Our first night in June was spent at Brugge in Belgium while we waited for our friends from Adelaide, Tom and Marnie Raggatt to join us as part of their annual pilgrimage to Europe. We were staying at a campsite 3km outside the walled town and a fairly easy ride in, apart from the cobblestones that shake you to pieces.
The old town of Brugge is a walled area of around 430 hectares surrounded by a large canal linking it to the North Sea and is then crisscrossed with many smaller canals throughout the old town. Its Golden Age was the 12th to 15th centuries, based on cloth and trade. Although occupied by the Nazis in both WW1 and WW2 it was spared any damage and the gems of architecture remain to this day. The historic town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its beautiful buildings are too numerous to mention but include the Church of Our Lady and the Belfry, which has 47 bells. The town still has a full-time carillonneur and listening to the bells was a real joy.
Grubie loved the many horse-drawn carriages about town and we all loved the canal tour we took by boat, which gave us a totally different perspective of the beautiful buildings and gardens. But mostly we just wandered the town enjoying the sights.
We tried a few of the local specialties (besides the beer!) and especially enjoyed their rabbit stew – legs of rabbit with rich gravy and tiny sweet onions, sometimes even prunes. Another specialty was beef slow-cooked in dark ale.
The Raggatts had a hire car so we spent one day touring the surrounds of the town, driving down narrow tree-lined roads between the fields of lush crops and the incredibly fat cows. We went to a very picturesque little town called Damme. It had a lovely canal, windmills and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries with the classic stepped gables. There was also a dignified town hall and church. We had a lovely wander around for an hour or so. At this time of year the plane trees are seeding and there is fluffy stuff floating thickly through the air – it even gets into the restaurants and shops. It plays havoc with everyone’s hay fever.
After Damme we drove on to a place called Sluis, which is only just across the border into Holland. Although it isn’t exactly on the coast, it is linked by a canal and is renowned for its seafood. The fish market was incredible - huge and busy, selling all sorts of fish, shellfish, cured and smoked fish as well as prepared meals using fish. Upstairs was a fish ‘cafeteria’ where we had lunch. It was an absolute bargain! 16 Euros for a three course lunch comprising a fish soup with so many fish pieces it should have been a main course; fish and chips and salad; and a dessert of your choice. It was delicious and all that was lacking was the restaurant ambience.
After lunch we decided to go to the nearby coast. We found the coast and mile upon mile of holiday villages but it would never be our choice for a holiday. The water looked very uninviting.
Belgium is famous for it’s beer, chocolates and lace – probably in that order. It is quite expensive in comparison to France and especially to Spain and Portugal. Decent quality wine is probably double in price to France, as are moules. Spirits are another third more expensive as are camping grounds and eating out. On the positive side the petrol is a little cheaper and they don’t have tolls.
After parting from the Raggatts we headed to Ghent. Belgian motorways are madness and the drivers are crazy, so what was only 59km felt like a couple of hundred. And then we got lost trying to find the campground, so it was just as well it was a really good one.
Ghent is quite different to Brugge – far less touristic and more mixed, in that it doesn’t have a specific old town, just an area where there are lots of old buildings mixed with the new. There are trams going everywhere, which is probably nice for the locals but the overhead cables ruin tourism photos and the tracks play havoc with bicycle wheels! Ghent began in 630AD and thrived due to the wool trade and by the Middle Ages it was one of the most important cities in Europe. It was ruled by merchant families and has a history of insurgence against its rulers.
The top of Sue’s list of things to see was the famous Ghent Altarpiece housed in St Bavo’s Cathedral. The Cathedral itself was unusual in having heavy black and white marble Renaissance style columns inside a Gothic church.
The altarpiece called ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ was painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck and is considered to be one of the most influential paintings in history. It has 20 panels and is undergoing extensive restoration. The difference between the restored panels and those yet to be done is amazing!
There are lots of interesting buildings in Ghent including the magnificent Belfry, the Graslei & Korenlei historical grain quays, the Castle of the Counts and the Castle of Gerald the Devil as well as lots of other churches and merchants homes. It makes for a fascinating place to wander.
Our next stop in Belgium after another short but harrowing drive, was Antwerp. We stayed in an aire 3km from the centre of town and caught the bus into town on a couple of days to look around.
On another day we took ourselves to the newly gentrified port area and the MAS gallery and panoramic. It is a futuristic building with waves of Perspex on each level allowing a panoramic view of Antwerp and beyond. It had a really interesting exhibit about one of Sue’s favourite architects, Le Corbusier. In his later life he became quite the town planner and designed a plan for a new area called Linkeroever in Antwerp. His ideas were never fully implemented here but they were in the city of Chandigarh in India. It was fascinating to see how his theories played out in real life. Unfortunately he didn’t live to see that.
We got up early on Sunday morning to make the 124km drive to Delft in southern Holland, and had a lovely truck-free drive. We stayed in a terrific campsite a short 2.5km bike ride to the centre of Delft. What a gorgeous place! Lots of canals and pedestrian zones, with beautiful old houses and a trendy vibe. There were many impressive churches and a town hall with a belfry. The new church has the tombs of William of Orange and many generations of the Dutch Royal Family.
Delft is of course famous for its blue painted pottery and we visited the Royal Delft museum and factory, the only one remaining and still in operation from the 17th Century. Sue and Michael both enjoyed the collection of pieces and artifacts, as well as the glimpse of the working factory and the cute film outlining the process of making the pottery. There were lots of beautiful things to buy at incredibly expensive prices so it’s a good thing we don’t have room for souvenirs or dining sets. The dining set that Royal Delft made recently for the Dutch Royal family’s state banquets was absolutely exquisite.
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is the famous Delft master of the Golden Age. His use of light was incredibly sophisticated yet he lived his whole life in Delft and didn’t travel at all. He is also remarkable for only painting between 40 and 60 paintings in his whole life. He had a benefactor who supported him and owned his paintings.
Everything in Holland is really close together, one city blending into the next. Rotterdam, Delft and Den Hague flow one into another. One day we rode into Delft and then caught the tram a mere 12 minutes to The Hague for a day of sightseeing. Grubie was allowed on the tram so got to enjoy a day out as well. The Hague is a big and busy metropolis but has many lovely squares and plazas, historic buildings, galleries and parks. And so much street sculpture! Michael was in his element.
The Hague also has some stunning modern architecture.
Sue loved her visit to the Maurithaus and getting to see the originals of Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, ‘The Little Street’ and ‘View of Delft’ Also wonderful were all the Rembrandts on display. Both artists were masters of the use of light, although in different ways. Rembrandt’s light was more focused while Vermeer produced a fantastic translucence. In 2019 the Netherlands is celebrating The Golden Age of Holland, so Rembrandt and Vermeer are top of the pops.
And who could go past a museum devoted to MC Escher? It was an interesting display that traced the influence of his early life in rural Holland and the importance of nature to his works as well as how his work with perspective eventually morphed into his famous tessellations.
We eventually dragged ourselves away from beautiful Delft and headed to Amsterdam, staying at City Camp, an aire that is ‘right in the guts’ of the city. We were nervous about driving so far in to such a big city but it was fine. The aire is basically a very ugly car park for campervans but we were nice and early to arrive so snagged a spot with electricity. It was a 5 minute walk to the free ferry that let us off right in the old town and Grubie was allowed to go too, so we were all set for happy days of sightseeing.
But then the rain started and it barely stopped for four days! We had just a half a day of some sun before it started again. It’s just as well that many of the things we wanted to do were inside, such as the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Unfortunately the Anne Frank House was booked out so we missed that. It’s hard to believe just how many tourists are in Amsterdam at any one time. Also hard to believe is the number of bikes in Amsterdam. We were amazed by the huge double-storied biked racks at the train station.
We did all the usual Amsterdam things – the Red Light district and the cannabis shops, the canals and the windmills. While you are not allowed to take pictures in the Red Light district, if you look on the bottom right of the first picture below you can see some of the working girls.
The Van Gogh Museum was really interesting. We hadn’t realized that he didn’t start painting until he was 27 and that he was self-taught. His early paintings were dark and muddy as he tried to copy the style of the Dutch masters. In 1888-89 he visited Paris and was really influenced by Impressionists and painters such as Gaugin. After two prolific years he moved to Arles and hoped to set it up as an artists colony similar to Gaugin’s Pont-Aven in Brittany. Unfortunately van Gogh didn’t have the relationship skills to get along with others so his vision never unfolded. But moving to Arles and being largely by himself was good for his art with his paintings showing increasingly energetic brush stokes and powerful colour contrasts.
Eventually we got sick of the rain and left Amsterdam a day earlier than planned. We drove to Luxembourg, a five-hour trip and arrived to brilliant sunshine. We stayed in a lovely campsite on the edge of town and caught the bus in, with Grubie in tow. She has very good public transport manners. Luxembourg is a small country called a duchy but it seems to be expanding rapidly if the amount of construction is any guide. As well as the lovely old buildings there are many interesting modern ones too. It’s a hub for the EU and lots of expats live and work there. There seems to be plenty of money around, with lots of high-end shops and quite high prices for most things except petrol. We went in on a Sunday and the squares were full of locals and tourists enjoying the sunshine and the music festival. The main square had bands playing constantly on two stages.
If we were to use one word to describe Luxembourg it would be ‘elegant’. The buildings are gorgeous with many in the Renaissance style. The town was established in the 9th century at the fort. The ramparts run alongside the river for a couple of kms and below the fort several levels of ‘casements’ were built. They were tunnels into the rock below the fortress but still high above the river and they were used as a place for the locals to go to escape any danger. Many of them had views of the river and surrounds and could have been used to attack the enemy below.
Luxembourg is a lovely place to stop for a day or two on the way to France.
At last the weather has turned and summer has begun! The shorts are out and the sunscreen is in play. We’re all enjoying the change.
Our next stop was Nancy in the Moselle region of France as we slowly made our way back to Jarnac for the beginning of July. We hadn’t toured the Alsace, Moselle or Burgundy before and were looking forward to a little wine tasting. Nancy is a much bigger city than we realized but we were able to find a place in a small aire at the marina next to the canal. It came complete with electricity and showers so we were happy. It was a little noisy but you have to expect that when you are right in the centre of town. We were lucky to visit when they had a sound and light show on in the evening so we went out for a night on the town, with Grubie of course.
The main square in Nancy is very impressive, with lovely iron gates in each corner and lots of statuary. The buildings themselves are quite symmetrical and the whole square is very imposing.
After two lovely days in Nacny we planned on visiting Strasbourg but were unable to find anywhere to stay – everything was full. There are lots of tourists in the Alsace area considering that it’s only June. So we kept going to Colmar where we again stayed in an aire next to a marina. We walked into town and spent a lovely few days marveling at the architecture and the prettiness.
It seems that in Alsace each town is prettier than the last! We wanted to travel part of the Route des Vins d’Alsace so drove a short distance from Colmar to Kaysersberg at the foot of the Voges mountains. There we wanted to stay in a camping ground but they wouldn’t allow Grubie in (how very dare they!!) so we again found ourselves in an aire, this time without electricity or amenities but within spitting distance of the beautiful town.
The whole village is made up of colourful half-timbered houses set along a fast-flowing creek. Its incredibly pretty and the houses, many of which date from the early 13th century, are lived in today rather than being just for tourists. The village is famous for its wines, its stork population and as the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer. But mostly for its wines and that’s why we were there, so we visited several ‘caves’ and sampled some of their sparkling, called Crement as well as several reislings, pinots and pinot noir. There is also lots of distilling done in this area so Michael did a tasting of several of their famous whiskies. We ended up buying a crement, a pinot and a single malt whisky.
By this time we needed to eat and Michael again craved some escargot while he is still in the appropriate region. They were fabulous! The other speciality of the region is Flammekueche, or tartes flambé and we love the forestiere version that has mushrooms, ham, ognions and crème fraiche. The base is a very thin short pastry. Twice the flavor and half the calories of a pizza! Six escargot and a half a tartes flambé is a perfect meal.
After a quick stop back to Colmar to consult a vet for Grubie (more gastric problems) we arrived at Besancon, a beautiful town on the Doub River. And what a beautiful river! The 7km ride from the campground to the old town was along the river and between the dairy fields. It was very beautiful and Grubie and some cows had an up-close-and-personal encounter. We spent a lovely Sunday bicycling around the town
Then it was on to Burgundy for some serious wine tasting. We based ourselves in Beaune, staying at a campground 10 minutes walk from the town centre and on the edge of the bicycle route ‘la Voie des Vignes’. The first day we walked into the town to check it out and get the low-down on wine tastings from the Tourism Office. We chose two tastings, the first being at Patriache, a beautiful historical convent with a labyrinth of galleries from the 13th-19th centuries. It was a clever self-guided tour and tasting with films and displays leading you through the underground cellars, with tasting interspersed throughout. The underground cellars go for 5km. The oldest bottle cellared is from 1904. 50% of their wine is exported, 30% is sold through restaurants and the last 20% is through direct sales. We were surprised at the amount of white wine produced in Burgundy, having always associated it with red wine. We didn’t love any of the wines we tasted at Patriache so didn’t buy anything, deciding to spend the money on a good bottle at lunch.
After this first tasting we found a delightful little square with a restaurant in the shade – the weather was really starting to heat up – and again had fabulous escargot along with a bottle of red – a Grand Crus Charton. Fantastic!
The next day we cycled the Voie des Vigne to the nearby town of Pommard, one of the important wine producing villages. The cycle through the vineyards was fascinating and very pretty. The vines are very close together because the ‘climats’ or approved areas are very small and they need to grow as much per acre as possible. The acreage is very expensive, so they want to maximize their return. The vines are also kept very low in order to try and avoid the frosts that can be so damaging and to keep them close to the rocky soil that shares its warmth. The workers were busy trimming the vines, as they don’t want a large canopy for shade as we do in Australia. They like the grapes to get the sun and also to limit the yield so they get quality not quantity.
After our lovely cycle and a scenic coffee stop we returned to Beuane for our second tasting, this time at the Marche aux Vins. This was quite different in that we could taste wines from several producers across the ‘climats’, rather than being the wines of a single producer. It was also terrific because you could craft your tasting to include the amount and quality you wanted. Michael had the full whammy including three grand Crus and two Premier Crus. The wines were outstanding! Again the tour and tasting were self-guided with displays interspersed with self-poured tastings with tasting notes. However, the Grand and Premier Crus were dispensed by this nifty machine that read your bar code and then poured the set amount from bottles locked in a temperature controlled wine fridge. Very clever and amazing wines! We could have bought a very nice wine for 109 Euro or there was a 2003 for 2899 Euro.
As well as being the capital of the Bourgogne wine region, Beaune has a rich history intertwined with the Duke of Burgundy. There are ramparts, town gates and cobblestoned narrow streets. In 1443 the Chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy and his third wife decided to establish a hospital, the Hospices de Beaune, for the poor as well as the townsfolk. The Chancellor was 46 at the time and it was not completed until he was in his 70s. It’s a stunning building with a fabulous multi-coloured tiled roof and a wonderful courtyard but the amazing thing is that it was still in use as a hospital until the 1970s when a new town hospital was built. Through bequests the hospital was gifted a winery and that funds the modern hospital today as well as its research. The old hospital is now a museum with great displays of old medical treatments and items.
After complaining just a week or so ago that we were still wearing our down jackets and walking though the rain, the weather suddenly turned and it was HOT. In fact, it was a serious heat wave with temperatures of over 30 for days and even getting to 40 on a couple of days. We decided that we might as well be driving in an air-conditioned vehicle to avoid the heat so did the Beaune to Fouras drive of 670km in one day instead of the two days we had intended. It seemed everyone else in France had the same idea because the roads were quite busy but it was a good drive on N roads, so no tolls.
The heat was quite shocking and we slept outside for most of the night and went through bucket loads of ice.
Fouras is a place we have visited many times before and we love it there. It’s a great French family holiday village with a terrific food market, a good range of restaurants and a terrific camping ground. It’s also an easy 11km drive to our car repair place in Rochefort and our favourite vet. Our air conditioner got fixed; Grubie got a blood test that she passed with flying colours; our van’s warranty items were all replaced; we purchased our ‘timbres fiscaux’ online for our next ‘carte de sejour’ application; and we ate some fabulous seafood – moules a la crème at a restaurant and jumbo prawns cooked at home. We also met Eric and Sascha, a lovely British couple from Bournemouth with whom we shared a fun happy hour.
So, we had a very successful stay in Fouras and we were now ready to head back to Jarnac for the Blues Passion Festival (similar to the Byron Bay Blues festival) and a few days of partying with friends and swimming in the Charente before heading back north to Germany.