In rapid succession, we have said goodbye to the Netherlands, to Germany and even to Belgium and the horrible time is upon us that we need to look again upon the septic brexit divided isle and worry about how to fit in to the putrid place that we are ashamed to call home.
In the Netherlands we had trouble finding anyone that did not speak English. In fact, most people spoke English so well that it was nearly impossible to tell that they are Dutch. Awesome. We found out that one reason for this may be that the Dutch don’t overdub any imported movies and TV, but rely on subtitles. This may explain why most English speaking dutch people people seem to have an American accent! 90% of Dutch people claim to have conversation level English.
So if you are considering camper vanning abroad for the first time and find the potential language barrier a bit daunting, try the Netherlands first to ease yourself in! There are some Netherlands downsides – it has been the dearest place for food, drink, diesel, and camping stops, but they also rate pretty high on the world happiness index (6th in the world!)
Belgium is great for languages too – they are laid back enough to not have their own, but use Dutch and French. Many Belgians speak English too.
Contrast with Germany – which made us feel a little better about our lack of languages in blighty. We encountered very few people that spoke anything except German, so you need to get your bitte and danke sorted out!
A great stop-off and only a couple of hundred km from the channel now and we visited the Strépy-Thieu boat lift. Doesn’t sound that exciting, right? Wrong! This enormous twin lift, completed in the 1980’s raises huge canal boats (and we are talking up to 100 m long and 12 m wide) 70 meters between the upper and lower canals. For a decade or so it held the world record for the highest boat lift. It’s bloody huge.
We’ve seen many of the big canal boats around europe – the standard dates back to the 1950s when a new 1350 ton standard was devised. It’s extended from there right up to 280 m long by 35 m wide. So if you ever wondered why Europe can still make canals commercially viable and in the UK it’s cheaper to move boats by road, never mind bulk goods, there’s your answer: infrastructure investment and scale!
The lift replaced a series of four lifts built in the 1900’s. The old lifts are still in situ and are a UNESCO world heritage site.
Anyway, it was a wonderful 25 km cycle around the old and new lifts. Parking here is pretty idyllic – it’s free as in speech and beer and is on the banks of the canal. It would have been an awesome drone shot of the mothership, the canal and the lift, but in Belgium, unless you have taken and exam and have a registered drone, you have a 10 m height limit and must be over private ground. So it was not to be…
We turned into the campsite only to find that we had managed to take a wrong turning and had ended up in a static caravan park. The chap came out and greeted us with a great welcome and we even managed some French. We didn’t bother leaving to go find the proper campsite and stayed for a couple of nights on an empty static caravan pitch.
Cerfontaine was a quick stop-off on the journey back west and it was attractive because it had a couple of big lakes to go explore. There’s an upper and lower lakes and a hydroelectric plant sitting in the middle. It ended up a 50 km cycle over the day, with a lovely Croque Madame and Croque Monsieur for lunch with a Chimay Trappist beer. Nom, nom.
Towards the end of the day, we discovered the European jet-ski championships on one part of the lake, so we watched that for a while too. The lakes have a great amphibus tour, but it was a little beyond our dwindling budget at 25€ each, so we contented ourselves with watching it!
Our first day out in Ghent was Wednesday 1st. It is Labour day in Belgium and a national holiday. There were various parades, protests, political marches and live music on in the town, so we had all the action in one day! We were treated to a live classical music concert at Sint-Jacobs. We visited the Castle Gravensteen, where we had the most entertaining audio guide ever – Informative and hilarious. Think Henning Wehn and you won’t be far wrong. Lunch was massive bowl of Spag Carbonarra for T and traditional chicken stew for S near the castle. Lunch was accompanied by a Chimay Trappist beer – White for T and Blue for S. Selina might just be getting into hopped beers! (Thanks Jerry for the suggestion!) The afternoon was completed with a walking tour of the town taking in some ore of the wonderful brick based architecture.
Day 2 was pretty damp. We visited the Industriemuseum where we learned the industrial history of Ghent and specifically the textile process. The museum has quite a few fully working machines. Earplugs are provided – although the day after labour day was quiet so the machines were not running. The industrial revolution and the textile industry are inextricably woven together (see what we did there?) and together with the Jaquard concept of programmable cards, you can see a lot of the modern world buried in the history of cotton and textiles in general.
Also we visited the Museum Dr. Guislain at the hospital campus. This is an eclectic mix of art and the history of treating mental illness in Ghent. Pretty interesting stuff. We also had another wander around the town.
Celebrating a small milestone today – Sel’s bike odometer rolled over 500 miles, so she has done pretty well to have gone from not having been on a bike for 40 odd years to having ridden 800km. Great stuff! The size of mothership means that we can’t really take here into town without a lot of planning – parking is a PITA. So the bikes have been invaluable – we can just leave MS at the campsite or aire and take the bikes into town to see what there is to see.
One bike related thing we are having trouble getting used to in Belgium is that scooters are allowed to use the cycle paths. We’ve jumped out of our skins a few times when scooters have been coming straight at us 🙂
No overnight stop here, just a quick visit to an awesome attraction. Toby put B-143, a Russian submarine on the map ages ago so even though we actually need to go inland from Bruges, we nipped to the coast for the afternoon to visit the submarine. We don’t normally post lots of photos on the blog, suffice to say that T has hundreds of photos of submarine interiors, so you have a lucky escape here!
This is a 100 meter long foxtrot class submarine. Foxtrot subs were developed between 1954 and 1981 and were based largely on German technology which the USSR inherited after the war. 75 seaman would have served on the sub, and it is bloody cramped! They were also sold to nations such as Cuba, Libya, India and Poland. Foxtrots even played a part in the Cuban missile crisis.
What is interesting is that the sub is almost untouched – it was decommissioned in June 1991 and not too much has been stripped out and even things like the torpedo computer is still intact. Time has taken its toll on the sub, and although it looks shabby on the outside, it was great spending an hour or so clambering around inside, flicking switches and generally developing a great big grin. We only learned after leaving Zebrugge and checking up the Wikipedia page for the foxtrot class, that the sub is due to be scrapped in 2019 as it’s condition is degrading too much to leave it in the water. So visit it while you can!
The same seafront museum also has a lightship, so we explored that, then back to Mothership for the trip to Ghent.
A brief stop at the local supermarket and then 50km to Bruges. We’ve done Belgium for a weekend once before and managed to go around Bruges without visiting. We’ve put that crime against Belginity to rights now! We’ve had a wonderful three days here – thanks Amanda and Dave for the great suggestion!
The weather has not been kind but that hasn’t stopped us getting out and seeing the town. There were two camping options we found using our motorhome specific apps. The first was a lovely looking camp-site but a bit out of town and the other a parking only type affair very close to the town centre. The latter was much closer to town, but had terrible terrible reviews, so we went for the out of town campsite and commuting! Camping Memling is a great little site. Only about 40 pitches, but very spacious pitches and very nice services. Very high tech – the check in machine presents a picture of the campsite and you even get to select which pitch you want. We had the last available pitch!
Sunday and we rambled around the town, had hot dogs, and chips with mayo for lunch. We couldn’t quite manage a waffle! We bought some Belgian chocolates (obviously). We visited the Dali museum, where you can even buy signed Dali works (a little beyond our budget!)
Monday and it was a lap of the town on the bikes and then into town for a lunch at De Beurze on the corner of Markt. We had traditional beef stew and chips with a Kwak beer served in a distinctive long glass with a bulb at the bottom.
Then the VR tour of the town – we are becoming big VR fans! We finished the day with the beer museum, also on Markt with six beers to try after the tour! It was quite a wobbly cycle ride back to the mothership! We’ve put a Trappist brewery on the map – hopefully we can fit it in later on the tour.