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