So, with a little break in the middle we’ve spent a week touring physically, and a week having our minds enlarged ;)
So, let’s begin at the beginning. Late in the evening a heavily laden DAF (one with a cornucopia of spares, tools and indeed our luggage) clattered out from a quiet suburban street in Slough. Not the DAF we wanted to take; no; because that was stuck at a garage. Instead it was Vixy, the veritable home of light use that was to carry us around Europe*. Our ‘plan’ consisted of a ferry across to Calais (cheapest), then driving from there to Brugge (in Belgium). After that things got a bit hazy, plan wise, and involved the Ardennes, and Germany, and Luxembourg. That kind of thing.
We made it to the ferry in fine style, early, in fact. Really early. Despite a very relaxed drive down. They put us on an earlier ferry early, which was nice. Unfortunately, we still got to France at an hour which was quite revoltingly antisocial. It was cheap though, the ferry. Having got there we slipped silently off the ferry (hah) and trundled towards Belgium. About 4 or 5am I finally admitted defeat and we pulled into a Belgian service station, reclined the seats and slept for a few hours.
Day 0 (The extra, sleep deprived day, granted by taking a night-ferry).
The morning arrived and Vixy did her now traditional ‘I don’t really want to move’ dance. We shuffled slowly (slower than walking pace) in and out of the space, the engine refusing to rev and then after a minute or so she became her usual perky self and we made it out onto the motorway, the beautiful Belgian scenery flowing past the window. Big wide fields, gorgeous trees, small pretty farm houses. This was an improvement because much of what we’d seen so far was industrial Northern France and Belgium. Fairly quickly though we found ourselves in Brugge. Not that we had a map, of course. We had directions to the hostel (driving directions) written…from the train station. Eventually we found the station and…. after some navigation and a particularly hairy Vixy moment** and some terror thanks to them driving on the right and us on the left, and the steering wheel being positively, firmly located on the wrong side of the car****, we found the hostel. After some more illegal manouvers we found ourselves in the car park that’s conveniently located near the hostel who were very confused by our early entrance and inability to speak Dutch.
Both Kathryn and I can kind-of phrase-book and school-girl-French-arise our way in French. I couldn’t maintain a conversation, but I can ask for a cup of coffee. That kind of thing. Dutch though is a whole new and exciting opportunity for waving and gesturing and slowly reading phrases from a phrase book *. I think they thought we wanted to check in, we just wanted to know where to park…
Eventually we got it sorted, sort of, and headed off (somewhat sleep deprived) into the gorgeous city that is Brugge. Okay, so it’s totally a tourist trap, but it’s a really incredibly pretty one. Having managed to find breakfast – a challenge because most shops in Belgium, apparently, don’t open until 10, we commenced wandering. Kathryn had bought a guide book – and we spent a very pleasant day sight-seeing.
We did the total tourist thing and had a little tour in a little boat – which turned out to be excellent. The tour guy was amusing and spoke in both English and Dutch, which meant we had a good idea what was going on and we got to see some wonderful views of the buildings from the Canals.
It also gave us a better idea of the geography of the city, which meant that once we’d disembarked and started promenading about the place we had a better idea of where we were in relation to where we might want to be.
Being a small wiggly city we didn’t get to see anywhere near all of the things that would have been great to see, but we did get to a very nice gallery, run by a very nice bloke who despite noting that we were clearly far too poor to actually buy any of the fabulous sculptures on display took the time to talk to us, and then even gave us some brochures for the pieces we particularly liked *. Incidentally, the gallery in question was Absolut Art and is run by a very-nice-man.
We also toured their market, which had a huge selection of brass items, and generally wandered around. We ended the day eating cheap Belgian pizza, being attacked by belgian wasps and then going back to our hostel which, slightly frustratingly, turned out not to have a kitchen. I’ve never been to a hostel without a visitor’s kitchen before and was somewhat startled to not have one in this one. Not even a drinking water tap. After poking at the map we headed to bed…
Day 1 – Gent
Day one, the official first proper day of holiday (although the bonus extra Day 0 which would have been a travelling day had we got up at sensible time and got a sensible ferry) turned out much better than expected. Anyhow. Day one was to be half visit half travel. The aim being to get to the Ardenne region, where we had an idea of a campsite in which to stay.
The next morning we piled stuff into the DAF and set off. Well, actually, we piled stuff in the car and I conducted my first ever telephone-booking of a campsite in French.
It started ‘Parlez vous Anglais?” and when the apologetic ‘non’ came back from the other end, I something akin to:
‘Bein sur, um, Une moment si vous plait’*
happened. But, apart from a lot of utterances of ‘pardon’ and him getting bored and giving up once the preliminaries were over, the end result of us booking a space was achieved, and we were terribly happy. And I was very impressed with myself.
I can’t say she was keen though, Vixy. She seemed to have other ‘sitting still and not moving’ plans and when she was coaxed into going some of the noises eminating from the clutch region weren’t…well…quiet. We headed off into traffic though and made our way down to Gent (or Ghent). Conveniently, Gent is served by an excellent tram system and we parked out at Flanders Expo – saving the DAFs clutch for non-town related driving and hopped on the Tram. It would have been easier if we’d’ve not lapped the car-park and Ikea which is at the Gent Expo site and found ourselves back out on the main road (and then worked our way back in), but all the same, it was easier than driving in an unknown city.
Gent is much more of a real city, I suppose. Less touristy, apparently where all the “young” people go from Brugge – and perhaps more interesting for it. It’s also home to S.M.A.K. – an excellent modern art museum, in which we spent a good chunk of our brief time in Gent. Sadly, because we were travelling most of the day, we only had ’til just after lunch – a lunch bought in part from a shop that has apparently not changed since the 1950s. It’s near the market place and is curiously 1950s-y. The chap running it is sat in a box by the counter with a big glass screen. The protective value of this was somewhat diminshed by the door being open and him sticking his hand out to hand us the bag of stuff.
We did buy some very nice fruit ‘tea’ which consists, essentially, of dry fruit. And we also bought some Belgian fruit beer to go with lunch. It was only while we munched on lunch that we noticed the reason for the discount price on the beer; it was about 2 months out of date. Tasted fine though :)
Having wandered around the very-pretty-gent we finally hopped back on the tram and ended up back at the car. On we went to the Ardenne. I can’t say the journey to our campsite was one of the most fun I’ve ever had. It turns out the engine was somewhat further advanced than is ideal, which potentially explains the sensation that she might be overheating a bit, and also the somewhat unkeen to head up hills sensation we got. As we struggled over the hills, I did start to worry that my internal decision to not get the car repaired in Gent was the wrong one.
But she struggled to the campsite. Not actually in to the campsite, not initially, that somewhat embarrassing experience was saved for later. First we stopped outside the campsite and wandered in, checking that this was the relevant site and where we should park up. We returned to Vixy who decided she wasn’t going to, under any circumstances, go into the campsite. Or move off the gravelled slope on which she was stopped. After backing her up a few times and running her at the slope a very nice group of walkers who’d been watching our painful antics offered a push. A good push and she screeched and clattered her way into the campsite and thankfully up the hill to the random spot I chose to park in.
We popped up the tent (very easy it was too) and wandered cooked a fine meal courtesy of Carrefour. This was a delightful campsite, very quiet, the camping area was not huge but it did have a vast caravan area – which was beautifully kept by the residents. And we got to camp right next to the stream.
Kathryn, in that picture, doing the “Kate’s taking photos of me again” look, again. It was just gorgeous though, and while neither of us slept particularly well during our first night under canvas, and it proceeded to rain almost all of the following day, the campsite was a joy.
Days 2-4, La Roche en Ardenne
Our second day in La Roche en Ardenne (the first being wet and involving mostly us pottering around, a quick look in a gallery, and a lot of rushing between shops; oh and a medieval market during which we resisted purchasing a lot of things) was spent going for a wander. Kathryn had located the tourist information the previous day and we headed out on one of their circular walks. The countryside around La Roche en Ardenne is very pretty, and I have no photos of it*.
By Day 4 it became apparent that the AA were having as much luck with European garages as I have with Sloughean ones. We requested a hire car and were given a HUGE car. An MPV. 2 people and a 2 person tent in an MPV. It was silly, and I was somewhat confused by the fact that the MPV had a smaller boot than the DAF had anyhow.
Still, it started and stopped and was LHD which was exciting and different and it’s always good to practice things like driving a LHD manual car for the first time on someone elses car.
Sadly, fetching the car consumed most of Day 4, mostly because we spent much of it staring at a counter in a Belgian car rental place because the person who collected us and who had gathered from our broken and stilted French didn’t actually tell anyone why we were there, and we both assumed that he was doing something related to getting our rental car. It turned out he wasn’t, and eventually Kathryn prompted things and we got the car, and then went and fetched stuff out of Vixy.
Day 5 – Luxembourg (the country)
The next day, equipped with new wheels we trundled into Luxembourg. I’m just reading “I wouldn’t start from here” – a book which has a somewhat negative opinion of Luxembourg, but I think the place is rather nice. Everyone seemed polite and it was very pretty. By sheer fluke or Kathryn-memory we stopped for lunch in a little village called Esch-sur-Sûre. This, it turns out, is a very pretty place straddling a mountainous ridge.
It’s also a place which appears to have no shops. It has lots of restaurants, a fun little Medieval castle thing (in which people were re-enacting, which was fun, and had tupperware out on the table which I thought was slightly less authentic than it could have been). Having wandered up and down all the streets we could find, we concluded that perhaps lunch at a cafe might be the only possible solution to our foodly requirements and found a dinky little place with a very nice little balcony on which we ate a very pleasant lunch…
I still have no idea where the inhabitants of Esch-sur-Sûre eat.
We then continued our quest to reach the campsite. Unfortunately, we were somewhat spoilt by the La Roche en Ardenne site, and the first of our possibles was quickly removed from the list. Not before we got there, mind. We got there, and then I said I wasn’t keen and we could instead drive back to the previous one.
The previous one wasn’t as nice as the La Roche one either, but was pleasant and clean. While the AA caravan and camping guide described it as rural, I’d say it was more outskirts of town. It was the only time we put our tent-pegs in without any bending though, which was quite nice :)
Day 6 – Luxembourg, the City
After a little debate we scrapped plans to stay for an extra night and headed down to Luxembourg, our entire camp in the boot. Luxembourg, as in the city, is also very beautiful. Built on wildly uneven ground with deep valleys carved through the landscape, beautiful trees, and some utterly gorgeous buildings.
We did spent quite a lot of the day quite lost, failed to find several things we were looking for, but also found a pretty little chapel, an interesting museum, and a very nice park. The museum had one of the most interesting display spaces I’ve seen, being in this case the basement of the museum, one display of which is particularly memorable for being mouldy chocolate spread. A lot of it. Really a lot. We left that room quite quickly.
This time our campsite was much better. To be honest, still not as good as the La Roche en Ardenne one, but the people were nice, the site was clean, we got to be by a stream again (this may all explain why I was devoured by mosquitos while on holiday). It took some finding though, the first site we tried was clearly very popular as it was full, but the very nice campsite owner did then try and find us somewhere else that could take us. Which was very generous – given that we’d just rocked up.
Anyhow, yet again the Trangia was broken out and more gourmet meals prepared (I really enjoyed cooking on the Trangia acutually, the simplicty of it was very pleasant).
Day 7 – The Mosel
This new campsite enabled us, the next day, to head across into Germany and the Mosel valley. We pootled around and down to Cochem where, after a bit of debate and an unfortunate wasp related encounter* we made our way up to the castle. The castle at Cochem is a bit of an oddity, rebuilt in the 19th century it’s sort of a hybrid with the external looking all castley, and the inside being less so. It has some utterly fantastic interiors though, the chap who rebuilt it having some incredible techniques applied, and also collecting some incredible furniture.
I’d been hoping to visit a vineyard and pick up some wine in the Mosel, because I am weak and I like wine. It didn’t look like this was going to happen though, because the as we headed back looking simultaneously for ‘somewhere nice to eat’ and ‘a vineyard that looks like they do tastings’ it seemed likely that we were somewhat late.
However, Kathryn spotted an open cellar with a sign outside; a quick doubleback and lo, there was a cellar filled with wine. We stuck our heads in and looked around – there was no one there – but then there came a shout from above. The bloke who owns(?) it had an excellent plan. He lies on the balcony over the entrance sunbathing and keeping an eye out for interlopers desiring fermented grape drinks, and when they arrive greets them then heads down.
We used broken German and pointing, and his limited English and ended up with two bottles of delicious red wine, which our now in our cellar :)
And then we found a nice quite spot for dinner. We had much entertainment attempting to decipher the menu (in German), my Schoolgirl German and the phrasebook failing us somewhat. Eventually though we both ended up with nice food, and then headed home to our comfy tent.
Day 8 – Home again, via Lille
Our final day was mostly driving and a brief stay in Lille. Lille had much that we wanted to visit and very little that we successfully visited. I forgot the map of Lille (which I think remained in the DAF), however we again met some very nice and very polite people (I really feel disheartened about British society after this. Everyone was nice and polite, or generally so; everywhere was cleaner; there was so much less CCTV; oh… I could go on) – including Lille’s underground staff who spent ages giving us directions to somewhere which it ultimately became apparent would take us far too long to visit. The food in their market was yummy though (the Lille market, not the underground’s market).
Anyhow, we settled at a very pleasant cafe for lunch where Kathryn had some phenominally lovely tea (Imperial Wedding Tea), and we ran into a very nice chap called Copernicus.
Then we headed home, and after some highly chaotic shuffling of cars arrived back in the UK… so that was our holiday in continental Europe. Then we went to Edinburgh… but that’s another post altogether.
* For a small value of ‘around Europe’.
** Pulling off a motorway on a blind bend / high concrete walled slip road we went to pull onto the road we wanted and she decided that instead she’d like a rest. A rest without the engine running, which was quite hot after all those motorway miles, thank you very much. She did restart but I was angsting a little.***
*** Quite a lot. And there was a new noise. Not very loud, but definately ‘there’.
**** Actually, driving on the right was fine, but it has broken my brain. Previously I associated LHD with driving on the Right and RHD with driving on the Left. Now either will do for either, which leads to me saying comforting things to Kathryn like ‘We drive on the left here, don’t we’?
* Your conversation is important to us; please wait while we read slowly to you from a phrase book.
* Dirk De Keyzer’s work at the Absolut gallery springs to mind, it was fabulous.
* The little AA battery charger required the car bonnet to be open (because I’d not bothered to fit a cigarette lighter), which would be fine, but it was raining, and so the batteries were flat. Then the car went off to have ‘work done’ (which never materialised), and the charger went with it (without thinking).
* It decided to crawl across my lip, thankfully not stinging me, but leading to me, in an icecream shop making frantic ‘Mmmueh! Mmmmueh!” noises at Kathryn and trying to attract her attention. My mum’s allergic to bee and wasp stings and I’ve only been stung once. It’s normally the second time when you find out if you’re allergic.