Ghent (East Flanders), Belgium July 2022

And so to Ghent, one of the most underrated of the cities in Europe and my favourite city in Belgium. Okay, so Bruges (where we were yesterday) has history and is pretty and peaceful but Ghent also has history and Ghent is pretty and lively (and has far fewer tourists than Bruges) and, if I were to be based somewhere for any length of time, give me the latter any day of the week.

Ghent has a population of 250,000. To help put that into perspective, this is much the same population as Brighton (where we currently live) but whereas Brighton simply has it’s Old Stein and the Pavillion, Ghent has it’s 12th century Gravensteen Castle, the 14th century Ghent Belfry (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the 13th century Sint Nicholas’ Church, the 15th century Sint Bavo’s Cathedral (building started 500 years earlier), the 7th century St Peter’s Abbey and plenty more besides. Add to this that 50,000 of Ghent’s population are students and it is hardly surprising that Ghent can be a very lively place. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not knocking Brighton; I make this comparison only to illustrate how very unsung and unique Ghent is. Everyone seems to have heard of Brighton and Bruges but, Ghent?

Ghent city centre has it all; a tangle of rivers, canals and bridges; cobblestone streets and alleys and; a wealth of architectural beauty. Medieval buildings abound.

The view back over the Leie River toward the Korenmarkt, where St Nicholas Church, the Ghent Belfry and St Bavo’s Cathedral dominate the skyline, is breathtaking and from here it is easy to understand why Ghent has been referred to as the City of the Three Towers. Ghent has too many wonderful buildings to describe – I’d have to write a book not a blog to do them all justice. This blog will focus on just two or three iconic buildings, inckuding the Ghent Belfry and St Bavo’s Cathedral but, if you’re visiting the city with limited time available to explore… well, you should simply make more time so as to also visit St Nicholas Church, the grandiose Stadhuis or City Hall and, most important, the remarkably well preserved Gravensteen Castle.

St Bavo’s Cathedral is spectacular. Construction started on the site of earlier churches in the 10th century but it was several hundred years (1569) before the cathedral was completed. It’s a fetching blend of stone and brick and has an impressive collection of stained glass windows. Pride of place inside the cathedral is an 18 panel collection “The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb” painted by the Van Eyck Brothers in 1432. This masterpiece, together with some other artwork by Peter Paul Rubens, draws many visitors to the cathedral but, it is the impressive cathedral pulpit, made of oak and black and white marble, which most caught my attention. I have never seen such a wonderfully ornate pulpit.

Not to be confused with St Bavo’s Cathedral are the ruins of St Bavo’s Abbey, also very much worth a visit. It’s a beautiful place, full of historic charm. The resident monks fled the 7th century Abbey during the 9th century (after a visit by wandering Vikings) but later returned and restored the Abbey to it’s former glory. All went well, with the Abbey becoming one of the most famous in the north of Europe, until 1540 when the Emperor Charles V ordered it be destroyed after a local insurrection. Part of the cloisters and the original chapel survive as ruins and/but the footprint of the original abbey church is now marked out by tall hedges (and in place of the original altar is a concrete stage, where artists sometimes perform). It really is worth a visit but the site only opens for a few hours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon in the summer months. Talk about lucky, it opened just as I arrived.

And so to The Belfry of Ghent. It is 91 metres tall UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built as a fortified watch tower with it’s large bell, the Klokke Roeland, being used to sound the alarm. At some time the bell was damaged and removed from the belfry and ‘Roeland’ now sits at ground level to the rear of St Nicholas Church. The views from the top of the Belfry are everything you would expect from such a vantage point and there is even a lift for those who don’t fancy the stairs.

Two old quays on the Leie River which are not to be missed are the Graslei (where vegetables used to be stored) and the Korenlei (where grain used to be stored). These have long been given over to bars and restaurants and are a perfect place to sit and chill and watch the river traffic cruising up and down.

The Korenlei, photographed from the Graslei

No visit to Ghent is complete without a visit to the Patershol district. An older part of the city, as is evidenced by the medieval buildings and cobbled streets and alleys, and now home to boutique shops, cafes and restaurants. Another of those places to just sit and watch the world go by.

Needless to say, Vanya was tempted to visit some of the shops in the Patershol; not that I have any problem with her being interested in Belgian Chocolate. It’s not chocolate but one local sweet which I do very much enjoy and which simply has to be sampled during any visit to Ghent is ‘Cuberdon’. It is cone shaped and about the size of a golf ball with a soft candy shell (the consistency of a large jelly baby) stuffed with a runny raspberry flavoured filling. It’s delish!

Talking of shopping, the Vrijdagsmarkt Square (the Friday Market Square) is one of the oldest squares in Ghent – there’s been a market here every Friday morning since the 12th century, hence it’s name. This square was also where public executions were held but they weren’t as frequent and the last such execution was in 1863. There is a market on the square on Saturday afternoons too but we were disappointed with both it’s size and it’s content. Perhaps Friday is better?

I cannot finish on Ghent without mentioning it’s Street Art. There is Street Art all over the place; so much so that the City produces a Ghent Street Art Map describing the best art and identifying where it can be found. This map can be downloaded from “Sorry Not Sorry”. Some of the art is truly amazing. Others such as that on Werregarenstraatje is awful (although, to be fair, any and all would be street artists are encouraged to paint the walls in this particular alley and it can change from day to day – perhaps we were just unlucky).

Two great days in Ghent. Next time we’ll make it three.

Bruges 2 (West Flanders), Belgium June 2022

So, a pleasant evening eating and drinking at Punta Est on Predikherenrei finished with Vanya and I going for a short stroll around some of the more attractive tourist haunts in the centre of the city and, there’s no doubt about it, Bruges is a very picturesque place especially at night.

Entering the city from the east along the N9, we’d already seen the Kruispoort (indeed, we walked through the Kruispoort) together with two of Bruges’ remaining four mills (the Bonne-Chieremolen and the Sint-Janshuismolen) and we’d passed numerous old and wonderfully elegant buildings (many of them now transformed into boutique hotels) but most striking were some of the views that we took in while walking alongside the city’s canals to the Punta Est restaurant. Bruges has been referred to as the Venice of the North (although nowadays many other cities including England’s own Birmingham make that same claim) but my money is squarely on Bruges.

We wandered Bruges late into the night taking in most of the tourist sites in the area immediately around the Grote Markt including The Belfry, the Provincial Palace and the Provost House. This large square is home to various museums (the Historium, the Salvador Dali Musuem and the Beer Museum to name but a few) but it was late and a long walk lay ahead of us back to the Van.

I was back in Bruges shortly after 5 am the next morning – a mosquito buzzing around in the Van had kept me awake most of the night and by the time I had tracked it down and squashed it I was wide awake. I left Vanya sleeping in the Van and set off back to the city for a better look.

There were very few people up and about during the first hour or so of my return into the town. I made my way back to the Markt Square, a large open square surrounded by guildhalls, cafes and restaurants teeming with people the night before but, now deserted. The Belfort Tower dominates the square and it is possible for a small fee to ascend it’s narrow stairway to the top of the 83 metre tower but; not at 11 o’clock at night and not at 6 o’clock in the morning.

Bruges’ Markt Square figures prominently in the film thriller “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fienes. I’m told the local tourist office hold leaflets showing where the various sets were filmed but, needless to say, the tourist office wasn’t open during my visit so again I missed out but, no matter, over the ensuing four hours I saw pretty much everything worth seeing.

Talking of the Markt Square, not all of the buildings on the Square are original but, the Craenenburg Cafe (minus it’s brick facade which was added in 1956) lays claim to being the building from which Margaret of York (another of the Plantagenents) watched a jousting pageant at her wedding to Charles the Bold in 1468.

One place well worth visiting and not too far from the Markt Square (nothing in Bruges is too far from Markt Square) is the 13th century Church of Our Lady which is home (now) to the aforesaid Charles the Bold and, perhaps more important, a Michaelangelo statue of the Madonna and Child. This small statue dates back to 1503 and was gifted to the church by a local businessman.

Bruges appears a very pretty and a fairly peaceful city but it does get more than it’s fair share of tourists. We were fortunate during our brief 2 day stay in that the number of tourists in the city was low and we were therefore able to pick and choose where we ate. That’s important in a place where frites, waffles, beer and chocolate appear very much to be the order of the day. We each enjoyed our meals in two different restaurants we tried on the Predikherenrei and while we paid tourist prices, they were not silly prices and the service was excellent.

Just 30 miles from Bruges is Ghent (spelt Gent in the local language), my favourite city in Belgium. That’s our next destination.

Bruges (West Flanders), Belgium June 2022

Earlier today we began our 6th European Tour in the Van. It is 29 June 2022. It is late at night and we are back in the Van (at Camping Memling) on the outskirts of Bruges having enjoyed a very pleasant evening wandering the town and sampling the local beers. Well, I tried the local beers while Vanya stuck to a couple of French wines.

The events of the day prior to our arriving at Camping Memling are best forgotten but, regardless, I am going to summarise them here. That way there is always a chance I might at the start of our next tour look back on the events of this morning and not repeat them. I wish.

Our first mistake was to take the coast road from Brighton to Folkestone. We left at 08.45 and arrived at the Eurotunnel Check-In point at 12.50. The more circuitous route via the M23, M25 and M20 would have been at least an hour quicker. Our second mistake was to assume that the dog’s Spanish Pet Passports (absent the Rabies jabs) would be read in conjunction with their old UK Pet Passports (which confirms that the dogs current Rabies jabs are valid until the Summer of 2023). Silly mistake. The authorities politely but firmly informed us that they are not interested in the contents of the old UK Passport unless the passport is accompanied by one of the new Animal Health Certificates and that the Spanish Passport could not be considered valid until such time as the Spanish Passport contains a record of the rabies jabs having been administered within mainland Europe. With our scheduled train due to depart for France within the next hour we were told that we could not travel without first getting a local Vet to issue Animal Health Certificates! Okay, so we got them but, it did entail some considerable phoning around before we found a vet in Folkestone willing to issue the required certificates and; it cost us two hundred and thirty quid for the vet to copy the certificates we had bought last February (and that were out of date by just 7 days) and; the delay led to us missing our scheduled train at 12.50 and not getting another until well past 17.00. Next time, we will be phoning Eurotunnel and checking these matters out well in advance of travelling. As it is, we arrived in Bruges some time after 20.00 hrs (19.00 hrs GMT) to find all the local supermarkets closed but, hey, we got here and it all could have been so much worse.

We’ve decided to stay on in Bruges for another day and I will therefore continue this blog and tell you something about Bruges tomorrow. In the meantime, it will suffice to say that the local beer is jolly nice.

Montreuil sur Mer (Hauts de France), France March 2022

On this particular tour, we may well have saved the best for last. I don’t recall how often our route into and out of of France along the Opal Coast has taken us straight past the thriving little town of Montreuil sur Mer but, from now on, I suspect we will be stopping here again and again. It is a lovely little wholly unadulterated French town so unlike others in this particular region of France. We both liked everything about the place although it is no longer “on the sea”. The Canche estuary silted up some 500 years ago and the coast is now some 12 kms away.

We parked up at Camping La Fontaine des Clercs, just outside the old town ramparts. Only two towers remain of the 13th century castle but there is a fine walk around the well preserved ramparts which almost completely encircle the old town. Because of her acrophobia Vanya didn’t join me on my walk along the ramparts.

However, later in the evening, Vanya did accompany me into the town through an old brick portal in the walls and she was as impressed as I with the place. I’ve not heard anyone talk about M sur M and it is therefore for me an undiscovered beauty with a mass of old houses and short cobbled streets and alleys. One of the streets, Rue Clape en Bas, features a series of workmen’s cottages dating back to the 16th century but you only have to look at the dates engraved above the front doors elsewhere in the old town to realise that almost all of it dates back to anything between 200 and 400 years ago.

We made our way through the town to the Place General de Gaulle which is a wide open space mostly given over to car parking except on Saturdays when the local market is held. This square is ringed by bar-restaurants, small arts and craft shops, patisseries, chocolateries and a particularly impressive fromagerie (Fromagerie Caseus) holding an amazing choice of more than 150 different cheeses. We were told that on Bastille Day the square is wholly given over to a huge Antiques Fair.

The square is also home to a statue of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig (There’s not many of those around the world). M sur M was Haig’s GHQ during WW1. The statue was erected in 1931 but had to be completely rebuilt after being used for target practise by occupying German soldiers during WW2.

Not far from the Place General de Gaulle on the Place Gambetta is the Abbey Church of Saint Saulve. Originally a 12th century church but almost completely rebuilt in the 16th century it is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and the inside is seriously impressive. The church holds one of the finest collections of sacred art across the north of France and the relics of Saint Austreberthe who was famed for her visions and miracles.

There have been many illustrious visitors to Montreuil sur Mer but none more so than Victor Hugo (famous poet, novelist and dramatist) perhaps the most important of France’s romantic writers. He became a frequent visitor to M sur M after first visiting the town in 1837 with his mistress and the town and some of its inhabitants became the inspiration behind his great historical novel “Les Miserables”. Hugo frequently refers to the town as M sur M in his novel and the town became the home to the books principal hero Jean Valjean. Many characters in the novel were based on people Hugo met when he visited the town. He stayed at the Hotel de France (you can overnight in the same room he used) and the then Innkeeper and a barmaid were real life models for the characters of Monsieur Thenardier (the Innkeeper) and his wife. The characters of Fantine and her daughter Cosette too were based on people he met in the town.

Much of the old town including the Hotel de France look precisely as it did when Hugo used to visit and parts of it, especially on the street of ‘La Cavee Saint Firmin’, featured in the 1925 film version of Les Miserables. Every year at the end of July/early August some 500+ of the town’s 2,100 population put on an outdoor Son et Lumiere (sound and light) show of Les Miserables.

There are a number of fine restaurants in the town, the Chateau de Montreuil (with it’s Roux protege Christian Germain) being perhaps the most famous but there are several others listed in one or both of the Michelin Guide and the Gault & Millau French Restaurant Guide. Alexander Gauthier, voted France’s greatest chef just a few years ago, has three restaurants in the town including the two Michelin Star “La Grenouilliere”. La Grenouilliere was closed during our visit but at late notice and with our dogs accompanying us we were offered a table in a sister restaurant – ‘Anecdote’. Anecdote opened in 2015 in what was part of the old Hotel-Dieu hospital and it features the signature recipes of Gauthier’s father. Vanya and I will each testify that the food and wine was fantastic (as was the service).

Our evening in the Anecdote ended in a bit of an uproar after our German Shepherd dog (Nala) decided to move my chair just as I was sitting down after a trip to the loo. Much to Vanya‘s amusement and that of the waitress, I tumbled backwards to the floor and then; just as I was regaining my feet, I stepped into the dog’s water bowl. Even the Maitre d’ was laughing at this stage.
No matter, it was a great evening and what a find!!

Sully sur Loire (Loiret), France March 2022

From Chateauroux we allowed ourselves just two more nights in France before catching the eurostar back to the UK on 3 March. The first of these two nights was to be spent parked up in the front garden of a National Dog Trainer just to the north of Chartres in the hamlet of Bercheres Saint Germain (Don’t ask me how Vanya found that one!) but before then there was sufficient time to visit Sully sur Loire.

Sully sur Loire is a small pretty town in the Centre-Loire Valley. It’s most interesting feature is the picturesque Chateau de Sully sur Loire; a medieval castle with battlements, an impressive moat and fairytale conical towers. Now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site this was a functioning castle in every sense of the word and is steeped in history. Joan of Arc was briefly detained there after failing to liberate Paris (she escaped only to be captured by Burgundian Lords and was then executed); Anne of Austria and her young son, the future Louis XIV, stayed for a while together with the Cardinal Mazarin (rumoured to be the Queen Regent’s lover) and; last but not least, the 18th century philosopher Voltaire stayed over on at least two occasions.

Built in the 13th century, the first Dukes de Sulley took the castle on during the 14th century and it remained with that family until 1962 when the Loire Department purchased it and made good the damage caused during the French Revolution and a seriously bad 1918 fire. As stated above, it is now a museum and a most impressive building.

We had sufficient time in Sully to both walk the chateau grounds and grab a bite to eat in a local cafe bar but then it was onwards and upwards towards Chartres and the small village of Bercheres Saint Germain and the house of the lovely Floriane Moliere.

Chateauroux (Inde), France February 2022

We stopped in Chateauroux on the way south a few weeks ago and enjoyed our stay so much that we decided to return for a couple of days. This would give us the chance to get the dogs seen by a local vet (for tape worm medication as required by the UK authorities) but, perhaps more important, it would enable us to stock up on some of the white Reuilly wine that we so enjoyed during our last stay.

Unfortunuately the return trip didn’t go quite as smoothly as we hoped. Yes we arrived safely at Camping La Belle Isle in the centre of Chateauroux (and we quickly found the Vet’s surgery just around the corner from where we parked the Van) and, yes, we quickly found the bar at which we discovered the Reuilly but, the bar was closed both on the Sunday that we arrived and on the following day. Indeed most of the town was closed for the Sunday and Monday (and this included the Sports Bar I had used previously).

This misfortune resulted in me having to walk many miles to obtain the Reuilly. I ended up walking a wine triangle (a) 3 kms from our campsite on La Belle Isle to the E Leclerc Hypermarket followed by (b) a second 3km leg to the Carrefour Supermarket and then (c) a third 3km walk back to the Van. The good news was that the Reuilly selection at Leclerc was sufficient to justify driving the Van there and stocking up as we left Chateauroux.

I really didn’t mind the walk around Chateauroux. It allowed me to see more of the place. Amongst other things I took time to look inside both the Eglise Notre Dame de Chateauroux and the Eglise St Christophe on Rue des Fontaines…

…and justified my stopping at La Ginguiette (bar) on La Belle Isle to enjoy a couple of glasses of Reuilly while the sun went down.

Rochefoucauld (Charente), France February 2022

Our next proper stop was to be in Montrichard (such that we could both obtain the necessary paperwork to take the dogs back into England and stock up on some of the Reuilly wine that we so enjoyed on our way down through France) but just an hour or so down the road we paused at Rochefoucauld.

A small town of just 3,000 people, Rochefoucauld is best known for it’s Chateau overlooking the Tardoire River but there are a couple of other fairly interesting historic monuments in the town (including the Carmelite Convent and the Notre Dame de l’Assomption Collegiate Church) and it has a very pretty centre.

We left the Van on a small parking lot by the river, between the chateau and the town centre and went for a brief wander.

We started with the Chateau, some parts of which date back to the 10th century although; the place was considerably enlarged at different times between the 15th and 18th centuries. Throughout, it has been owned by the Rochfoucauld family and some of the family still live there. The chateau was open to visitors as we arrived but at 10 euros per person entrance fee and with only an hour to go before our lunch reservation we restricted ourselves to the gardens.

The small town of Rochefoucauld is a joy.

It was a bright sunny Sunday morning/afternoon and there were plenty of locals sitting outside the various cafes and bars, engaging in conversation, sharing glasses of wine, watching the world go by and generally letting things happen.

And on to the restaurant. It was empty as we arrived but within minutes of our settling down and placing our order the place was packed… and small wonder; the food and the house wine was excellent. The wine was a Bordeaux Blanc Sec, Chateau du Grand Plantier and it was for pennies!

Of course, something had to go wrong and it did. I’ll not go into too much detail as to what happened but, Vanya took the dogs back to the Van while I went to get the bill and all three of my debit/credit cards were declined. Talk about embarrassed! I had to run after Vanya and get one of her cards. It seems one of my cards was relatively new and had not been activated and I had used the wrong pin numbers for the others – three times on each card!! It was a very good wine but I didn’t think I had drunk that much.

Montguyon (Aquitaine), France February 2022

And so by 26 February the journey home was well and truly under way.

We were booked to travel through the tunnel to England on 3 March and that gave us a generous 5 days to get through France to Calais although, we intended stopping in Chateauroux for a couple of days to get the dogs cleared for travel back into the UK and to stock up on some of that lovely Reuilly wine we had sampled on the way down through France.

Leaving Zarautz we crossed the border and drove some 200 miles into France. We stopped for the night a little way past Montguyon at a small, quiet site in Le Fouilloux.

There is little of interest around Le Fouilloux but the campsite was pleasant enough and it is within an hours drive of one of the prettier small towns in the area, La Rochefoucauld, where we intended taking brunch the next morning.

And so it was…

Zaurutz (Basque Country), Spain February 2022

It was Friday 25 February when we arrived at Zaurutz just 17 miles due west of San Sebastian in the Basque Country. It is 27 March as I write this blog.

It is ironic that we were heading back to England from Spain in such a hurry only because Vanya had a Spanish lesson in Brighton on Thursday 3 March (and we had a place booked on the chunnel train). Crazy or what?!?

We stumbled on Gran Camping Zarautz but what a find! We could spend just the one night there but will certainly return. It’s a beautifully located campsite on Mount Talaimendi, overlooking the Bay of Zarautz, and within striking distance of the Spanish ports of Bilbao and Santander and, better still, the French border.

After a quick look around the campsite (which is one of the best we have stayed at in Spain) I reserved a table in the bar restaurant for that evening and then set off on the path down to the town. They site has a proper restaurant above the bar but we wanted the dogs with us and, anyway, all the food is prepared in the same kitchen.

Zarautz was quiet but it is February and neither the town nor the beach with all its facilities will be fully open until Easter. There was however enough to keep me busy for some three hours. If the truth be known, I could have sat and watched the waves for all that time.

I got back to the Van in good time to try the local, seriously strong, txakoli wine and some cider and then call Vanya for dinner.

The food was excellent. Vanya and I shared a whole Monkfish caught earlier that day and I consider it to be the best food of any of our tours to date. I suspect I enjoyed it most because I ate more than my fair share of the monkfish cheeks. Why on earth restaurants tend to serve Monkfish tails and no head is wholly beyond me. I suspect it is to do with cost. The cheeks taste fabulous.

The next day we crossed the border back into France.

Burgos (Castilla y Leon), Spain February 2022

It is 27 March as I write this entry. We arrived in Burgos on 24 February and so I still have a fair amount of catching up to do with the blog. Sorry, not least because this tardiness makes for very much abridged blogs.

Some places are always worth returning to and Burgos is just such a place. We stopped here for a couple of days during July last year, while the 800th anniversary of the building of the Santa Maria Cathedral was being celebrated, and we had a fantastic time. Moreover, we saw a great deal of the city.

The 2022 visit was always going to be a much shorter affair; just the one night. We parked up at the Municipal Camp Site and in the early evening set off along the banks of the Arlanzon towards the city.

The path by the river makes for an easy and interesting four kilometre walk into the city, passing as it does a significant number of landmarks (including the Museum of Human Evolution, the Puenta de San Pablo, the statue of El Cid, the Paseo del Espolon, the Arco de Santa Maria, etc) but I talked about those and other places of interest in the July 2021 blog. This time we were simply out for a pleasant evening walk to a decent cafe-bar. We were satisfied on both counts.

Just the 4 kilometre walk back to the campsite and then an early start towards the coast and Zarautz in the Basque Country.