Tag Archives: museum

Back in France and heading south

A quick run south heading through the north-east corner of France to the centre, taking in the Champagne Region countryside, with rural stopovers near Bourges, in La Martineche and at St. Priest Taurion.

We left the comfortable campsite in Ypres and headed south into France, skirting around Lille and beyond.  We also bypassed Soissons as we stayed away from all motorways, instead enjoying the wonderful countryside views. We had been greatly favoured by the weather, with the crisp autumn days framing the copper and lime-coloured trees within a deep blue frame.  Everywhere we looked was a stunning vista of gently rolling hills, each lit up with the full autumnal spectrum of beautiful leaves and grasses.  It was a simple pleasure to spend our days rolling through such countryside, and the miles and hours passed by quickly with the constant beauty acting as a welcome distraction.

Champion Daniel (evening view)

Champion Daniel (benny looking over vines)

Our first day in France was quite a long drive for us, especially on backroads, and we finally decided to call our day to an end at Champion Daniel, a small family-run Champagne producer south-west of Reims, near the village of Montmirail.  We first went in to chat to the proprietor, and they were happy to have us stay.  For our €7 we were provided with electric hook-up, water and Wi-Fi, along with a tasting of one of their champagnes, with no obligation to buy.  That night, under a blanket of darkness and stars, we had our DSLR camera and tripod out, along with the new addition to Benny, a telescope, one we had borrowed from Nicky’s Dad for use at our upcoming house-sits.  We wrapped up warm and spent time examining and photographing the clear, crisp night sky, with a focus on the bright gibbous moon.

Champion Daniel (tree sunrise)

Champion Daniel (low mist over vines)

The next morning we awoke early to a visual treat; low rolling mist was resting in the valley, over the vines adjacent to where we were parked, and mixed with the redness of the newly-rising sun the vista was simply spectacular.  After many minutes of appreciating the spectacle, we said our goodbyes to the owners and their very friendly cocker spaniel before getting back to the open road. We quickly drove south, stopping only briefly for lunch on the banks of the Loire river.  We bypassed by the main city of Bourges, missing their historic cathedral, on the easy-flowing ring-road, stopping to overnight further south in St. Amand Montrond, a large free aire near a lovely lake.  There we had a lovely 4km evening stroll around the lake shore, enjoying both the setting sun and rising moon bright in the clear sky.

St Amand Montrond (benny in aire)

St Amand Montrond (lakeside walk)

Continuing southwards, we stopped in the village of Genouillac to stretch our legs and have a look around.  We had been looking on-line at a few very nice properties near here and wanted to get a personal feel for the region.  Although the countryside and villages were very pretty, we felt it was still a little too north and too far from an international airport to be in serious contention to serve as our fixed French base.  So we continued deep into the Creuse countryside to La Martineche, where we parked at a rural museum in honour of Martin Nadaud, a celebrated local craftsman.  We found out later it had closed for the season just two days before, so we couldn’t visit the museum, but the aire was still available, free and empty, so we availed ourselves of their hospitality and settled in.

La Martineche (museum grounds)

La Martineche (picnic red)

Our first night we sat out at one of their picnic tables and enjoyed a few glasses of red as we soaked up the autumnal countryside view. It would have been serenely peaceful except for a passing horde of scrambler motorcyclists tearing up the roads nearby, but after a deafening few moments they were gone and the wonderful silence again prevailed. We had noticed signs depicting a local circular walk of around 10km, through forest trails and over the local dales.  We decided to follow it the next morning, as a running route.  Nicky had not run in years, since back surgery forced her to give up competing in triathlon, but on this occasion she was feeling up for a Fartlek-style walk-run around the route.  We could walk when necessary, run when we wished; either way a lovely few hours out in the countryside.

La Martineche (forest trail runs)

La Martineche (nicky on trail run)

La Martineche (soubrebost church)

The morning was bright and clear but started bitterly cold, and we overdressed, unsure both of the weather and how much running we’d actually do.  But as the rising sun finally penetrated the valley over the neighbouring hills, it turned the day into a scorcher, reaching 23 degrees.  Together, smiling, we ran well over half the distance, loving the colourful forest trails and revitalising clear air, although we ended up carrying most of our layers for the duration.  The path was a little over 10Km in total; it roamed over undulating hills, into tall forests and through ancient stone-built villages, where we visited churches and other historic points of interest.  We relaxed on the grass back in the aire, sun-bathing in the warming glow of the afternoon sun as we ate lunch, before moving off down the road once again.

La Martineche (countryside run)

La Martineche (nicky trail running)

St Prient Taurion (trainline bridge)

We decided to move a little closer to the main city of Limoges, a place we hoped to see next, so we sauntered down the mountain to stop at nearby St. Priest Taurion.  We parked there in another quiet, free aire with all necessary services, set by the river and overlooked by a stone arched bridge carrying a train-line.  The local boulangerie was less than a minute’s walk away, so we had all we needed for a relaxing stay within easy reach.  We had an ambling walk along the riverside, and a quick explore of the town, before retiring for the night.  The next morning Nicky was struggling to comfortably walk, her first run in many years having its stiffening revenge on her legs. So we spent an additional lazy day relaxing in the winter sunshine, where Nicky preoccupied herself with photography down on the pretty banks of the river.

St Prient Taurion (benny park spot in aire)

St Prient Taurion (riverside walk)

St Prient Taurion (lightly flowing river)

As we ended up spending two nights in St. Priest Taurion, we were well rested before finally moving on to explore the regional capital city of Limoges, less than twenty minutes’ drive away.  The morning had delivered yet another bright and clear winter day, and we were looking forward to spending our time exploring the regional capital under such rich blue skies.  We rolled out of town, sad to be leaving such a relaxing spot, but feeling ready for more light adventures.

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Belgium – Bruges (Brugges)

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.

Bruges (approaching the centre)

Bruges (central canals)
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.

Bruges (market square carriages)

Bruges (Belfry)

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.

Bruges (provincial hall)

Bruges (market square statue)

Bruges (market square flags)

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.

Bruges (typical facades)

Bruges (belfy view)

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.

Bruges (decorative archway link)

Bruges (outside 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.

Bruges (basilica of the holy blood)

Bruges (holy blood chapel)

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.

Bruges (church street view)

Bruges (churches and canals)

Bruges (canalside buildings)

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.

Belgium – Ghent (Gent)

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.

Ghent (rowing lake by aire)

Ghent (st bavo cathedral)

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.

Ghent (castle gerald the devil)

Ghent (belfry)

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.

Ghent (city pavillion)

Ghent (cathedral and park)

Ghent (city streets)

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.

Ghent (river view)

Ghent (castle of the counts)

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.

Ghent (central station)

Ghent (central streets)

Ghent (church tower)

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.

Ghent (park grotto)

Ghent (abbey church)

Ghent (abbey gardens)

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.

Ghent (new library)

Ghent (cathedral and tram)

Ghent (Graslei corner)

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.

Ghent (Graslei view with bridge)

Ghent (nicky on st michaels bridge)

Ghent (guildhall facades)

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.

Ghent (cathedral view)

Ghent (cathedral bell)

Ghent (beers with a view)

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

 

 

Belgium – Antwerp (with Chris & Peter)

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.

Antwerp (garden walks)

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.

Antwerp (formal gardens)

Antwerp (the Orangery)

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.

Antwerp (Belgian beers)

Antwerp (complementary cheeses)

Antwerp (at the dinner table)
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.

Antwerp (Central Station)

Antwerp (inside central station)

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.

Antwerp (Rubens square)

Antwerp (notre dame cathedral)

Antwerp (statue and cathedral)

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.

Antwerp (castle)

Antwerp (nickys new shoes)

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.

Antwerp (market square facade)

Antwerp (view from cruise ship terminal)

Antwerp (city streets)

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.

Antwerp (small botanic grdens)

Antwerp (theatre)
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

Holland – Gouda & Delft

Our final city visit on this tour to beautiful Gouda & a flying visit around the centre of Delft before returning home to reflect on our six month tour. 

The next morning started brightly, with the unfamiliar sun lighting up the edges of the clouds and highlighting the tawny autumn leaves.  We left the spacious aire in Dalfsen and retraced a few miles back to Zwolle and beyond, heading along fast wide roads past our previously haunt of Utrecht and on into the centre of Gouda.  We bagged one of the spots with free electricity in the town’s €8 per night aire at Klein Amerika, checked we could pick up the nearby library’s Wi-Fi from Benny (yes) and then we readied ourselves for a visit into town.  During our drive the rain had sneakily returned, defying all forecasts, so we waited a while until we spotted a break in the deluge and quickly wandered over the bridge across the canal leading into the historic centre.

Gouda (cheese shop)

Gouda (cheese selections)

Despite the grey, wet day, we took an instant like to Gouda.  There were local flags lining the pretty streets and it had a quiet buzz, a tranquil busyness that stoked our interest.  We stopped in to taste lots of cheeses in the specialist store we passed, with flavours from liquorice to smoke to chili to lavender to wasabi.  The brightly coloured cheese-blocks ranged from rainbow to solid black, from green to blue to red to white, depending on the flavours and spices added prior to the aging process. We decided very early that it was so pretty that we would spend a second night here, so we slowed up and took our time, looking into every small nook and cranny we passed on each lovely street.

Gouda (bridge and canal)

Gouda (market square)

Gouda (a in main square)

We circled the very large Sint Janskerk church, flanked by narrow canals and cobbled streets, before reaching the main square dominated by the gothic town hall, set alone in the centre.  The square was really a wide triangle, coincidentally (or perhaps deliberately?) shaped like a giant wedge of cheese.  On Fridays during summer months it hosted a large cheese market with sellers and suppliers wearing traditional costumes, but on our visit it was almost empty of people.  The edges were lined with the covered seating areas of restaurants and cafés, some with watching customers, but mostly quiet.  Red and white painted shutters lined the façade of the Town Hall and were repeated throughout the city on many buildings, including the tourist office that housed the Gouda Cheese Museum.

Gouda (central square town hall)

Gouda (a at town hall)

Gouda (lion and buildings)

The following day we did more of the same, simply wandering around quiet back streets. We visited the Gouda Cheese Museum where we watched a short video on how the local cheeses are produced, from cows in the field to shelves in the shops.  We saw the equipment used over the years and how it brought prosperity to the region, and the political and commercial implications of when the crown, seeing the wealth of the suppliers grow, decided that cheese needed to have its own tax applied. We bought a few small items as gifts as we wandered, feeling glad to have had this one last, very lovely stop on our tour, as after the traffic mayhem of Germany we had thought our travels over and all we had left were the miles home.

Gouda (cheese museum poster)

Gouda (in cheese museum)

Gouda (nicky in clogs)

That night, our last abroad on this trip, we sought out a specialist craft beer bar we had read about, called Biercafé De Goudse Eend.  When we arrived we were the only customers except for one other, so we sat at the bar and chatted to the barman and owner Jeroen.  We tried a selection of beers and made many unsuccessful attempts to beat the challenge of moving a bottle opener over a metal strip shaped like the skyline of Antwerp without contact.  We learned about the history of the bar, with its ever-growing collection of rubber ducks, and grew slowly sozzled with the bar and chilled atmosphere.  The bar busied up very quickly later on, with many more beer aficionadas arriving to join the chat.  It was a great night to top off our travels and leave us with lasting memories of Gouda.

Gouda (church building)

Gouda (nicky with pub games)

Gouda (in Goudse Eend piub)

The following morning we rose early, heads a little fuzzy, to pack up for the last time on this trip and head to the Hook of Holland.  We were only an hour or so from the port, so we had plenty of time to spare before our afternoon crossing.  On the way we decided on one last flying visit, and called in to see Delft.  Other than being synonymous with blue and white pottery, we knew very little about the town.  After a struggle to park, and then with no means to pay for a ticket as neither cash or Visa cards were accepted, the parking attendants let us off if we promised to only be an hour.  We would, so that was a bonus.  We walked along a canal into the main square, seeing several churches and the impressive town hall, amazed by the scale of the main square and the beauty of the surrounding streets.

Delft (town hall view)

Delft (central buildings)

Delft (cheese tulips and pottery)

Delft (a on canal bridge)

We had a rather boring and rocky six-hour ferry trip, arriving into Harwich port just after 8pm.  After a winding queue through the port and customs areas, we broke free and drove around 10 miles to the nearby village of Little Bentley and parked up in the empty car park of the Bricklayers Arms.  After confirming it was fine to stay, as they are a BritStops listed pub, we spent a lovely two hours drinking with Liz, the proprietor and owner.  We were the only customers in the bar during our stay, and we couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the previous night’s bar in Gouda, so very different but so similar too.  The following morning, excited to be back in the UK, we headed off to meet up with friends, our Scandinavia trip now at an end.  It would be some time before we could process all we had seen over our incredible trip, almost six months of travel, with such a variation of experiences, scenery and activity.

Holland – Groningen & Dalfsen

Leaving Germany to visit Groningen in the Netherlands before an lovely overnight in the town of Dalfsen

From stormy northern Germany and the town of Brune, we drove across the border to the Netherlands and straight to Groningen, a town we had missed on the way through, back in late April.  It was here we planned to sit out the worst of the weather and hopefully sneak in a quick city visit too.  We arrived at the free motorhome aire set about 4km to the north east of the centre.  There were several other motorhomes on site, but no one was parked in the designated motorhome area.  It was all signed to be on grass verges that were currently ankle deep in muddy puddles; instead the vans commandeered another little-used stretch of hard-standing car-parking.

Groningen - climbing wall

A huge yellow climbing wall with a deep overhang dominated the skyline, with several external bouldering walls and traverse climbing walls filling the park around the complex.  We saw artificial pitches for football and hockey, a full indoors sports hall complete with a 25m swimming pool and a leisure pool with external slides, a go-karting track, a ski centre, a muddy BMX track, a skate-boarding park, a skating and ice hockey rink.  Groups of runners floated past and a further rowdy group were, slightly worryingly, practising their archery in the car-park. There were wake-boarding tow lines and jumps set up in a nearby lake, complete with a sandy beach and swimming area with timber pontoons.  The entire area was a sporting mecca, and most visitors we saw were making their way there by bicycle.

Groningen (wildlife table)

We walked into Groningen in a light drizzle, stretching out our legs and feeling good to be moving, as we’d been cooped up for too long.  We crossed bridges over canals and passed neat brick houses, all looking so quintessentially Dutch.  We headed to a long green park, Noorderplantsoen, to the north west of the centre and followed leaf-strewn paths through the overhanging yellow-red trees alongside pretty lakes, passing around the periphery of Groningen.  We were passed by lots of cyclists and runners enjoying the park; it was good to see it being so well used, even with the atrocious weather of the day.  We crossed another canal and reached a modern pedestrian centre and mall, leading us to the bottom of the historic centre and the true heart of Groningen.

Groningen (church street)

Groningen (Art museum)

We passed by the Groningen museum, a gaudy post-modern mess of building housing modern art.  I always feel a little sorry for large cities who have paid a famous architect (or in this case four separate architects) lots of money for an iconic, city-defining building and end up with quickly dated, garish, 1990s monstrosity.  We next passed a glass box art installation by an artist called Charlemagne Palestine.  It was filled with scruffy teddy-bears and other toys, whether discarded or donated we were unsure.  It was seemingly meant to be a colourful celebration of the collection, but it was more successful, maybe due to the surrounding messy leaf-fall, the grey day overhead and the persistent rain trickling off the glass, as a decrepit, messy piece exploring concepts of loneliness, sadness and loss.

Groningen (art installation)

The central square and side streets were host to large food markets but we (okay, I) forgot to bring my wallet and we had exactly no money at all with us, so we deviously sampled their wares but could not have bought anything even if we wanted to.  Several churches framed the main pedestrian thoroughfare.  We looked in at the Der Aa-Kerk and Martinikerk as we passed, and had a quick glimpse into the pretty internal food markets as we wandered by. We climbed a stage in the main square that offered views over the colourful markets.  Heading north, we were the only visitors to the formal Prinsenhof gardens, the rain having driven everyone else back indoors.  We found a covered area near here to sit and eat a quick lunch, watching the sheltering crowds, before making our way back east through a lovely residential area.

Groningen (central markets)

Groningen (Princehof gardens)

We returned back to Benny, after 13km of walking, wet, tired, but happy for the walk.  We got the kettle on and within seconds the light drizzle exploded in sheets of torrential rain that didn’t cease for the rest of the noisy, cold, dripping night.  But with our exercise done for the day and our city sight-seeing completed, we hunkered down warm inside and calmly watched the extensive volume of water falling all around us.  The next morning we could see blue, and the street was dry – such a transformation.  We moved off south-west, and after an hour or so of easy, clear roads in pretty sunshine we cut off to visit services in a small industrial estate in Harderwijk.  From here we popped into the nearby town of Zwolle to visit Lidl for a few last items to see us home, before making our way to the town of Dalfsen to overnight.

Dalfsen (mushroom)

Dalfsen (windmill)

The free motorhome-dedicated aire at the train station was empty and to our surprise came with free Wi-Fi too.  We were the only van in the aire, so we had our choice of all the marked spaces.  There was a large mushroom structure in the field near the aire across from the train station parking.  We walked over to see what it was for, but all the available information was in Dutch.  The young sheep in the field were entirely unafraid and happily approached us, no doubt searching for some tasty handouts.  They nudged us with their noses to attempt to make us part with whatever goodies we might have for them, but they were unfortunately left disappointed.

Dalfsen (church)

Dalfsen (treeline moon)

From the aire we could see a windmill and a few church spires, so we decided to have a wander over to look around the town.  It was a beautiful autumnal day as we walked the streets, the sun warming us and lighting up the yellows and lime-greens of the tidy trees around the centre. Immaculately kept brick buildings lined the wide cobbled streets in the town, the bright sunlight lifting the whole walk above the normal to a sublime, inviting and relaxing experience.  We passed the newly constructed town hall and council buildings, its architecture contrasting with the surrounding placid feel of the neat residential streets.  Later that evening we watched a bright gibbous moon rising over a line of trees, marvelling at the still, lightly chilled air; a perfect autumn evening.