We arrived at the Port of Dover at quarter past midnight on the morning of the 19th of January 2012. The drive to Dover had been a long and stressful one as anyone who has driven on the M6 and M25 would agree. We boarded the ferry, the P&O Pride of Kent, along with one other motorhome and a number of coaches and trucks. The boat was pretty empty but I’m sure this was due to the time of year and the hour of the day. Bodies lay motionless across the floor wrapped in sleeping bags, trying to get an hours sleep before their journeys continued. We made ourselves comfortable in the bar, and ordered a cup of tea and the meditional holiday beer. At £3.20 a drink, it is not the cheapest, however if it allows me to believe I have left my troubles behind as I head out to foreign shores it is worth every penny. Rowdy teenagers who could have been on their first trip abroard ordered shots and shorts at the bar, merily singing and enjoying the calm P&O Ferry in the moonlit waters. As my phone informed me, I had finally reached France, and the captain came upon the tannoy asking all passengers to return to their vehicles. Finally back in the warmth of our van, we were waved off, only to be stuck behind a broken down Latvian van with thirty seven people aboard, all trying to push it up the ramp and off the boat, just our luck!
After the slow disermbrkment, we found our way to the parking area, which you gain entry into by returning back into the terminal. We parked near the police station, which is now a fixed feature of the Calais port. 10 foot barriers surround the port along with security cameras, and this all helps you to feel a little more secure on your first night abroad.
We woke up nice and early….or so we thought, but it was actually 12;20, to the sounds of a man being pulled from his car and being searched by the french port police, which made me reminisce to the famous ”ello ‘ello’ words, “I vill say this only once”! He was finally thrown into the police car and disapeared. We never did see that man again!
After a nice reviving cup of tea, we made our way to the terminal building for a hot shower only to be met with building works which will eventually turn Calais into a top class port, however this was little use to us, as we needed our wash now, not in ten years time. The toilets were nice and clean and there was wifi and a currency exchange available which is all good and handy if needed.
After brushing our teeth and a quick refresh we headed out of the port towards Brugge, our first destination.
Drivnig straight out of the port onto the E40 is now much easier thanks to the one way sytsem, where before navigating the roads of Calais where confussing and difficult. The Motorways have improved dramatically, they are now clean, straight and a lot less bumpy.
We followed the signs for Dunkirque and Brussels which eventually give you the sign for Brugge. The first things you notice are how flat the landscape is and how, ‘little farms’ scatter the scenery. The colourful pheasants are dotted along side the motorway with the storks and herons lining the canals which are seemingly endless. The first few motorway stops are just small parking lots with art deco toilets. The larger ones don`t come until you are about to enter Belgium, so if your running on fumes, make sure to fill up before leaving Calais.
As we passed Dunkirque and drove through ‘flanders fields’, you cant help but think back to the lives that were lost, during the great wars and of course the landings on D-day. Which in turn reminds one of the poem…….
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
As Belgium drew near, we automatically started asking the question, “who has the passports?” but before we could find them, we drove past the sign ‘Belgium’, indicating we were already in. Once again our phone welcomed us to Belgium, and even told us how much 02 would earn by us ringing home.
The scenery didn’t change much, though Windfarms seemed to rise up making use of the flat landscape. As you near Brugge the traffic increases and the motorway widens to three lanes from its usual two. The service stations increase in size due to the increase in lorries and traffic. The wildlife is nothing spectacular, just the odd horse and cows, though to our amusement we did manage to to see a pair of cows, expressing their love for each other in the nearby field!
We left the motorway at J8, courtesy of our sat nav, however it was the wrong junction, and we duly had to return to the motorway, tail between our legs and follow the signs. We entered the city of Brugge, to be met with wonderful architecture, picturesque canals, bicyle lanes, quaint intimate cafes and shops and narrow cobbled streets. All ideal for walking or driving a car, however our twenty seven foot motorhome didnt like the roads and even had to close its wing mirrors to navigate its way past parked cars, skips and scaffolding wagons. Driving here is not for the faint hearted. Cycling here is the norm and they dart in and out the traffic like they own the road, ducking and diving in between the cars and almost doing Evil Kinevil jumps over the canal bridges.
We finally found a place to park along side of a canal, only five minutes walk into the city centre. There are two motorhome stop overs in Brugge by the Marina, however at 25 euros a night we thought we would take our chances in the city. We were warned by a friendly resident that the police didnt like motorhomes in the city at night and may well ask us to move on, so we thanked him and got out the Whisky.
After a nice warm meal in the van we decided to have a brief walk into the city and have a beer. The rain started so we took shelter in, Meridian 3, (a Bar/Restaurant) in the town square and ordered two beers and a hot chocolate. The service was very welcoming and we were even supplied with a bowl of nuts. The hot chocolate came with two mini cakes and we sat for a very pleasant half hour watching the ski jumping as we waited for the rain to subside. We paid our bill of €12.90 and made our way back into the square and onto the motorhome. Only occasionaly stopping for chips and chocolates, meditional reason only of course. As we returned to the motorhome the rain restarted and we settled in for the night with a mixture of Port, Brandy and the occasional glass of Jagermeister…Sightseeing to begin in earnest tomorrow! We hope!
Successfully woke up without seeing any police for the second successive day. Opened up the blinds to see a family of swans having a wash and preen in the canal next to us. A nice cup of tea and some breakfast and a day of exploration could begin.
After a short walk into the city centre and trying to determine our bearings on where everything was, in the pouring rain and cold I might add!! such dedication!! We Found ourselves outside the main library building and went in hoping for a street map of Brugge. Inside was lovely and warm and gave us a chance to defrost and dry off a bit. The staff (all of whom spoke English really well) were very helpful and finally located a book of information and history of Brugge written in English. We were informed that for €5 we could have membership for a year and make photocopies for only 10cents, there is also free WiFi and toilets. Armed with all the relevant information we headed back onto the rainy streets. Walking up into town we had passed the churches of St.Giles and St.Walburg both of which had been closed so unfortunatly we had not been able to peep inside, but we now knew that the small building with Cinema emblazened across the front now houses the English Theatre in Brugge. Across the street from the theatre is a strange looking, curved steel structure which is a mens outdoor toilet. The old cobbled streets are lined with tempting little chocolate shops, pretty handmade lace shops and posh-looking art studios. We made our way past the chip museum (Friet Museum) which boasts the history of the humble potato growing to be one of the modern days most favourite foods, this was unfortunatly closed due to refurbishments works. We carried on through the market square in the centre of the city where the famous landmark of Brugge is to be found the “Belfry”(Belfort), this is to Brugge what the Empire State Building is to New York. At 272ft high and with 366 steps it is not for the faint hearted to tackle the climb, but looking up at the building from the square both at night and in the day is an inspiring sight. On into the Burg Square where the Basilica of the Holy Blood sits cosily in the corner. (The Basilica of the Holy Blood was built especially to house the phial of Christ’s Holy Blood, taken originally by Joseph of Aramathea and later given as a gift to the city of Brugge). In the next corner of the square is the beautiful, ornate building of the Recorders House, we walked underneath this building into Blind-Ass Street (Bl.Ezelstraat) at the end of which we spotted the fish market, or rather the smell of fish caught our attention and let us know that it was there. The traders were already cleaning up when we got there but a girl dislpaying her boyfriends art-work tried her best to tempt us into buying a painting, we politely declared how lovely the paintings were but we were not in the market for buying today. The fish market itself looked as though it had not changed over the centuries and one could visualise the many people who had passed by here. Opposite the fish market were fish restaurants filled with hungry lunch-time diners and outside one of these stood a lone, naked, metal fisherman dangling a metal fish from his line over the balcony. We decided it was now time from a warm cup of tea but where to go? Rozenhoekaar runs along the side of the canal and here we saw a small cafe advertising tea, coffee and hot chocolate at €2 per cup, great. The cheery man inside when asked if he spoke English said ” of course I do! I’m Flemish!”, he told us he had never attended school but spoke Flemish, French, English, Italian, German and a little Spanish! he had learnt all this by helping in his parents business as a young boy. Walking along with our drinks and taking endless photos of just about everything because there are just so many interesting things to see at every turn, we came to the Groening Museum, just wish we had more time to spend here and more money to get in everywhere! We have heard that the works of art in the Groening Museum are reason enough to visit Brugge, but we headed on towards our goal, the Church of Our Lady ( Our Lady is the patron Saint of Brugge therefore there are statues everywhere). It is in the Church of Our Lady that we would find the Statue of the Madonna and Child by Michealangelo, the only one of his works of art to leave Italy in his lifetime and in fact only a few have left Italy at all. We walked through the Arents Court Garden and the statues in the garden caught our eye, we later discovered that these were in fact the four horsemen of the Apocolypse, in a corner two white marble cherubs sheltered from the rain under a stone gazebo. A ancient stone bridge led across a small stream towards the church, quaint old timber houses lined the side of the stream. We paid our entrance fee of €2 per person and were greeted with the tranquil beauty of the interior of the church. We were politely asked not to use our flash but we were welcome to take photos. Then there it was, ‘The Madonna and Child’ in all its glory on the altar, well worth seeing in situ! Really beautiful. Around the church there were several altars and chapels, there were also exposed tombs one of which was of Charles the Good who was murdered near to Burg Square for siding with the poor. The tower of the church of Our Lady is the second highest brick built tower in the world but although the view from the top must be wonderful there is no way up. All in all a lovely visit. We took some photos outside and hurried on to find the cathedral, we found our way in and there was no entrance fee but there are a lot of restoration works going on. From what had already been done you could see that, once finished it would be quite spectacular again and much brighter. There were many interesting things to see around the Cathedral, and many works of art hung on the stone walls. On leaving the cathedral we had lost our bearings and headed in the wrong direction and found ourselves on the opposite side of the city. A huge fountain took pride of place in the centre of the vast square, there was an information bureau to the left so we armed ourselves with a few freebies and headed back to the city centre and the Basilica of the Holy Blood before it closed. On the way we passed through the ‘Old Hospital Grounds’ which had also housed a convent and monastry. In the main Market Square we passed the horse-drawn carriages, sitting empty with dejected horses hanging their heads. Into Burg Square and across to the Basilica, we climbed the wide stone staircase,(there is also a lift available) again entrance was free although €2 would have also allowed you into the treasury. The dark interior of the Basilica was calm and tranquil and we sat in silent contemplation of what this lovely building actually housed. The Phial itself was inside a wonderfully ornate, silver tabernacle on the Altar. We left here feeling very pleased with all that we had seen but now needing a cup of tea we made our way back to the motorhome. All hopes of seeing the Beer or Lace Museum dashed, they would have to wait for another day, after all the Chip Museum, the Choco Story and the Lamp Museum had all been closed maybe later in the year would be better for museums! After a reviving cup of tea and a bite to eat we headed off back towards the city to enjoy the night scenery. The Streets are lit with old fashioned lamps on the side of the buildings giving a warm glow rather than the harsh blue-white glare of many of the more modern cities. Many of the buildings are lit up and huge candles burn outside the many restaurants lining the main square. Looking inside the restaurants there are log fires burning and all in all they invite you in. We stop off in a small restaurant to sample some Belgium waffles with cream and hot chocolate mmm! Well, diet apart you can’t come to Brugge and not have a little treat, can you? The Theatre in the Merchants Quarter of the city has a statue of ‘Papagino’ the Bird-catcher from Mozarts Magic Flute Opera outside on the pavement. On the opposite side of the road is a score on the floor from the same opera. Well that is enough fresh air and walking for one day, so back to the motorhome to put our aching feet up and enjoy a nice glass or two of beer and write up our account of our day before going to bed. Should sleep well tonight feel like we have walked at least 20 miles!
Small summary of Brugge:- Great place to visit, plenty to see and enjoy, but restaurants seem quite expensive, especially around the main square. For example: Mussels in white wine €23. Public toilets charge around 40-50 cents and can be difficult to find so make the most of the ones if visiting a cafe or restaurant.
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