And so it ends (well for this trip anyway!)

Our last post of call, before the call of the port so to speak, was Brugge. The one sure plan we have always had was a day in Brugge before we caught the ferry home. Quite frankly we were both fairly gobsmacked as to how we managed to arrive with such impeccable timing.

Brugge is said to be one of the world’s first tourist destinations, having set up a Tourist Information as far back as 1909, they have certainly had time to work out what the tourist wants and they have it with abundance – medieval architecture, lace and chocolate are  everywhere.  We find it hard to believe anyone leaves the city without purchasing chocolate, you need a steel brace to avert your eyes from the mouth watering displays.

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The Markt – Brugge

By luck or whatever Brugge remained relatively unscathed during the war and retains most of it’s medieval architecture. We struck lucky and both the Church of our Lady and St. Salvator’s Cathedral had their scaffolding removed recently, on the downside the insides of both buildings are being restored so we missed seeing the interiors.   It was be churlish to complain though when instead we visited the Burg Square, the Markt and several other areas containing some of the most sensational buildings we have seen anywhere.

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Burg Square

We popped in Sunday for a couple of hours and decided to go back for a full day Monday thinking it would be quieter. Not a bit, possibly busier on Monday – we stayed on the town aire next to the coach drop off and pick up, hundreds of buses in and out all day with at least half of them British and the other half school children.

Despite Brugge giving the impression of a a tranquil place to visit it really isn’t. The sheer numbers of tourist, the horses and carts clattering around the cobbles and the carillon of 48 bells, added to the bells of several other churches, meant at times it was difficult to hear yourself speak.  Surely though one of the highlights of Brugge is when the carillon in the Belfry of Brugge strikes up a ringing rendition of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” on the hour, every hour – truly amazing.

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When in Rome….so obviously when in Brugge chocolate is mandatory. I never thought it would be possible to say this but, there are too many chocolate shops. It is mind blowing, hundreds and hundreds of them on every street. I needed to shop for chocolate so left Iain to his own devices for a couple of hours whilst I perused. I then came to realise the benefits of so many shops – everyone I actually went in offered me a sample chocolate! On a roll I visited eight shops before purchasing :), now slightly sick of the taste of Belgian chocolate.

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Aside from chocolate we wanted to visit Brugge to see the canals. I am going to have to say it didn’t come across as the ‘Venice of the North’ to us, a fair few canals but mainly small with lots of dead-ends. That isn’t too take away from the charm of  the canals and their setting alongside 17th century warehouses and homes, it stands on it’s own merits without needing a  Venice type canal label.

We of course took the obligatory canal boat trip, forget sedate and flowing – think more pack ’em in and speed ’em round. Due to the low bridges there are just one type of boat and they fair nip around causing a few wakes as they go.

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There endeth the Grand Depart tour around Europe for us, Zeebrugge tonight and ferry home tomorrow.

We have had the absolute time of our lives, we have seen and done more than we thought possible – it has been everything we hoped it would be and so much more. In summary :31 border crossings, 20 countries, 19,000 miles, (passports checked just twice).

We are well under our budget, amazingly, but sure we will see a lot of that go with the 25 essential maintenance jobs on the list required for the van (thank the Lord for gaffer tape its all that’s holding us together right now).

There have been a few navigational related skirmishes, but trying to get us around Europe on a 1:3 200 000 atlas was always asking for a few headaches!

We would do it all again without a moments thought – well we did think we might like one of these to go with, but guess our van will have to do.

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The first question is always where we did like best? We didn’t, honestly, every country we visited we found amazing sights, lovely people and had fun. Whenever anyone asked that questions during the trip it was always the country we had just left.

Every day was an experience, things we had only read about previously were seen in the flesh : visiting Meteora, driving Trollstigen, flying in an Airship, crossing Millau Bridge, walking into Russia (ok only two steps but we did it). Others were stark reminders of how lucky we are: the ferry fire on the Norman Atlantic, Auschwitz, the WWI and WWII battle-grounds and the military cemetery.

Our lack of real planning and direction paid off more than we could have hoped mainly because Europe is stuffed full of incredible things to see – you would struggle to miss them – luckily for us!

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In the words of the that famous 20th century commentator “That’s all folks”.

The Last Post (but not quite ours)

When we left home 11 months ago we said our destination was Belgium and we would take the longest route we could to get there. Just over 11 1/2 months, 17000 miles and 600 gallons of diesel later – we have arrived :).

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Belgium held out on us slightly on the weather front as 10 miles over the border we hit pea soup fog.  We agreed it was pointless to carry on driving as we weren’t seeing anything. I had noted down details of a little camperstop outside a castle, sounded like the best plan to sit out and wait for the sunshine to come back (misplaced optimism there!)

We arrived at Wegimont Chateau and it wasn’t quite as expected,  eight spots for motorhomes but also about 200 permanent pitches where the owners stretch out to the limits of their space, a bit like a canvas city.  Showers were only allowed at set times and bingo took place each afternoon in the community tent – not somewhere we were going to be staying too long at all!

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Wegimont Chateau

On the upside there was a castle on the site – or Chateau –  a Louis XIV style building that was the only Lebensborn maternity home in Belgium. During WWII, these homes were state approved associations with the goal of raising the birth rate of Aryan children via extramarital relations of German men classed as racially pure and healthy with unmarried women. Known locally as an ‘Ayran Stud Farms’, the resultant children were then adopted by likewise “racially pure and healthy” parents, particularly SS members and their families.

A cold, wet and dull day we walked around the park – full winter gear out of the cupboards including gloves for the first time in nearly a year, we managed a full sweep of the arboretum and then a quick hike around town to stock up on a few bits then back to the van for a warm up. Each time it gets a bit colder I have used this as evidence to convince Iain we should head for Portugal for some winter sun – alas so far he is holding out for heading home.

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We had planned for a few days around the Liege area, however waking to sleet on Wednesday scuppered that one. Instead we aimed West and left the sleet behind, instead we hit snow! Proper white flakes of the stuff, falling fairly rapidly but luckily not sticking enough to make driving a problem.

By the time we had arrived in Tournai all signs of snow had gone, replaced with rain and a promise of sunshine later.  Tournai is the oldest town in Belgium, we had never heard of it, not sure why as its very impressive. One of Belgium’s most culturally import towns, it is chock full of magnificent buildings, including the oldest cathedral in Belgium.

As is usual for us the cathedral was shrouded in scaffolding undergoing restoration. The ‘Grand Place’ town square is a mix of trendy shops, bars and several museums set around cobbled streets with a series of water fountains – all in all a great place to spend an afternoon – unless its freezing and damp which it was so we made do with a couple of hours whistle stop tour.

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As we  started off last November with a visit to the Etaples military cemetery in France so decided our penultimate stop off point would be Ypres. I have never been before, for whatever reason I thought it was a village with the famous Menin Gate.

Somewhat surprised then to find a fairly substantial city, rebuilt post WWII with German reparation money. The main buildings in the city centre have been reconstructed as close to the original as possible, it is nearly impossible to believe these building were raised to the ground so recently.  The Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages in Europe,  the new structure is the exact copy of the original medieval building.

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the Cloth Hall

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the best roof ever – anywhere

The main reason for visiting Ypres, for us as for many others, was to see the Menin Gate Memorial for the Missing. Over 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers from WWI that have no final resting place are commemorated here (with a further 35,000 names that wouldn’t fit on this memorial inscribed at the nearby Tyne Cot memorial).  We were told by a lady from the British Legion in town to be at the gate just after 7pm, even though the service is at 8pm.

We were amazed, when we arrived there were close on 1,000 people, and we were told this is the same every night of the week, every week of the year since 1928 (with a short break during WWII when Ypres was occupied). We stood with a group of Blackwatch Cadets who had travelled there for the weekend, the next night they were forming a guard of honour (the youngsters had all funded their own trips in order to stand for 10 minutes in honour of the dead).

When the three buglers from the local fire brigade sounded the Last Post, it was one of the most simple and moving events either of us have had the honour to attend.

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The Menin Gate