Belgium
West Flanders Province

Here you’ll find travel reports about West Flanders Province. Discover travel destinations in Belgium of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.

165 travelers at this place:

  • Day794

    Gistel, Belgium

    August 29 in Belgium

    We're back! Martha is keeping the three of us snug, as plump raindrops lazily dribble from a featureless sky. We are parked in a brick paved stellplatz at the back of a sports, games and cultural centre in Gistel, Belgium. A Belgian Hymer van is stationed alongside us and a screen of Buddleia bushes, some with a few purple flowers, provides a green backdrop for the front window. Although the water droplets falling on our roof are noisy, they've driven everyone indoors, so the place is pleasantly undisturbed.

    We spent a total of five nights at our sister and brother in law's house in Orpington, enabling Will to have a Colonoscopy at Croydon University Hospital. We are really pleased the procedure went well and that the doctors found nothing that to worry about. Big thanks to Sue and John for putting us up and sharing the delicious sweetcorn, tomatoes, grapes, parsley and cooking apples from their garden!

    We set off just after 9am this morning and had a wet drive down to Dover Port. Check-in was simple as we flashed our burgundy passports at the officials and were waved on. Poppy got to check out the new dog exercise area with its astroturf, ramp and jumps. There was a time when she would have relished the obstacle course, but as it was she just had a sniff and a piddle before following the black and white walkway back to the van with Vicky. At 12:05pm we set sail on the P&O ferry, Spirit of France and were docking in Calais before we knew it. The van was parked in pole position and we were first off our deck, whizzing through the corridor of tall, off-white mesh fencing, topped with coils of razor wire. Clear of the fortress-like defences and a little way down the motorway we passed a migrant camp. Small tents pitched within a coppice and a line of rain soaked residents queuing to receive their rations from a Red Cross van.

    After nearly 100km we followed a complicated set of sat nav instructions through a residential estate and pulled in at the stellplatz where we put the kettle on and settled in for the evening.

    Thankfully the night saw the rain pass over and we woke to dappled sunshine filtering through the Poplar leaves. Having looked on Maps.Me we knew there were some small shops nearby, so walked into the centre of Gistel. The village had a friendly feel and a lot of independent businesses, but the best shop was Leonidas chocolatier! Will knows how much Vicky loves good chocolate and persuaded her to go in and choose a selection to fill a small box. Neither of us know Dutch but the person behind the counter spoke excellent English and described each of their handcrafted delights in detail. Vicky had a whale of a time picking out the ones she would like best! A brief stop at one of the half dozen bakeries saw us leaving with a seeded loaf and another sweet treat for Vicky; a slice of Belgian bread pudding!

    It would have been easy to just pack up and set off on our journey, but we are so glad we made the effort to explore Gistel. The overnight spot wasn't memorable in itself but the village seemed to be a warm, accepting place and we left with a feel good glow!
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  • Day514

    Goodbye Belgium

    November 22, 2017 in Belgium

    We spent 5 and a half weeks in Belgium, 10 days of which were on an organic permaculture farm in Flanders.

    As ever, there were many things we liked about the country and a number we didn't. Lets start with the negatives, move on to interesting aspects and end with the positives:

    Things we didn't like:

    Prostitution
    Belgium's neighbour The Netherlands has a famous red light district in Amsterdam but, perhaps naively, we'd never anticipated coming accross them in Belgium. Our first experience was in a small town, the high street of which seemed overtaken with shop windows displaying women whose services were for sale. We encountered it again in Antwerp and although it was by no means widespread, it still left us with a very negative impression.

    Exploitative war tourism
    We appreciate that many people visit Belgium specifically because of the part it played in the World Wars. However, as pacifists, we found much of the commercialisation of this role unsavoury. Ypres in particular had a whole host of outlets making profit from souvenirs of a conflict in which so many people's lives were taken.

    Sprawling urban areas
    Along the coast and around cities such as Brussels and Antwerp, the concrete and glass walls of urbanisation often seemed to be endless. We enjoy visiting cities, but we find ourselves feeling hemmed in if we stay too long and at times it was difficult to find rural areas to relax in.

    Flanders' prefab roads
    A small consideration perhaps, but when you are travelling with all your earthly possessions rattling noisily around you, the road surface really does make a difference. Many roads were narrow, meaning we had to reduce our speed and hold up traffic behind us. Flanders was especially bad for laying down prefabricated concrete strips that Martha Motorhome objected to loudly!

    Recycling
    Concious of the environment, we have a larger recycling bin, than we do for general waste. Belgian councils pick up waste directly from properties and it was remarkably difficult to find any public recycling bins.

    City parking and lack of laybys
    Using the Park4Night app we were usually able to find places to stay easily enough, but the Ardennes and Wallonia in the West were particularly poor for the laybys we like to use for lunch breaks or spontaneous stopovers. Many European cities provide dedicates motorhome aires in city centres, but we found no such things in Belgium. It was difficult getting a place to park on our day trip to Antwerp and our 2 nights in Brussels were very troublesome in the initial stages, although it worked out alright in the end.

    Interesting aspects:
    As people who like to engage with locals using as much of their language as possible, we initally found it disconcerting to be in a country where 3 very different languages were spoken. Unlike in Luxembourg, where residents would often move fluidly between their different tongues, Belgium has areas that speak either Dutch, French or German and we'd read that people didn't like it if, for example, you began speaking French in a Dutch area. Luckily English was widely spoken and we fell back on this when we weren't sure. However, as we moved between different areas we started to get used to picking up clues, such as which languages were used on road signs and shop advertising. There would often be a crossover area of dual language signs, alerting to the change. In the end we found it very interesting and with France being our most frequently visited continental country, we felt almost at home speaking French!

    Now, lets get on to the things we really liked about Belgium:

    Free stopovers amd services
    Whilst city parking was difficult for us, a large number of towns in this small country provided free stopovers with free services. A definite thumbs up in our book!

    Bike lanes and canals
    The roads may have been narrow and sometimes bumpy but the brilliant network of bike lanes was a really refreshing sight. They were well maintained and their coloured surface made them stand out. In Flanders there were many kilometres of flat canal towpath to enjoy out in the countryside and places you could park for the night alongside it.

    Special places
    We stayed in Belgium's capital Brussels, for 2 nights with Will's daughter Beth and our son in law Richard. Of course it was memorable for the fact that we got to spend time with people we love, but the beautiful Grand Place, lit up at night, is a sight that will stay with us. It truly is stunning. We found a very different kind of beauty in the Belgian Ardennes. As far different from the flat north as the language of the region, the rolling, forested hills and enchanting rivers of the Ardennes stole our hearts.

    Food, drink and the organic movement
    Apart from our time on the farm, if we were asked to name the most memorable thing about Belgium, we would have to say 'the food!'. We found a pleasing number of organic foods available in both supermarkets and independent shops here, especially around the city of Ghent. Our waistlines were grateful we didn't stay longer, because the Belgian's really do know how to titillate the tastebuds! What a treat it was to sample the Trappist beers, each served in its own dedicated glass. We frequently bought frites for lunch, either at cafés or friteries / frituurs, where they came wrapped in specially perforated paper to let the steam out and make sure they stayed crisp. Even Vicky's sweet tooth was satisfied with the huge crepes submerged beneath icecream and fruit sauce and the waffles - both Brussels and Liege style, were hard to resist. Saving the best to last, Belgian chocolates bought from Belgian chocolatiers really are the best you'll ever taste. The delight of choosing a selection of the artfully arranged delicacies and watching in anticipation as the maker's white gloved fingers pick them out for you will stay with us forever!

    Despite it being a such a close neighbour to the UK, we had only previously passed through Belgium on our way to other places and didn't quite know what to expect when embarking on our tour. Because of its size, we feel we were able to get to grips with the country during our stay of nearly 6 weeks, during which its character and complexity showed through. All in all we really enjoyed our time here and are very glad we dedicated as many days as we did, to exploring this interesting and diverse country.
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  • Day488

    16 months away today!

    October 27, 2017 in Belgium

    On the 27th June 2016 the two of us and Poppy left our house in Netherton, Dudley and set off on a 5 year European adventure in Martha, our new home on wheels! 16 months and 22,200 miles later we are still on the continent but this will be our last monthly 'vanniversary' over here before returning to the UK for a Christmas time visit, just short of 17 months from the date we left.

    We've toured 12 countries from the southernmost point of Sicily to the northernmost point of Norway. Here in Belgium, our 12th country, we are closer to the UK than we have been in a long while. We are getting very excited about seeing people we know and love and treading familiar paths once again. Don't get us wrong, we love our nomadic life and are very glad we took advantage of the only time we wouldn't need to visit a UK garage after 12 months to MOT Martha. It has given us an unparalleled experience of open-ended exploration and allowed us, to a great extent, to live for the moment instead of our thoughts frequently reminding us of the end. One of the many things we have learned is that the views, opinions and memories of our encounters are very much shaped by things we notice for their prominence and novelty. Many times, the absence of something has far less of an initial impact, memories fade quickly as we acclimatise and adapt rapidly to new circumstances in different countries and regions. However, we have felt the absence of friends and family throughout our time away, apart from during the wonderful visits from those who have been able to come and see us. We knew before we set off to satisfy our wanderlust that we'd miss people, but as we've been able to cast off many of life's possessions, complications and day to day business, our focus has been drawn to the things that are truly important to us.

    We'll be seeing many of you soon!
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  • Day477

    WWOOFing @ Woudezel Farm, Flanders 1of 3

    October 16, 2017 in Belgium

    After our volunteering experience at Jan Ols Gården organic goat farm and riding stables in Sweden, we had caught the WWOOFing bug and arranged another placement for 11 days in Flanders.

    De Woudezel farm is an organic permaculture smallholding of 6 hectares, incorporating a plant nursery, food forest and a small number of amimals. Our host Diderik and his huge dog Lappa met us as we pulled off the main road into the farmyard as agreed, at 6pm sharp. Lappa is a cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a Briard, full of life and very, very affectionate! A black kitten soon came bounding up to join in the fun, purring happily when Vicky scooped her up.

    Life at Woudezel began with a tour of the animals, food forest and potted plants. As Diderik talked passionately about about permaculture, the philosophy of sustainability and working in harmony with nature, it struck a cord with us and we became increasingly enthusiastic about the coming 11 days.

    We'd heard of permaculture before, but seeing it in action was inspiring. Instead of being a labour (or chemically) intensive slog against weeds and pests in order to grow dense monocultures, natural systems had been created where a range of different plants had been planted thoughfully to grow alongside each other. Some would provide shade or protection from the wind, some would fix nitrogen and some would act as support. For example, a kiwi would be planted at the foot of a cherry tree and grow up its trunk. Grass and nettles grew throughout, their roots helping to bind the soil and their nutrients returning to it. Varieties would be chosen that would self propagate and often only a small amount from each plant would be picked, leaving seeds to fall and roots intact to grow more plants. The idea was for a 'permanent culture' that wouldn't be dug up and restarted annually, but that would continue of its own accord, with a small amount of careful and knowledgeable management. We'd had an amazing time on the previous farm, but already Diderik was sharing so much of his knowledge that we had an inkling we would get a lot out of working with him. Eventually the darkness forced us in to the large kitchen of the recently renovated farmhouse.

    Over the coming days, the more we discovered, the more we saw how far Diderik had progressed along the path towards a sustainable life. So much was put back into the system, with kitchen waste being fed to the pig, chickens or thrown onto the garden to enrich the soil. One kitchen tap was connected to a rainwater supply and used for washing and cooking, the other for drinking. A compost toilet was ready to be installed downstairs. Solar panels on the south facing stables harvested the sun to provide electricity (although the complicated Belgian system meant they must first sell the power to the national grid then buy it back). Diderik's cupboards were stocked food items such as coffee, juice, sugar, oil and flour from his brother, who is part of a cooperative shop in Brussels called Ethiquable. All customers are members who work there one day a month and recieve 30% discount on the ethically sourced food they trade in. One of the farm stable blocks now had a transparent roof, transforming it into a greenhouse. Plant matter and animal manure were combined to make compost, a process that produced heat to keep the animals and plants warm in winter and produce delicious black grapes.

    Diderik was keen to point out that there was lots more to be done but we recognise that there are many challenges to living sustainably, ethically and in an environmentally friendly way. We truly admire the aspects of his lifestyle he has adopted in order to pursue these goals.
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  • Day479

    WWOOFing @ Woudezel: work & community

    October 18, 2017 in Belgium

    We've talked a lot in previous posts about the farm ethos, setup and what we ate, but not much about what we actually contributed to it. Believe it or not we did work hard while we were there! Our first job was clearing dead wood from the forest area around the swimming pond. It had indigenous trees such as oak, birch and holly but had also been planted with american blueberry bushes, edible honeysuckle, kiwi, lime and many more species, some of which we had never heard of. The goats and rabbits enjoyed munching some of what was removed but the rest was taken to stack in one of the far fields where it would be left to decompose, providing homes for wildlife, some of which would help break it down. In a few years time, Diderik would start to colonise the stack with plant species, beginning with raspberries. It was heartwarming to see a hawk perched on the pile just a few hours later and a wren exploring between the branches the following morning.

    A thick wall of bamboo needed to be cut back to let light in to the forest and after we'd finished working on this, we set about clearing the spiky hawthorn branches Diderik had cut from the hedges. Long sticks were tied in bundles to fuel the stone bread oven, while smaller pieces were raked together and burned in the field where the ash would enrich the soil. Towards the end of the week Will got his wish and launched the little boat out on to the pond. Armed with a net and large plant pot, we removed a massive amount of duck weed from the water surface and raked the dead reeds from the shore. Ever the pig tucked enthusiastically into a trough of weed, a little was given to the chickens and the rest would e composted.

    As a less strenuous activity, we tended to some of the hundreds of potted plants Diderik was growing. Some were to plant out in the food forest but most were to sell at markets or to people he knew through courses. Local buyers would also come directly to the farm from time to time. For most of the pots, we needed to remove weeds then add compost and mulch. Some needed trimming, repotting or securing to a bamboo cane cut from the forest. Before we arrived, we reckoned we knew a good proportion of edible plants, but we discovered so many new varieties in the nursery here!

    As you would expect, most of the work was outdoors. We were lucky with the rain, but being October, it was sometimes wet. We spent these times working our way through three freezer drawers of Sea Buckthorn branches. Removing the tightly clustered orange berries was a slow task because we needed to be careful of the very strong, very large spikes that would pierce our gloves if we weren't. These berries were one of the many things Diderik used to make organic jams, some of which he would sell on at markets and some that we had the pleasure of sampling on toast, with cheese or in a stew at home. Belgian cuisine uses sweetened fruit in otherwise savoury dishes, for example we accompanied the roast chicken on the final night with yellow plums soaked in syrup.

    Our WWOOF host worked off-farm at another organic project 3 days a week, but during the time he was home, visitors came and went frequently. His Mum, Anne-Marie and 4 year old neice, Selestine came over when it was time to kill the chickens. Anne-Marie helped with the chickens and Selestine with the potted plants. We must mention the delicious Belgian chocolates they brought with them and left for the three of us- yet another of the many gastronomic delights! Near the end of our time, Diderik's Aunt and an older niece came to pass on some veal from a calf that had been in an accident on their farm and had to be put down. We got to know his friend Stoffel who was doing up an old mercedes camper van in one of the outhouses. He came with his two Border Collies, Izzy and Moss who grumpy old Poppy took a dislike to and scarpered back into the van whenever she saw them. Contrary to this canine relationship, we took a liking to Stoffel, who was initially a little quiet but once he got his teeth into a discussion, revealed well thought out opinions on topics such as immigration and multinationals, that were very close to our own. The back forth between the four of us was reminiscent of some of the political discussions we were so used to having in meetings and conferences back home!

    Diderik is passionate about spreading knowledge on permaculture systems, running various talks and courses on the topic. Seeing his system in action was one of the best ways to do this, so visitors would drop in for a tour of the food forest. As a new initiative, an acquaintance had begun to hold a Sweat Lodge in one of the fields, once a month near the time of the full moon. The sort of people who attended were likely to be interested in connecting with nature and therefore more links would hopefully be made to spread an understanding and perhaps the practice of permaculture. By staying at and working as part of the farm, more of these community webs were revealed to us and for a short time, we ourselves became part of De Woudezel's permaculture community. By writing this blog and talking with people we hope we can help share some of what we learned about a positive alternative to intensive modern monoculture farming. If you are interested or have any questions, we'd love to hear from you!
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  • Day478

    Goodbye to Beth, Rich & Brussels

    October 17, 2017 in Belgium

    Yesterday we got chatting to a Tokyo born Brussels local. There is a real mix of people in this city and it creates a sense of vibrancy. Our friend had recommended Jeu de Balle flee market in the Marolles district as an experience that would show us the heart of Brussels culture. Well, how could we refuse? Getting up early we took the bus to the market, which was just getting started. Within a cobbled square, tables, boxes and sheets were layed out, packed full of antiques and nik naks. Bone china tea sets, silver trays, dark wood furniture and classical paintings were just some of the treasures to be found amongst the jumble. It was lucky we didn't have room for anything big or a steady shelf for anything delicate because we would have been sorely tempted to put our haggling skills to the test!

    We met Beth & Richard near their hotel just after 9am. Unfortunately the Sunday buses hadn't been as frequent or reliable as the weekday ones. We had decided we'd get more quality time if Beth & Rich caught the train to the airport instead of risking it with the van again, so we strolled down to a nearby café. It was a leisurely birthday breakfast of coffee, orange juice, pain au chocolate and of course Belgian waffles, both Brussels and Liege style, the former being hard and dusted with icing sugar, the latter softer and integrally sweet.

    There wasn't much spare time but a visit to a chocolate shop was in order for Beth and Richard to pick up a box of world famous Belgian chocolates. Not many were open but we found one displaying an impressive model of the Hotel de Ville made from the confection! There was a mouth watering array of 30 individual chocolates and truffles presented in a glass fronted cabinet. After the chocolatier had picked out two of each to make up a selection box, he allowed the four of us to choose our favourite to try. Belgium has a reputation for making the best chocolate in the world and after these heavenly tasters we weren't disputing it!

    The time had come to catch the train to the airport and after a slight hiccup with the ticket machine refusing the first two bank cards we tried, we were all standing on the platform hugging goodbye. We waved Beth and Richard off and suddenly felt deflated and tired. Brussels had a lot more sights and experiences to offer but all we felt like doing was getting back in the van and heading out to somewhere less urban. Overall, it had been an amazing weekend with our family. The difficulties we experienced were more than made up for by magical moments, such as Beth's discovery of the beautifully lit Grand Place on the first evening and we were sad to see them go.

    Our lasting impression of Brussels is of a city of contrast and diversity. Shiny, glass fronted European Parliament buildings jarred against dirty streets and polluted air (a much needed low emission zone is due to be introduced in January). The history contained within the antiques markets in the Marolles district was contrasted with smooth, modern hipster cafés. The indulgence of handmade chocolates and champagne bars jarred with the poverty of the large homeless community. Even the co-existence of French and Dutch native toungues was something we hadn't experienced in many other capitals. Although it isn't an easy city to visit in a motorhome, it has many layers and we are glad to have had the opportunity to see it for longer than our usual day trip.

    A huge thank you to Beth and Richard for coming out and being with us!
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  • Day478

    WWOOFing @ Woudezel: animals & food 2of3

    October 17, 2017 in Belgium

    As well as hundreds of different types of plants, De Woudezel was home to Ever the pig, a Giant male and 2 Giant female rabbits (one of whom had given birth to 6 kits in the last couple of days), about 30 sheep, 50 chickens for meat, 3 goats, a collection of egg laying chickens, turkeys and a goose.

    Lappa the dog, the kitten and the black and white cat we later became acquainted with were pets and kept the vermin down. All other animals were there to produce food or to become food themselves. As meat eaters, this was something we had to come to terms with. When Will was young he was involved in the killing and preparation of chickens and rabbits for meat with his grandad and uncle. We are both familiar with catching and eating fish but Vicky in particular has a fondness for animals and was a little nervous of how she would feel when the knowledge of their lives and deaths was so close at hand.

    The Chickens:
    Camping in the field where the meat chickens lived, we got to open the door every morning to them plucking at the grass or darting after insects. It was a stark contrast to the tv images we'd seen of birds with clipped wings living in cramped cages.
    The egg chickens and turkeys stayed mainly in a large fenced field (although some chose to escape and roam further). At night they could be seen perched high up on the branches Diderik had installed in their coop or in the trees outside. They would fly between them to get to 'their' nightly spot. Several birds were getting old and it wasn't a good time for laying, but for our last lunch, Vicky found an egg laying in the middle of a nest of straw.

    The Pig:
    We both had a soft spot for Ever the pig who was gentle and engaging. When we were outside working with the potted plants she'd be snuffling and grunting around her nearby field. We loved to throw her the walnut windfalls we found as she'd go running after them and crunch the whole thing, shell and all, with such relish! When we were in the greenhouse, she'd come in to her sty and make herself heard so we wouldn't forget to go and give her a scratch behind the ears. She had some wild boar in her breeding and was covered in dark, strong, bristles. If there was time, we'd give a proper stroke and she'd often lay down on the straw and half close her intelligent, bright amber eyes, revelling in the sensation.

    The Goats:
    The big billy goat, the medium sized goat and the baby goat stayed in the field next door to the van. However, the similarity to the fairy tale ends there, as the smaller goats were both nannies (one older and one younger, but not a kid). None of them could be described as 'gruff'! We fed them some of the freshly cut branches cleared from the pond area and on the final evening we completed the important task of helping Diderik trim their hooves. The land in Flanders is flat and sandy, so their hooves didn't get worn down naturally and required trimming every 3-4 weeks. After Diderik had caught the billy, we helped to lay him on his side and held him there while our host took the special scissors to the two prongs of cartilage on each foot. This male wasn't as big as many of the goats at Jan Ols Gården but he was all power and it was a struggle for the two of us to keep him down at times. However, he was never aggressive. The nannies were easier to handle and after about 30 minutes all 12 hooves had been trimmed and sprayed with disinfectant. Job done!

    The Meals:
    We ate some amazing meals; our first consisted of potatoes and freshly picked greens with sausages from one of the pigs. For lunches, we were shown how to pick small amounts from a range of edible plants for delicious wild salads which we ate with bread from the bakery and organic goat cheese that Diderik's friend Stoffel had brought from the dairy he worked for. Our host began by cooking the evening meals for us but when he realised how much Will enjoyed cooking and had sampled his food, we fell easily into a routine of Diderik providing the food, Will preparing it and Vicky cleaning up afterwards. Everyone was happy!

    The freezers were well stocked with meat and plant produce grown on the farm. As well as the sausages, we ate farmed chicken, goat and liver from both pig and chickens. Seeing the good conditions these organic free range animals lived in and how happily they went about their natural behaviour, made it easier on our consciences than if we were eating meat from an unknown source with no assurances of living conditions or treatment. We talked about it a lot with Diderik and on the 9th day after we arrived, our feelings were put to the test. Diderik's Mum Anne-Marie came over and we watched as he killed 10 of his chickens by cutting their heads off with a sharp knife. It was very quick and the chickens didn't seem unduly distressed. We then helped by dunking them in a bucket of hot water to loosen the feathers, plucking them and cutting off their feet and wing tips. Diderik burned the remaining feathers off and Anne-Marie talked Vicky through removing the windpipe, crop (a part if the oesophagus where the initial stages of digestion occur) and guts that would be fed to the pig. It was a gradual transformation from a living creature to something we were used to buying, that Vicky found strange at times but not upsetting. In the end we felt very fortunate to have been able to gain this first hand experience and respect of the process that brings meat to our plates.

    Interesting additions to our Woudezel diet were a young hare Diderik found recently killed on the road and a delicious fillet of wild boar he found in the bin of the local supermarket. Living in the country, he had grown up with roadkill as an occasional part of his diet, so knew what to look out for and how to prepare it for the pot. The hare had lived a free life and we felt we were making good use of it in a stew that provided 5 hearty meals.
    The freegan part of Diderik's lifestyle came later, when he'd moved out of his parent's house and was living in squats. Although some supermarkets donate food to charities, the amount of perfectly good produce still thrown away is scandalous. Diderik would normally take cheese and yoghurt for himself and meat for Lappa the dog but when he found this fillet of wild boar sealed in its package with a best before date of the same day, it was too good an opportunity to pass up and we were more than happy to make use of this delicious cut, that would otherwise have gone to landfill.

    To complete our experience of farming an animal from field to plate our final evening meal was a chicken that Will had plucked and prepared, roasted with potatoes, turnip, kale, squash, plum and a bottle of locally produced organic ale to wash it down.
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  • Day490

    Brugge & the Gent-Brugge Kannal

    October 29, 2017 in Belgium

    It was 'City Sunday' and our destination was Brugge. We'd been told it was a little like a museum but hadn't done too much research, preferring to embrace the feelings of exploration and discovery. Setting off promptly, it took a while to drive through the spread out suburbs, past parks and war memorials. Roads and pavements became increasingly crowded but we were lucky to find an easily accessible spot of on-street parking, within walking distance of the centre. Putting our ticket in the window we strolled along the streets, the tarmac soon giving way to cobbles. Colourful two storey dwellings with flowers in their window boxes seemed more suited to a village than a major city, but the groups of people jostling along in front of and behind us swept the urban conurbation feel along with them.

    Reaching a canal, the heavily laden boats that ferried tourists along the waterways reminded us of the vaporetti in Venice. Running parallel to the channel was a flee market displaying a refreshingly original range of nik naks and antiques, from brasses to lace bobbins.

    Nearer the centre the quaint homes were replaced with tall stone town houses, galleries, craft beer bars and shops selling chocolate, lace or other souvenirs. Brugge is undoubtedly a well presented city; its olde worlde charm stretches over a far greater area than is the case with many other cities of its size. However, in focussing on its looks, we felt it had stiffled some of the character that comes from allowing locals to innovate and regenerate their patch to reflect the times. Even in late October it was clear that the tourists generated the atmosphere and the most income. They were therefore the people to whom Brugge city centre catered. Despite this, we enjoyed looking around for a few hours taking photos of the pretty alleyways and impressive stonework. We especially valued going in to a lace shop and talking to the assistant, a woman who was near to retirement and who had worked with lace all her life. She fascinated us with her explanations of the different types of bobbin work as well as hinting that her city had become somewhat of a living museum.

    Keeping our time in Brugge short but sweet, we returned to the countryside and rural canals, settling ourselves into an overnight spot on rough ground beside the wide Gent-Brugge Kannal, on the outskirts of a hamlet. Although the name of this waterway wasn't as amusing as Kanaal van Schipdonk, its channel was a lot busier. A number of huge Dutch barges passed by, some heavily laden with cargo and on a tight schedule, others whose only purpose was to transport the people who had made them their home.
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  • Day513

    Ypres

    November 21, 2017 in Belgium

    After successfully taking Poppy to the vet at Tournai, we headed towards Ypres and the Flemish speaking area of Belgium. It had gone lunch time so we stopped along the way for our last trip to a Belgian frituur before returning to the UK. The standard of frites across the country really is excellent, Belgian expectations must be very exacting!

    As we drew closer to Ypres we passed a number of war cemeteries, their identical oblong or crucifix shaped gravestones standing erect in neat rows. Our parking place for the night was in a communal car park near a swimming pool, skate park and sports stadium. Regular groups of school kids trooped along on the other side of the hedge to access the facilities. Will met another British couple travelling in their motorhome who told him they used to park on the quiet residential street every time they came over from Calais, but now signs had been put up to prohibit this.

    Crossing a footbridge over the moat and ducking through a tunnel in the town wall we made our way up Ypres' narrow residential streets, lined with terraced houses of different types of brick. Grote Markt square suddenly revealed itself as we rounded a corner. We were taken aback by the large open space dominated by the towering Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall), that appeared rather like a massive cathedral with its sculpted stone facade and gothic steeples. It was really refreshing to see an old building of such grandeur that was built for something other than religious worship.

    The square was surrounded by tea rooms, bars, chocolate and souvenir shops. We'd not seen many poppies in the rest of Belgium, but there were plenty of them here, where so many tourists come to remember the war. They even had chocolate poppies. Despite having the feeling of a big city at its core, Ypres is only a large town. On streets leading away from the centre, the shops soon turn to homes or offices and we looped back to the compact central area several times.

    This being our last full day in Belgium, we were on a mission to buy chocolate amd Trappist beer to take home. Two chocolate shops standing side by side offered free tastings, so we sampled each and chose the better, where we happened to come accross a fellow Brit and an Australian couple standing in line. We found it a little strange to have so many people talking English as their first language, we hope we acclimatise quickly when we get back to the UK! The chocolatier was very friendly, as was the owner of the beer shop we visited, who helped us pick out some good bottles from their wide selection. She told us she had found the sudden deluge of customers around 11th November, then the quiet afterwards, difficult to deal with. We are glad we got to see the town in one of its subdued periods.

    Walking back to the van we passed Menin Gate, the large stone archway that bears the names of British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never recovered.

    We liked Ypres for its quiet square, magnificent Cloth Hall and the green belt of land running alongside its moat. We did however find its huge focus on the pointless loss of foreign lives a century ago, quashed organic local culture, which is one of the things we most enjoy experiencing when we travel.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Provincie West-Vlaanderen, West-Flandern, West Flanders Province, Flandre-Occidentale, West-Vlaanderen, Flandres Ocidental, Västflandern

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