaching the Cathedral and the large market square in the heart of Antwerp.
We passed a very pleasant few hours wandering the main sights. We walked to the cruise ship terminal, surprised to see such a large ship in dock. We passed Antwerp’s medieval fortress, Het Steen, built to defend the port. It was previously a prison and barracks, but now houses a museum. We passed the 16th century red-brick and sandstone Butcher’s Hall, built by the oldest Guild in Antwerp, now also a museum. We spotted luminous Segway tours and numerous groups of cruise ship passengers having guided city walking tours. We ate our lunch sitting in a raised, covered bandstand in Groenplaats square, people-watching and enjoying a fine view of Notre Dame Cathedral.
We walked south out of the main medieval centre, to visit a few more key sights on our way home. We passed the MoMu, the Mode Fashion Museum in Theodoor van Rijswijck plaats before crossing over to visit the small Botanic Gardens. We wandered through the plants, although little was in bloom on this grey October day. From there we reached the covered plaza outside the modern municipal theatre. The square was filled with active groups of skate-boarding teenagers and chatting students, relaxing under the nominal cover provided by the extended brise soleil.
We caught the same bus back, passing near to Zaha Hadid’s impressive Port House building on our route home. But, three quarters of the way back the driver stopped and insisted we all got off, much to the chagrin and confusion of local passengers, and us. Rather than the uncertainty of waiting for another bus, we walked the final mile and a half back, with the threatened rains finally catching us up on the very last stretch. We arrived back rather drenched to collect Benny and to say our final goodbyes to our lovely host Chris, before we headed off through more busy traffic to overnight in the city of Ghent, in anticipation of our next Belgian city break.
A huge thank you to Chris and Peter for their open, friendly and very welcoming hospitality and we wish you both fine weather and smooth roads for all your upcoming travels. We look forward to having the opportunity to follow your travels, and we hope someday to return your kind invitation and genial hospitality, once we are settled and have a place we can once again call home, wherever that may be.
A & N x