We were all quite normal when we woke up one Saturday morning in May'2017 apart from the usual grogginess and lethargy which are part of the Saturday folklore. There were no signs of caprice or eccentricity despite each of us possessing a strong extemporaneous vein. Everyone went about doing our chores like we would on any Saturday until someone realised, and blew the whistle, that it was a Bank Holiday weekend, with the Monday being a holiday, and it is plainly unjust to stay normal.
And an idea was hatched on a whim - a never before attempted form of a holiday by us - an impromptu pursuit of a journey across the English Channel with no specific destination in mind! And abnormality soon prevailed.
This was going to be so different from the other holidays we have done before - The English Lake District, The Italian Lake District, Cornwall, Yorkshire Dales, Copenhagen and Malmo, Switzerland or Scotland - where the planning was exhaustive. This one was to just go with the flow and be out of our comfort zones.
We decided to drive to mainland Europe through the Eurotunnel shuttle or Chunnel. In order to pull off such a hare-brained scheme, we went about checking the requirements to drive in France and Belgium and soon gathered the list of things we needed.
We soon went about procuring the following items, as prescribed on the RAC website:
There was a Holy Communion ceremony of our friend's daughter, to attend, at our estate that afternoon and we decided to be on our way as soon as the ceremony finished. By the time, we left the party, it was nearly 5pm and we started our drive towards Folkestone to take the shuttle. And we made our shuttle reservations on the way. There is no turning back now!
Our departure was at 19:50 and the latest reporting time was 19:20. We stopped by at Services just before we entered the shuttle terminal. It was then that we started to look out for potential destinations to navigate to once we arrived at Calais. The prices at most major tourist destinations were prohibitively expensive, so we settled for a motel kind of a place near Lille in France, a town called Lomme, which is close to the Belgian border. We then drove through the terminal and went past a couple of passport control checkpoints - one British and the other French, each one not taking more than 15 seconds per person - we were 5 of us in the car - we then drove through the designated ramp towards our train. As there were vacancies on an earlier departure, we were allowed to pull in to that train and were asked to turn off the engines and engage the handbrakes, while parked in 1st gear.
The journey time from Folkestone to Coquelles near Calais is only 35 minutes. The ferry crossing from Dover to Calais takes 90 minutes. This drive on-drive off is very convenient as the fare payable is for the vehicle and not for the number of passengers in the vehicle. There is also no restriction on how much luggage one can carry.
We arrived at Calais at around 9pm local time and soon started to drive towards our hotel on the outskirts of Lille. It helps to have a navigator next to you to keep reminding you to drive on the wrong side of the road as it is the right side in France! As we travelled eastwards from Calais, we were able to witness a glorious sunset on our rear-view and side view mirrors. We eventually reached our hotel, Premiere Classe Lille Ouest - Lomme, at around 10pm and I even surprised myself with the fluency with which I spoke French at the reception desk - despite having lost touch with the language for many many years.
We got our keys to two very cramped rooms - the price of not planning well in advance - and set out to grab something to eat. The hotel was surrounded by plenty of eateries and we had no problems with the food.
The next morning we woke up with a sore back but ready to head out as the weather was outstanding. We managed to tuck into some croissants and liquid refreshments, for breakfast, right at the parking at our hotel and looked into Google Maps for a potential destination. We didn't have to look hard - as soon as we looked slightly north from where we were staying, we were confronted with Bruges. And that's where we headed out to!
On arrival at Bruges, we parked by one of the side-streets near the town centre and walked the cobblestoned streets. There simply aren't other towns that I have visited thus far, that had more of a fairy-tale feel than Bruges. The picturesque canals with it's own quaint looking restaurants adjoining them are a sight to behold. We were excited to see a garden completely decorated with old clocks and hats, and understood it is part of Restaurant de Bottelier that is on the 1st floor of the building above a wine shop.
The obvious attraction is the Belfry Tower that one shall not miss when visiting Bruges. And it is an imposing structure and can easily be seen from quite a distance away. Here below, is the tower as seen from one of the side streets leading to the square.
The entire centre of Bruges is placed on the list of World Heritage Sites and it is not difficult to understand why. There are these historic buildings and towering architectural marvels and quaint eateries that truly make up for a stunning melting pot of the old, the present and the future - as you have Segway Tours, and Virtual Reality Tours for the technologically inclined. As we exited one of the lanes leading to the city square - Place de Bruges - we were momentarily taken aback by the sheer expanse of the place and the various sights to soak in.
There were horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists to and fro and the sound of the hooves over the cobblestone streets added a beautiful rhythm to the goings-on. It indeed was a spectacle.
And as we wondered if we had been transported to another time and space, there was this row of shining Harley Davidson motor-bikes staking claim to contemporariness. It was a beautiful juxtaposition of the past and the present. One thing was for certain, the Harleys were not totally out of place as their engine power is measured in terms of horsepower!
As we circled around Place de Bruges, we felt a bit peckish and stopped by Friterie 1900 to get a bite. And ordered chips or French Fries or fries as they are called in different parts of the world. The portions were generous and the taste was heavenly. We ordered some more and a few transgressions later we decided it was time to move on and see more of the place.
As we were walking back to our car, we stopped at Fred's Belgian waffles and ice-cream parlour to atone our earlier sins. As we cleansed ourselves from the influence of the frites, we committed a new glacial offence with each one of us going for a double or triple scoop. We had clearly crossed our limits and nothing but a visit to a place of worship would emancipate us.
We drove our car out to the famous Beguinage which dates back to the 13th century. The Beguines were lay pious women who do not take any binding vows and are free to live outside a convent or a monastery. There are no more beguines living in these Beguinages spread across Belgium and Holland, but the place is now inhabited by a community of Benedictine nuns. Once you enter the courtyard, you are greeted by the sound of silence. The place is absolutely quiet and it is a complete contrast to the noisy tourists who prowl the city outside of it's walls. We entered a church that was even quieter, if it is ever possible to be quieter. After spending a few minutes in the church and repenting our epicurean indulgences, we slipped out back on to square and went around the Minnewater Park.
It was a very hot and sultry day and hence no one objected to the suggestion of a beach town as the next port of call. And thus, we boarded our cars and started our drive towards Ostend. It is a city in West Flanders region on the North Sea and has over 5 miles of sandy beaches and a long promenade ideal for leisurely walks. It is also renowned as a mecca for shopaholics.
When we eventually ambled onto the beach we were a bit stunned, as clearly, we hadn't prepared ourselves for the sheer number of people on the promenade and by the beach. There were all kinds of people - those with roller-skates, with skate boards and those engaging in family activity on funny contraptions that are six seater or eight-seater go-kart bikes, hand-cycles and there was a steady babble of voices. And the place was awash with people and restaurants and bars and ice-cream vendors.
Promenade in OstendPlenty of locals and tourists We walked for about a mile on the promenade and thought that it was too hot to walk anymore and decided to take shelter in the comforts of a good restaurant/ bar for lunch. We had our lunch at Jilles Ostend and despite a large crowd, we comfortably found our seats besides finding the seats comfortable!
We lazily watched the world go by as we were having lunch - the ambient temperature was steamy but a little while later a mild sea breeze picked up and eased our discomforts a bit. We then paid the l'addition and went further afield for a bit more of a walk. We had more ice-creams and eventually concurred to retrace our steps back to the car, to return to the hotel in Lomme.
Behind the hotel where we were staying was an open public park with a lake in it. We decided to get in there and try some sunset photography using the lake as the foreground. It was then we learnt a bit about the park. Parc de Lomme or Lillom apparently was a theme park which did not turn up sufficient profits in the coffers to keep it running, so a big portion of the park was taken over by the LGV-Nord - Ligne a Grande Vitesse (high-speed line) that connects Paris and London. The reddish looking roof is the Ecole de Cirque (Circus School). We spent a few minutes before the park security came around and alerted us to depart as the park was closing for the day.
We left the park and walked over to one of the many eateries around where we stayed, this time preferring a Mexican fare at El Rancho. It was a fantastic place with plenty of room and the service was Top Class. I surprised myself yet again with the fluency with which I was able to converse in French. After some mouth-watering dishes, we paid our bill and retired for the night.
The next morning to our utter dismay, we realised that we had overslept while our friends had tried knocking our room door for quite a while and calls to our phones went unanswered. We looked absolutely silly and we promised our friends that we would be ready in a snappy little time. Within an hour, we were all ready and we checked out of the hotel and loaded the car with our bags. And picked another city of interest to visit - Ghent!
At this juncture, I took a couple of days off from writing any more on this blog, primarily because I was at a loss for words for describing what Ghent meant to me. Ghent is a city of paradoxes - I had gotten into a debate with a friend when I first described it as a town. It does appear to be a sprawling city, but gives you the feel of a town. That was my initial dilemma and hesitation, to find a suitable way to verbalise the place. And then, the city's medieval architecture and historical buildings lends a feeling of time-travel until you are rudely jolted to reality when it was time to side-step a passing tram or a council van. Lastly, the town is filled with youngsters and the fact that it is a university town is a clear give-away, but you cannot ignore the business attire on the roads, at ease, amidst the sprawl of the historical buildings.
We parked our car near Sint-Michielskerk and walked towards the town centre, crossing the Sint-Michielsbrug on River Leie. We stopped briefly at the Korenmarkt for breakfast - eventhough it was nearly noon.
We strolled around the town centre for a while and then picked up a few souvenirs of the visit. We looked at other places to visit that is not too far to walk from where we were and picked up the Gravensteen Castle as an ideal candidate. Along the way, we stopped by for a few photo opportunities, and the one below is of River Leie with the Vleeshuistragel embankment on the left.
Gravensteen, in Dutch, means the Castle of the Counts. It has an interesting history from it's beginnings as a residence of the counts, to the time it was used as a torture chamber to eventually falling in disrepair with a view to be demolished. When the interest waned, a project was set up to restore the castle in the late 19th century. There are two museums inside - Museum of Judicial Objects - an euphemistic way of saying torture chamber and the Arms Museum. In the earlier days when the castle used to also serve as a prison, torture was freely employed to extract confessions from the accused. There are plenty of implements on display - and the few families that we had seen who were also at the castle at the same time as us - the adults were in a sombre mood but the kids were inquisitive and wanted to know a lot more, much to the dismay of their parents! After going in and out through the various chambers, we reached the top of the castle from where we got a good panoramic view of the city.
We walked back to where our car was parked as we were on our home stretch. Our return shuttle to England was at 19:36 from Calais and we decided to visit Dunkirk on the way to Calais.
Dunkirk means the "Church of the Dunes" in Flemish and is supposedly the world's northern-most Francophone city. But the reason for our visit is not to pursue this trivia, but to visit the site of the famous Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, during the WWII. We visited the memorial and read our history for recollection to appreciate the enormity of what had happened to ward off the German attack. The beach was deserted with a few people walking their dogs and we took a few pictures and soon we were on our way to Calais to get the shuttle back to England.
Dunkirk MemorialIn memory of the soldiers, marines and pilots of the French Army and the Allied Forces who sacrificed their lives in the Battle of Dunkirk - May - June 1940 The return journey from Calais to Folkestone was uneventful except for a 30 minute delay to our departure. And to orient ourselves back to driving on the left side of the road on reaching the British soil. We had literally pulled off something that was way beyond our comfort zones by veering away from our dependency on a well-planned itinerary. This could be the first of many many more to come.