Back to the future

406 nights : 13,676 miles travelled : countries visited: 17

The future rewards those who press on.      Barack Obama

Now, we know that you’ve been thinking that all this snail trail malarkey is just one long holiday. Yet we had started to believe it was hard work.  Reflecting on what had already happened for the blog, planning where to go next, whilst remembering to enjoy the present at the same time can be challenging. Then we arrived back in the UK. It was a joy to catch up with family and friends but within days, we appreciated how fortunate we had been to step off the merry go round of real life. So after a hectic 10 weeks, we can finally tell you about our journey home.

Lake Maggiore bridges Italy with Switzerland and the stunning scenery surrounding it’s shores flow from one country to the next. But you are immediately clear that  you have moved on. We cannot overstate how tidy and orderly Switzerland is, and after the casual wonkiness of southern Europe, we both felt slightly unnerved. Urban areas resembled scenes from the Truman Show and we struggled to find countryside that was truly wild. Everywhere was so well managed.

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We spotted this footpaths officer more than five kilometres from the nearest town

This did not reduce the impact of the mountains, rivers and lakes and it was easy to float into the tranquility and beauty surrounding us.

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Rivers, lakes and mountains also help to define the lovely city of Lucerne in Central Switzerland.

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The octagonal water tower is a 13th century fortification

The Chapel Bridge was originally built in 1333 although much had to be rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1993. Not all the painted panels dating from the 17th century were replaced providing a stark reminder of the fire damage.

 

Interlaken really does sit between two lakes and is a hub of extreme sport and endless activity. We settled for leisurely walks and let Mr Kips raise our average speed!

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Our chances of spotting Heidi always felt high!

The picture box beauty of Switzerland was just as we hoped and the cost of living as high as we expected. We decided to spend our remaining Swiss Francs on lunch and chocolate on our last day but with a burger and fries for two costing nearly 50 pounds, there was barely enough for half a bar of Toblerone!

Our plan to visit the Black Forest was abandoned after days of heavy rain left the dark trees steaming and waterways resembling Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. So we decided to visit the border village of Schengen. As major beneficiaries of the agreement that allows free movement across borders in Europe, and in light of all the uncertainty surrounding the future, we came to pay our respects. The village is near to where the borders of France, Germany and Luxembourg meet and the river was close to flooding. We hoped this wasn’t a bad omen!

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The agreement was signed on a boat on the River Moselle, marked by this visitor centre

Sections of the Berlin wall were a poignant reminder of a darker time when Europe was divided by more than checkpoints and customs booths.

Throughout the year, whenever ( read often!) we found it difficult to move on, we promised ourselves that we would return. We retraced our steps to the Mullerthal region in Luxembourg which was reassuring as it proved a return visit is possible, if not often likely. 

Graham was in charge of the route home, which meant we would always be close to waterways. The role of the Canal du Centre in keeping lorries of the road was dramatically boosted by the building of the Strépy-Thieu boat lift. It reduced travelling time on that section of the canal from four days to one and meant that larger barges were able to transport heavier goods.

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Two counter balanced caissons move boats between the downstream and upstream reaches
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The boat lift bridges a height difference of 250 feet and the viewing platform made an old canal fan very happy!
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The four original lifts are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Our last night was in France in preparation for the journey home. We had already decided that we were not ready to give up the nomadic life of the trail and we were heading back for a pitstop not a return. This was a great reminder that there is a wonderful life in the UK to resume some time in the future. But for now the trail is leading us back across the Channel!

M & G x

Treat of the week: We love the journey through the Channel Tunnel. It is so convenient when chauffering a dog and it never fails to impress us as a feat of engineering. Our journey to Folkestone was made more special by being the first to enter our section of the train and driving up the empty carriage was like time travel, although it wasn’t clear if travelling home was going back or forwards?

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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.