Having spent a couple of days in Brussels, our time in Belgium was fast coming to an end. So on our road trip, we began to make our way back towards the west. We had two days to visit two areas.
This was the period of the trip where we did the most driving, and made the most of the campervan we’d hired. The vehicle was a converted Volkswagen Transporter. We were most impressed with the job Rockin Vans had done with converting it into a beautiful campervan.
The van was equipped with a gas hob and a sink, meaning comfortable cooking without mucking about with little gas canisters in the wind and rain.
The front passenger seat could also swivel round, and the door housed a pop-up table, meaning that we could all sit in, chat and play games.
We also felt like kings of the road. It was great fun driving it.
Elf ’n’ safety
I’ll take this opportunity to point out that anyone who thinks health and safety is an invention from Belgium has clearly never been to Belgium.
Even though our vehicle was easy to drive, Belgium’s roads were often far from pleasant. Roadworks seem to take the form of massive square-shaped chasms with just a few traffic cones to separate them from you travelling at motorway speeds.
In towns, it is also common to see building sites that are completely open, ready for any child to wander in to.
Alex herself fell victim to a safety fail — when she turned round on the pavement and walked straight into a heavy duty temporary road sign that pointing the wrong way and happened to be at head height.
Belgium wasn’t exactly a death trap, but I couldn’t avoid yet again noting that the UK is unusually safety-conscious. Anyone who thinks such bureaucracy would be reduced by leaving the EU is clearly mistaken.
Day 8 — Bruges
We made our way to Bruges, about a 90 minute drive from Brussels. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the weather was turning. We parked near the centre in an underground car park, and began to explore. But the rain was so torrential, it made it difficult to look at anything.
Having done the driving to Bruges, it would be Alex’s turn to drive in the evening. So I treated myself to a flight of Belgian beers while we waited for the rain to subside. It never did. In fact, it worsened dramatically.
It was the sort of rain that bounces back up from the pavement a few inches, and soaks your trousers twice over. We were drenched. There was only one thing for it — to retreat to the Choco-Story, the chocolate museum. At least it was indoors.
The museum was actually quite interesting and informative, albeit slightly dated in its presentation. There was a particularly amusing display attempting to extol the health benefits of chocolate, and downplay the health issues caused by overconsumption.
The weather in Bruges never really improved enough for us to enjoy it. I’m told Bruges is beautiful, but it was impossible to admire it in these conditions.
I did, however, enjoy my chips and mayonnaise. I got it in a slightly tourist trappy shop, where I was next to an American tourist who bought chips and mayo, and chocolate waffles. Double whammy.
We drove to our next campsite, to discover that it was much closer to the centre of Bruges than we’d realised — just half an hour’s walk away. If we’d known that, we’d have gone straight there rather than to the car park, Alex could have had some beer, and we might have enjoyed our time in Bruges more!
Day 9 — First world war tour
Our guidebook contained “a tour of first world war battlefields”. Visiting some of the memorials felt like the right thing to do while we were in the area, especially since it was on our way back home.
Our first stop was Dodengang, styled in English as the Trench of Death.
A sign at the entrance to the visitor centre greeted us: “Welcome to the Trench of Death!” I wasn’t sure about that exclamation mark.
One of the first exhibits in Dodengang is at pains to deflect criticism of turning war trenches into tourist attractions. Apparently this site was first marked and preserved within a year of the end of the war.
Here, you can explore the trenches which have been preserved in concrete.
Our next stop was Langemark, the German military cemetery.
Its entrance is marked by this impressive peace monument, known as the Poppy Cenotaph.
More than 44,000 German soldiers are buried here, including around 25,000 in a mass grave at the front.
Relatively plain, dark, flat tombstones mark the graves.
The place has a very sombre tone.
Six miles along the road, Tyne Cot Cemetery is a stark contrast. The world’s largest Commonwealth cemetery contains 12,000 gleaming white graves, with the walls bearing the names of 35,000 other missing soldiers.
It is a light, bright place. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission take great pride in their architecture, and the staff member who spoke to us as we looked around said it was art. I’m not sure about that, but it’s definitely a well-designed and thoughtful space.
Then we went to Ypres. First stop, In Flanders Fields Museum. Then, Menin Gate. We couldn’t get the timing right to hear the Last Post being played, which was a shame.
Overall, I had very mixed feelings about these visits. There’s a fine line between remembrance and glorification of war. Some of the other visitors appeared to be on the wrong side of that line.
A few times that day, I saw people driving around in a van with war-themed slogans on it, as if they were on a stag party. I found it very strange and uncomfortable.
Our campsite for the day was Camping Ypra, where we experienced something opposite to the good multi-lingual service we’d received at Grimbergen. Not that I’d necessarily expect someone to speak fluent English with me.
The most astonishing scene at this campsite was watching people trying to manoeuvre their massive recreational vehicles around the narrow, twisty roads that were designed only to maximise pitching space.
This was where for the first time I witnessed someone controlling the caravan with a remote control to put it away in the tight space. I’d never seen such a thing! But I saw several more within the following few hours.
Pool of Peace
The next morning I was keen to check out the Pool of Peace. This is a water-filled crater that was created by a mine explosion in 1917. It sounded pretty cool, and I like the name it’s been given.
When we got there, it was spoiled somewhat by the fact that someone had fly-tipped a load of mouldy bread into it. I can still see how it would be a peaceful and tranquil location despite its history.
We visited the nearby cemetery as well.
Home time, but not before wine
That was our last activity in Belgium.
Our next step was to head off to Calais. But before jumping on the ferry, there was one last thing we had to do — and it was another reason why we brought the campervan.
We picked up all of the wine for our wedding from Majestic Wine’s depot in Calais.
Making apple juice
Back in the UK, we stopped off for one more night — with our friends Madeline and Sean who live near south London.
We earned our beds though, by making apple juice from the apples that had fallen in their garden!
I had great fun doing this. It was occasionally gross to cut open an apple only for an insect to crawl out of it.
But with their awesome apple press, this was a surprisingly efficient and fun job, and a delightful way to spend a late summer’s evening.
Madeline and Sean kindly allowed us to take some bottles of it away with us. We used the last (frozen!) one just last week to make bircher muesli.
We returned to Kilmarnock and said goodbye to the campervan. What an enjoyable vehicle to spend 10 days in!