The schedule today was, by our standards, a heavy one. We would visit the two small Wallonian towns of Dinant and Durbuy and then overnight at the Luxembourg town of Echternach which sits on the River Our opposite Germany. One only has to cross the river from Echternach to be in the German town of Echternacherbruck.
In fact the only place we got to see was Dinant. We discovered a problem with the habitation door step which I couldn’t fix. It simply wouldn’t fold away. We could jam the step shut and make do without it but I was unable to stop the door step alarm from emitting it’s monotonous, high pitched, ear splitting, “Your door step is not shut” buzz. Trust me, you cannot suffer that noise for long; we had to find a mechanic! We found one in Namur and he was able to perform a temporary fix but by then we were already an hour or so behind schedule. Then we went shopping for food (that we didn’t really need, did we Vanya?!?) first at Carrefour and then Delhaize and that set us back a further 90 minutes. I’ve never met a woman who loves Continental supermarkets like Vanya. Once, in Santiago de Compostela I dropped Vanya off at a large Carrefour while I walked into the city centre to visit the Cathedral. I returned three hours later and she was still shopping. God’s truth, I even had to wait for her!
Sorry, I digress. We’d still make Dinant but Durbuy was now compromised and we’d probably not make Echternach but, so what? This is the beauty of motorhoming – such plans can be broken.
The area around Dinant is made for hiking and cycling but Dinant itself is small enough to see in just half a day even allowing for a long lunch in one of the welcoming bars on the Boulevard Leon Sasserath and that’s about how long we stayed. After crossing the Charles de Gaulle bridge to take the above photograph we were happy to just sit and relax with a small beer and make small talk with the locals.
The local sites which do perhaps warrant a visit are the Citadel (which is now a museum and can be accessed by a staircase of just over 400 steps or by the cable car), the 13th century Collegiate Church of Notre Dame (which can be accessed by the side door and it’s centrepiece is it’s large stained glass window), the Maison de Leffe (a place of homage to the world famous Leffe beers which were brewed in this old convent but which are now produced in Leuven) and the Maison de Monsieur Sax (Dinant was home to Adolphe Sax who created the saxaphone and – there are countless saxaphones dotted around Dinant).
By early evening we were in Wiltz just inside Luxembourg having decided that Durbuy and Echternach could wait until another day. Thank you Dinant.
Namur (Namen in Dutch), nestled at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers, was settled well before even the Romans arrived but it came to prominence in medieval times and is now the capital of the province of Namur in the Wallonia Region.
Dominating the city is an enormous fortress, the Citadel. It is supposedly one of the mightiest fortresses in Europe but that would have been only up until medieval times; the Citadel didn’t fare at all well in any the Napoleonic or the First or Second World Wars. You can drive up to the Citadel (there’s plenty of parking) or you can use the cable car system operating out of Namur’s Old Town but, I chose to use one of the many walking routes. After all, this is Belgium and there simply aren’t any tall hills here. It didn’t take long to reach the top but I didn’t stay long. There was a fair underway and far too many visitors for my liking although, at a quieter time, I could have stayed, not because there is anything particularly impressive to see on the hill (it is just massive sprawling fortress) but because of what is underneath it. Napoleon called it ‘the termite mound of Europe’ due to it’s network of underground passages. Some 500 metres have been restored. Now that would have been interesting.
After the Citadel, Namur (at least for me) is about its food and in particular Wallonian Cuisine. The old town is full of cafes and restaurants offering a rich variety of foodstuffs. The foods which most caught my attention (I don’t think local beers qualify as foodstuffs?) were the mustards and the snails (not together I hasten to add). Belgium offers a host of different mustards but the one I like most is local to Namur, Bister’s L’Imperiale. It’s made only with mustard seeds. There are no enhancers nor colourings and it has a robust tangy flavour with just an edge of sweetness which is fabulous with salami. The other food to be sampled in Namur are the snails (I always think they sound more palatable if you use the French word ‘l’escargot’) and l’escargot I am referring to are the petit-gris which are farmed in and around Namur. In fact, the petit-gris has long been the symbol of Namur. Now, l’escargot petit-gris warmed in a little garlic butter… yummm.
So what else is there to say about the city? Our interest was with the old town so, after parking the Van up in a space underneath the Citadel on the Avenue de la Plante, we made our way back along the banks of the River Meuse to where it meets the Sambre and entered the old town through the Rue du Pont. This brought us directly to the town square where the imposing Palais de Congress, previously the stock exchange, stands.
There is a curious group of bronze statues on the square, directly in front of the Palais de Congress – two characters invented by the Belgian cartoonist Jean Legrand (Francwes and Djoseph, sic) have caught two snails; one is imprisoned in a cage and the other is on a lead. This scene is supposedly a reference to Namur’s particularly slow place of life (with the snails being restrained such that they don’t race away). If nothing else, they proved a conversation piece and provided Vanya with a photo opportunity for Beanie.
To the west of the Palais de Congress are a jumble of cobbled lanes and squares which are home to a range of fashion boutiques (especially on the Rue de Fer and the Rue de Bruxelles) and countless cafe bar restaurants. This area is our favourite part of the old town. The Baroque Cathedral of St Aubin and the Jesuit Church of St Loup are also located in this part of the old town but I wouldn’t list either building as a ‘must see’.
One building I would like to have visited during our visit but didn’t make sufficient time for is the Felicien Rops Museum which is also in the old town. Rops was a prolific and versatile 19th century Belgian artist, born and raised in Namur, who was a pioneer of Belgian comics (although he is perhaps best remembered for his erotic and occult art). Sods law, I read (only after we had departed Namur) that entry to the museum is free on the first Sunday of every month – that was today! Next time…
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, including 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.
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 (albeit with a beer in your hand).
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.
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.
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.
What’s to say about Ypres except that it is a lovely City (and of course, almost totally rebuilt since WW1). There’s much to see (the Menin Gate, the Ypres Cloth Hall, St Maarten’s Cathedral, etc) but after walking my legs stiff I most enjoyed just sitting and people watching outside the very popular St Arnoldus Bar while drinking a selection of local beers – and very nice the beers were too.
Before I continue, thanks to Will for setting up a trip advisor in my name. I will comment on the St Arnoldus Bar & Restaurant once I learn how to use trip advisor. Meanwhile I attach photos of the bar together and some of the beers I tried. They serve them 4 at a time and these were all between 8% and 10%. Now that is a pub!
Towards the end of the evening I decided to return to the Van via a circuit of the city walls. I got lost but stumbled, quite literally, across another British cemetery (Ramparts Cemetery; they are everywhere) and, on an altogether brighter note, a road sign showing the way to my next stop, Lille.
Leaving Kortrijk I set the sat-nav back to the town of Ypres, around which I had detoured on my way from Calais. However, signposts to the Australian Cemetery at Polygon Wood and the British Cemetery at Tyne Cot soon saw me divert from my planned route – and glad I was too.
This small part of Flanders has many, many cemeteries (large and small) which are the final resting places of tens of thousands of WW1 servicemen who fought three major battles and countless skirmishes in the area between 1914 and 1918 (Tyne Cot Cemetery alone holds the remains of 12,000 plus soldiers of which two thirds are unidentified) and a visit here could very easily be upsetting except that I found the attitude of the locals to be very uplifting.
I met two Belgians near the Polygon Wood Cemetery. The first has a smallholding in the area and he spent some time explaining to me how grateful the locals are towards the soldiers resting in the many cemeteries. Thereafter he insisted I meet his pet donkey “Little Tommy” and then, best of all, he introduced me to a second local, Johan Vandewalle who owns the “De Dreve” Bar.
In addition to running a very pleasant bar Johan Vandewalle has, with items collected from the local battlefields, turned the “De Dreve” into a mini museum commemorating Australia 5th Division activities in the area during the war. Moreover, he is almost single handedly driving what he calls the Brothers In Arms Memorial Project and it is a fascinating story which came to light after he unearthed the bodies of 5 WW1 soldiers in 2006 in the nearby hamlet of Westhoek. One of the soldiers was an Australian Private 3504 John Hunter but… I’ll not go into detail here. You can look it up on his website (www.brothersinarmsmemorial.org) if you are so inclined.
One final picture before I set off to the town of Ypres…
Yesterday went like a whirl. Any apprehension I felt about this Tour was replaced by excitement the moment I reached France. The journey from Calais to Kortrijk went well and I crossed the border into Belgium (at L’Abeele) more smoothly than Napoleon Bonaparte did in 1815 – there was no border presence at all and if it weren’t for the road signs changing from French to Flemish I wouldn’t have known I had entered Belgium. Kortrijk appeared almost empty as I arrived early on the Sunday afternoon and I was able to park the Van in the centre of the town (N50,83120 E3,26818) without any difficulty and enjoy a quick stroll before dinner. There’s a significant amount of regeneration going on in the centre (especially by the River Lys – that’s the River Leie in Flemish) but the balance between old and new appears to be working.
The town became even quieter as it got dark but the next morning was totally different. I was up early, looking for an early start towards Ypres but a local market was being set up in Kortrijk’s two major squares and I sat for a full hour with hot coffee and croissants watching while the locals noisily set out their stalls with local produce. Freshly baked bread, cheese, cold meats & fresh fish seemed the order of the day. I sampled a few cheeses before driving back down the road I came in on towards Ypres.