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France – Les Jardins de Marqueyssac

We arrived directly from our visit to La Roque-Gageac, and had a bite of lunch in their large, empty car-park as we waited with anticipation.  In winter the gardens are only open from 2pm – 5pm, so we had a short time window of opportunity for our visit.  We paid our entry fee, the first visitors of their quiet day, and walked through the small gift shop into the gardens under deep blue skies.  The warm light of the afternoon was perfect today for seeing the wondrous gardens.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (n with chateau)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (nicky with view)

Opened to the public in 1997, Les Jardins de Marqueyssac were created from over 150,000 box hedges, all delicately sculpted and tended to form intricate curves, spheres and spiral patterns.  The château sits in the heart of the main displays, but the wilder, more natural woodland stretches behind with over six kilometres of paths to wander.  We watched some hedges being diligently tended, with string lines and scissors, by the neat, careful staff, ensuring no stray twigs or leaves disturbed the complex forms.  We had seen many photos of the gardens before, but had somehow not really expected to find the same exquisite views so easily discovered and recreated.  This was one living, visual attraction that does not suffer change with the seasons, but remains a constant, evergreen landscape.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (spiral and chateau)

A small nature display and aviary form a part of the gardens, but the hedges take centre-stage.  We approached the 19th century grand château, passing by several peahens and peacocks lazily mooching around the grounds.  Some time and money has been spent on the renovation of three rooms internally, but the main focus since opening has been on the detailed restoration of the gardens.  After a leisurely look into the beautifully-presented rooms, we left by the rear door of the château to be faced with square hedges cut at various angles, like a box of giant green lego pieces had been scattered loosely in the lawn.  Nicky suggested that they looked more like enormous Weetabix.  We walked on, up a steep, cobbled path lined with lavender and sage, rising enough to now have a wonderful overview.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (chateau room)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (square hedges)

We visited the recreated skeleton of dinosaur bones found during works in the gardens, now displayed behind glass in a purpose-made pavilion.  We enjoyed extensive views from the stone wall and tiny terraces out over the Dordogne valley, soaking up the welcome heat from the afternoon sun.  Following the named ‘cliff walk’, we headed deeper into the woods, passing timber archways and steel bird sculptures.  We reached a high-railed platform, from where a Via Ferrata route around the lower cliff-face begins, accessible under a separate ticket, but it was not open at this time of year.  We passed many hanging fantastical paintings scattered around the forest trails, of fairies and elves, dragons and otherworldly scenes, that helped create a sense of magic to the simple woodland surrounds.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (feature garden)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (balls and swirls)

We saw a few wild roe deer bounce past in the extensive woodland beyond the subtle garden fencing.  We passed a wishing well and a few small waterfalls, gurgling more like a water feature in a large garden.  We reached the wide Belvédère viewpoint, a protruding balcony set 130 metres above the river, and paused here a long while to enjoy the extensive 200 degree panorama from the recently visited La Roque-Gageac right around to Beynac, another Beau Village on the horizon.  We watched large black birds circle in spirals above the valley as we breathed in the view, again smiling at our fortune of having arrived here on such a good-weather day.  We spoke briefly in French to some ladies whom we later found out were American.  Their first words spoken in English to us were an apology for Trump.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (view of la roque gageac)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (stone pavillion)

Thick moss grew haphazardly on the thatched conical roof of stone pavilions, making them blend into the thick, deep woodland setting.  Each twist of the path seemed to reveal something new, a different installation, painting or sculpture.  We reached a play area where there were ground sculptures of grotesque and comical heads, looking like they were emerging from the deep leaf cover.  Running beside and over them was a large, long tube of stretch elastic, a tunnel walkway suspended through the trees providing an interesting means of viewing the woodland spaces from above.  It was most likely meant as a play-thing for children to run through, but today it just had the big kids playing, to the humorous, head-shaking disdain of more sensible visitors who passed by.  They wished they could bounce like us.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (nicky in hedges)

Whilst we had been very lucky to have arrived on a stunningly clear blue-sky afternoon, we still felt that we would have enjoyed our time in the gardens whatever the weather.  The château was quite lovely, the shapely box-hedge displays did not disappoint, and a lack of contrasting floral colour did nothing to detract from the experience.  This was one of the very few places we have paid into where we came away thinking that they had undercharged us for the privilege of visiting – in England, the entry fee would be at least double the €9 we paid.  It felt like incredible value for the time, effort and skill displayed in the topiary displays, and was likely worth it for the hilltop setting alone, with the easy, autumnal beauty of the wide Dordogne valley sitting silently below our watchful gaze.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (valley view)

Beynac - driving through

We finally left the magical gardens and thought again of staying locally, but hadn’t been too impressed by the aire.  So we drove through the Beau Village, Beynac, under the shadow of its dominant castle, but didn’t stop to visit as we were a little jaded from the recent near-constant stream of stunning historical villages.  Instead we moved on to stay at another medieval village on the river, Saint-Cyprien.  Here we decided to stop all of our directed and deliberate sight-seeing and take a well-earned break, sitting still for a few days to properly absorb all we had recently seen.

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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

Germany – A stormy traverse

Germany – A stormy traverse

We left our damp campsite on Als next morning, careful to ensure we safely got off the very wet pitch, to head south out of Denmark to northern Germany.  We spent the next two days struggling through Germany, cursing the volume of traffic, only later realising that the whole of northern Germany was being battered by a storm named Xavier, with a state of emergency being declared in several cities.  The traffic was entirely solid, and every detour we took offered only brief respite before we were stationary again.

Even with our ability to be anywhere, with no time constraints and with a constantly changing target aire to head for, we were still firmly stuck in the web of fallen trees, closed roads and tens of thousands of vehicles all desperately trying to be elsewhere.  We drove for five hours making all of 77 miles, most of them before leaving Denmark, before calling it a day at a quickly selected fourth-choice aire in the town of Itzehoe.  We sat out the continuing deluge in a huge gravel car-park behind the town centre under opaque sheets of rain, but at least the town had free Wi-Fi on offer to help entertain us.

The next morning nothing had changed other than the depth of the puddles that surrounded us, like our own private moat.  We carefully exited the car-park, after facing several rather annoying dead-ends where we had to reverse back out from, where we rejoined the busy roads to again be battered by high winds and rain.  Our second day in Germany’s storm was proving more of the same, stuck with having to use the bottleneck that was the stalled ring-road around Hamburg, replete with all its road works and lanes lost to downed trees and other debris.

We finally broke free and hoped to flow past Bremen, but the road again soon became solid red on Google, passable only with the stoic application of hours of static patience.  We had little, so we jumped off again at the first opportunity, heading back south east away from Bremen to hide ourselves in a small paid aire at a castle in Thedinghausen.  The rains stopped for about a half hour around 6pm and we jumped out to have a quick walk around the sodden gardens and castle grounds, making it back to Benny with only seconds to spare before the skies opened again.  This brief, rushed walk was our only exercise, gentle or otherwise, for two full days.

From here we had to backtrack all the way to and past Bremen, all the while dreading getting stuck again on blocked roads.  But with a few exceptions, we made reasonable, if juttering, progress along the chosen route and finally seemed to have escaped the worst of the traffic as we approached the Netherlands border.  We stopped just short in a town called Bunde to both visit services and to pick up some fresh provisions, then over into the Netherlands we went.  Our German traverse was difficult and potentially dangerous, and went wholly unrecorded, photographically speaking.  So to liven up this otherwise entirely dull blog post, here’s a sketch Nicky did of some penguins – Enjoy.

Nicky sketch - penguin statue