Belgium is not so boring!

36 nights : 1494 miles travelled : Countries visited 3

“Ah but life is like that! It does not permit you to arrange and order it as you will.” Hercule Poirot in Sad Cypress

We do not intend to be intrepid travellers,  but neither do we want to see just the cliched versions of the places we visit. Having said that, in the case of Belgium, we’re ‘here for the beer’!

So imagine our horror when we arrive at In de Vrede, the bar opposite the Abbey at Westvleteren, and see the sign above on the door. The Cistercian monks at Westvleteren produce beers among the best in the world and it is hard to find them for sale. We grudgingly chose to take a walk around the perimeter of the Abbey in the drizzle (visitors are not allowed inside) then we noticed several people going into the building we had left. We returned and realised that while there was no beer to buy from the shop, it was still for sale in the bar. Phew!!

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Graham was driver so opted for a small blonde (?!) but I was able to enjoy Westvleteren 10. The 12 is considered the finest but is 10.8% alcohol and I wanted to see the road even if I couldn’t follow it.

The tour was in danger of grinding to a halt on day one!
The tour was in serious danger of grinding to a halt at this moment!

We ordered a plate of Abbey cheese and another of pate. When the waiter brought them we indicated for them to be placed between us. “Ah sharing is loving”, he said almost under his breath. I felt a glow for the next hour and was so pleased that Graham and I were together enjoying this adventure. The power of auto-suggestion….or the beer?

This was our first full day on the trail. We spent the first night by the canal in a delightful town called Veurne, just over the Belgian border and only a couple of hours from Calais. It has a wonderful market square and the whole town is dotted with spires and dutch gables and the best clock bells we have ever heard. Graham thought he heard them play ‘Mamma-mia’ but I could make out ‘Going to the chapel’……we were tired!

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An information board in the town centre explained that Veurne was the last small piece of free Belgium in World War 1. This was the first of many reminders that the trauma of war is not forgotten in these parts.

The quality of Belgian roads is patchy and we travelled to Ghent on long sections of concrete boneshakers which made Brian rattle loudly. We found another free overnight parking place at the end of the tramline and set off to explore. This was Kipper’s first trip on a tram and his whole body crouched down low to the floor while his claws curled to grip the world which was inexplicably moving on all sides. His day did not improve as the sky which had loomed threateningly, delivered a deluge of cold rain and wind.

Just look at that cloud!
Just look at that cloud!
Who do you think got to the middle first?
Who do you think got to the middle first?

This was the perfect excuse to take shelter to try other Belgian specialities and we optimistically ordered a waffle with extra chocolate sauce…between us!                     

Sharing is loving?

It really depends on the circumstances.

Cheerful brollies!
Cheerful brollies!

Ghent shone through the grim weather and whilst less intensely pretty than Bruges, is a much more real place with friendly locals and great shops. We enjoyed a wonderful public park on the edge of the city before heading off the next day. With access for wheelchairs and pushchairs a priority and an emphasis on creating nature reserves in small spaces, we saw somewhere like this in every town we stopped at and it left us with a very positive impression of Belgian life. We could almost forgive them the roads.

We were aiming for the Ardennes region but stopped off at Hougoumont Farm near Waterloo (we wanted to go to the Lion’s Mound commemorating the Battle, but the Sat Nav knew better.) There was a lot of work clearing up after the events for the 200 year anniversary but it was remarkable to see a modest place that has so much historic significance.

“The success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.” Wellington

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We walked the ridge where the Duke of Wellington and allied soldiers had faced Napoleon’s army and really moving were the small tributes of poppies left by current soldiers to men who though they died 200 years ago, are viewed as comrades.

Kipper: 'Don't turn round, there's a whacking great Lion right behind you'
Kipper: ‘Don’t turn round, there’s a whacking great lion right behind you’

As we drove through forested Wallonia (the French speaking part of Belgium) we were often stuck behind huge trucks transporting tree trunks, reminding us of the joys of following sugar beet lorries in Norfolk. There were a large number of shops and shacks selling frites…as many as the fish and chip shops ‘at home’. Sadly we seemed to have mistimed the journey as they were all closed. We also spotted a new phenomenon, washing and drying machines stacked outside supermarkets and on roadsides, like a vending laundry. You heard it here first.

The Abbey is 2km from town but the church in the centre is very pretty
The Abbey is 2km from town but the church                                     in the centre is very pretty

Our final night in Belgium was in Rochefort a bustling little town near to the Abbaye Notre-Dame De Saint-Remy. Another day another beer. SAM_4235Great beer. This stuff dates from a time when drinking beer was healthier than water but it is so good you feel it could also replace food! We’re no experts but Trappist beer is to be sipped and savoured. The flavours are fruity, deep and complex and the texture is smooth and satisfying. Best of all we could buy bottles to take away for us both to enjoy through the coming weeks. Mmmmm!

We blasted through Belgium, not so much in the spirit of a snail trail but more like a desperate dash to go on holiday, by a river, sipping nice beer in Luxembourg. We are having a rest; a chance to catch up with ourselves after a hectic couple of months of preparations and goodbyes. And we’ll let you know how it was….soon.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: Midsummers evening in Veurne after our first trip to the patisserie, realising we had actually made it. Our trip has begun.

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Note: I cannot find how to insert accent marks so  please accept my apologies, decide what and where you think they should be and imagine them there.

The Long Goodbye

26 nights : 1096 miles travelled : Countries visited 1

“Testing testing 1 2 3”

Over 1,000 miles and we haven’t left the country yet! We have however been tested in many ways including:

1. Testing our packing skills. Still too much stuff and yet it all seems very essential. It isn’t but we have only managed to off-load half a bag so far.

2. Testing Brian’s resilience. The past weeks have seen Brian used as a removal van and now a full time home. We are doing our best to be gentle but so far the shower tap has been replaced and the kitchen tap and fly screen have gaffer tape around them. The suspected gas leak thankfully proved to be a false alarm.

3. Testing our emotional resilience. Saying good-bye has become harder as the weeks have gone on and on that, there is nothing more to say.

Our 'leaving cushion' from our fantastic kids. Yes we really were that surprised!
Our ‘leaving cushion’ from our fantastic kids.                         Yes we really were that surprised!

Whilst we haven’t actually left yet, I have included England as a country visited as there are places we have seen, that we have never been to before ( and in the case of Harlow never want to again….sorry Harlow!) We stayed in Sandbach which I had previously only known as a service station on the M6 and we saw the less attractive side of Birmingham.

The view from Brian on our first morning out of Norfolk!
The view from Brian on our first morning out of Norfolk!

Highlights included being shown new quiet walks in the Lakes and being given the recipe for black pudding canapes by a tipsy royal chef in a pub in Bethnal Green. Kipper has adjusted well to consecutive days as diverse as paddling in streams to weaving his way around strangers on city streets.

Slaters Bridge with Hannah
Slaters Bridge with Hannah
The Florists Arms with Holly, Rob and Jonny
The Florists Arms with Holly, Rob and Jonny

Today we finally cross the channel and get down to the real action. Will keep you posted! M x

Treat of the week:

Sitting outside under a warm evening sky listening to Nightjars in Thetford Forest. However, Graham’s twitching took a different turn as he observed through a neighbour’s caravan window… “ooh look there’s Kate Humble on the telly”. Magic gone.

Preparations Part 2

“Haven’t you gone yet?”

14 nights : 11 miles travelled

No we haven’t gone far!

Waving not drowning
Waving not drowning

As much fun as a badly made follow up to a B movie, we have spent the week clearing out a second garage, unearthing older memories and dislodging more ghosts. Decluttering was an essential part of preparation and we are just about finished, with nearly all our belongings safely in storage. This seems like a good time to tell you about other preparations.

We have tried to overcome our reluctance to engage with technology, motivated by our desire to keep in touch with everyone. Still scared of skype and blagging the blog, it’s apparent there is some way to go. We have a WIFI booster so that we can practice on the trail.

Mr Kips is wrapped up and ready to go. Rabies vaccination…tick. Pet passport …tick.  Snuggling in a sleeping bag…tick. He has even converted to Lidl dog food which should be available in most countries we visit. When his digestive tract has adapted and the smell eased off….then he will get another tick!!

Brian has had several modifications to make life easier when travelling. A solar panel, extra leisure battery and new LED bulbs mean that we are able to manage more nights away from campsites with electric hook up.  We have installed a Gaslow LPG system for heating and cooking and a 500 litre box has been bolted onto the cycle rack to store bulky items like ramps and electricity cable, plus all those unnecessary comfort tools that will ease Graham’s withdrawal from the man cave that was his garage!

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I have pimped Brian’s interior reusing bedding to make loose covers to protect against Kippers needle like hairs. One duvet cover had previously been upcycled to a tablecloth, and I think the mark where the lasagne dish overflowed makes the whole van seem rather homely.

Tomorrow we travel to the West Midlands for Brian’s final and possibly most important improvement…a new mattress. We have been saving a bottle of fizz for when we feel like we are finally on our way. Maybe we’ll be enjoying our bubbly in Dudley!

M x