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2018 – A week in Belgium after Le Tour de France

Week 3 – Day 1 – Monday 16th of July 2018
Paillencourt France to Thieu Belgium – 74 miles

2018 – A week in Belgium after Le Tour de France 2018
We had been on a wonderful wildcamping spot beside a canal at Paillencourt in Northern France for a couple of days to see the cobbled Stage 9 of Le Tour de France 2018.

Last night we had listened to the World Cup final and could hear the French celebrating in the nearby houses as their national team triumphed 4-2 against Croatia before having a barbecue in the warm evening sun.

We had been in the company of four Yorkshire men in two motorhomes who were in two motorhomes. We had seen five stages from the west coast of Brittany to here, almost on the border with Belgium. This was the first stage for the Yorkshire cycling fans and they were now going to head off south to the Alps to follow the Tour there.

The experts try to repair The Navigator’s puncture…

It would have been great to follow the Yorkshire Lads down to the Alps to continue our pilgrimage following the Tour and take in the amazing mountainous scenery in the south of France. The online Thesaurus has these alternatives to pilgrimage – crusade, expedition, excursion, tour and trip, and all of them could have been used in the last sentence, but with the incredible devotion the French have to this annual event, pilgrimage works best.

As a global spectacle showcasing France’s beauty as well as the wares of the event’s corporate sponsors, there is nothing to compare. Throw in a bike race over three and a half thousand kilometres up hill and mountain with a few dales thrown in for good measure and you have a flavour of the appeal that these three weeks in July have for the French nation and an ever growing worldwide television audience.

However, we only had time this year to see five stages and head homewards for The Navigator to earn a crust and cover her old job letting her successor take some holidays. This was Monday morning and we had until half past midnight on Friday to board the ferry so there was no real rush as there was only one thing that was on our itinerary to visit and that was Bruges on Wednesday, but more of the reason for that later. This morning started slowly, very slowly. The two French vans that were here overnight had departed fairly early and it looked as though the Brasserie across the road was closed today so there were few people about.

Bessie no mates on Monday morning…

After the excitement of the Tour de France we could afford a long lie in as we were going to make a relaxing holiday of our last few days on the continent. As there was no one about I decided to fly the drone after breakfast to hopefully better capture our location of the last two nights.

Bessie from the air…

I had the company of a young boy from a nearby house, who was asking a million questions, in French obviously, and unfortunately I could not answer 999,999 of them, the one question I understood was about it having a camera onboard and I was able to show him his house from about 200 feet which quite impressed him.

Canalside location with Brasserie on hand…

I have a confession to make! We arrived here over the bridge in the above pictures. It was only in taking the following still from the drone footage that I noticed that the road sign says that vehicles over 3,500 kg should not turn right and the other warning sign over on the right says that vehicles over 3,500 kg should not cross the bridge. Last night a pair of Gendarmes drove down the tow path on the other side of the canal to take a picture of the sunset over the bridge and we exchanged cheery waves. They then came over to this side and parked next to Bessie for more sunset over the bridge pictures. Not a lot of crime in Paillencourt last night. Little did they know however, but the driver of the adjacent motorhome was breaking the law as he must have missed the 3,500 kg weight limit signs as Bessie is rated at 3,850 kg. If we had to be stuck in limbo, it was not a bad place to be!

3500kg weight limit in both directions…

Once we were ready to move a course was plotted to a Leclerc supermarket about 10km away to service the van, dumping waste water, taking on 90ltrs of fresh water and emptying the toilet, all for this for only €1. I also invested €2 on a jetwash for the cab to remove the flies and dust that had accumulated in the past few days.

The satnav was then set for a place in Belgium I had read had the second largest boat lift in the world, and as it was just over an hour away it was not too taxing a drive. By midday the temperature was in the high 80s again but the cab air conditioning kept us cool. One of the nifty feature on Bessie is a cool box built into the dashboard in front of the passenger which can keep drinks, chocolate etc chilled when the air conditioning is on and this has been well used on this trip, apart from the chocolate that is!

We arrived at the Strépy-Thieu boat lift, which looked like some sort of alien mother ship, just before lunchtime to find the car park remarkably empty for such an apparent national tourist attraction. We had lunch in the van then walked over just in time to see it in action as a large barge carrying shredded metal approached the lift and moved straight in ready to ascend. The whole process between it sailing in to it moving off at the top took only about half an hour. 

Strépy-Thieu boat lift…

The lift was designed to lift the European standard 1,350 ton barges between the waterways of the Meuse and Scheldt rivers and it took 20 years to build at an estimated cost of €160m. In the above picture you can see the chamber on the left side coming down for the approaching barge.

With a height difference of 73.15 metres (240.0 ft) between the upstream and downstream reaches, it was the tallest boat lift in the world upon its completion, and remained so until the Three Gorges dam boat lift in China was completed in January 2016. We are Falkirk Bairns and have been to see the much admired Falkirk Wheel a few times, but this structure, although not as pleasing on the eye as its Falkirk cousin, makes our one look like a toy.

The barge in the chamber and being lifted…

We got talking to an elderly Dutch couple who were on a cycling tour and the woman mentioned that she had cycled from John O’Groats to Lands End which impressed us greatly, as did her husbands cycling exploits back in his youth including the major professional races of the day. Our standing on a roadside and waving and clapping at the passing Tour de France somehow paled into insignificance.

The car park was not busy because the visitor centre and boat rides up and down on the lift were closed on a Monday so we headed off to a nearby town to try and buy an inner tube for The Navigator’s punctured front wheel which we managed to get in a branch of Sports Direct. The shopping complex had many large retail units, the largest by far was a branch of a supermarket chain we had never heard of called Cora. Curiosity got the better of us and we had a walk round and it was massive, but we did not need much so left with only a few purchases.

As we had serviced the van in the morning we really only needed somewhere to park for the night and as luck would have it my Park4Night App listed a place on the banks of the canal a few miles downstream from the boat lift so we headed back there and parked up on what was a wharf for the barges to tie up, if they needed to. There are no facilities, just the great location. As well as the above lift there are a few other boat lifts in this area, all recognised as Unesco world heritage sites, with a more historic look to them and we were parked only a few hundred yards from one of them.

One of the Unesco world heritage boat lifts…

We were one of about fifteen vans including another British couple from Nottingham in their Swift Bolero. They showed great interest in Bessie, and for the third time on this trip, we explained all the van’s features. We chatted to them for ages, much to their dog’s frustration as it wanted to get going for its evening walk!

Bessie is the third van…

We also spent time talking to Cor (Cornelius), the male half of a Dutch couple parked beside us and he told us they were setting off for a five week tour into Normandy and Brittany and he was interested to know where we had been and where we would recommend visiting. He told us of their trip to Norway and it sounds a fascinating place, if very expensive and it sounds a great place to tour with a motorhome, although he thought Bessie might be too big for some of the most northerly roads they had been on with their smaller campervan.

Week 3 – Day 2 – Tuesday 17th of July 2018
Thieu to Bruges – 94 miles

This morning was a lazyish morning and time to catch up on a few jobs that had been put off recently, mostly tidying up and sorting ‘stuff’. My biggest job was to put the new tube on The Navigator’s front wheel, a task I thought I was managing but in reality I was failing until Cor came to the rescue and he had it fixed in a jiffy. I hadn’t fixed a puncture in fifty years, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Cor came back with his notebook for the details of where to find the seventy odd 123 Seconds In… videos as some of the places I filmed are on his intended route. After they left there were only three vans left, one Dutch and the two British Swifts. We had another chat with the Nottingham couple as they set off for another walk with their dog which was now sporting a fairly hi-tech light blue jacket. This jacket was wet to the touch on the outside but dry on the dog’s back. A good idea to keep the dog cool in the heat, but was it worth £50 is the heated question? Boom boom.

A few barges passed during the morning as well as a converted barge carrying tourists who were heading for the above historic boat lift.

In the above picture you can see one of the two Tour de France direction signs on the dashboard that I rescued from a lamp post in Paillencourt yesterday. The Navigator is trying to top up her tan and drying a towel at the same time…

We had lunch then set off just after two o’clock to head for Bruges, a city we have been to many times before but you just cannot be in this part of Belgium without visiting it. Our route took us around Brussels and Ghent on motorway and dual carriageway all the way. An hour and a half later we arrived in Bruges and things started to go slightly pear shaped as we headed for the Aire. With the Aire only about a mile away just off the inner ring road, I took the wrong exit off a roundabout and if this happens I usually circle the roundabout until taking the correct exit, however on this occasion a rather unhelpful policeman indicated I could not turn left, the route the satnav was telling me to take, instead pointing to the right, a road that I knew would take us into the main shopping centre, a direction I did not want to take in an 8 metre motorhome, however no amount of pointing and gesturing was going to change his mind so we headed into the medieval city centre. 

But I want to go left officer…

Our satnav rerouted and took us in the general direction of where we were aiming for, but one way medieval cobbled streets full of tourists and cyclists coming at us the wrong way had its own issues to contend with. We reached a junction about a hundred yards from the Aire and the satnav was telling me to turn left but there was a motorhome and a bus, from Scotland as it happens, coming side by side up the street I was meant to go down, so I turned right thinking the satnav was trying to take me down a one way street the wrong way. There was no other opportunity to turn left, and in a couple of minutes we arrived back at the roundabout with the intransigent policeman. I again indicated I wanted to go round the roundabout and head back the way I had come, but no amount of gesturing was having the desired outcome so I headed the way he was pointing, back towards the heaving city centre.

Streets not used to an 8.1m motorhome…

This time when I got to the junction where it all went wrong earlier and the satnav was imploring me to turn left, and I did and reached the Aire in about thirty seconds! Earlier, either the motorhome or the bus was in the wrong but all is well that ends well. This is a very busy Aire as it is in walking distance of one of the prettiest cities in Europe and even the €25 a night cost does not put many people off, including us. You are packed in tightly so no tables, chairs or barbecues are allowed. We have been in France, and now Belgium, for over a fortnight and have spent €16 on overnight stays so far, but one night here is going to be worth every euro.

Packed in at the Bruges Aire – we were in the space ahead…

Why? Well, tomorrow is market day in the main square and it is quite a sight to behold. The last time we were here it was at the start of the Christmas Market and it was very pretty with all the decorations and lights up. Tomorrow it will be in the eighties again and The Navigator is on a mission to buy a few things so we will be trailing round until she finds what she is looking for. Deep joy!

Week 3 – Day 3 – Wednesday 18th of July 2018
Bruges to De Panne – 64 miles

We woke to another great day, not as blistering hot as its been, but lovely and warm with a gentle breeze which helped keep the temperature under control. Today was an ‘up and at ‘em’ day as we had to see and do everything we wanted to in Bruges then be back in time to exit the site by 4.15pm as we were moving up to the north coast somewhere.

Bruges has been a regular stopover for a long time, our first visit being back in 1990 on our way back from a holiday in Holland. Although the year is a bit hazy, our few days in Belgium was fairly memorable as I contracted chickenpox and was in a bit of a state so we cut our week in Belgium short to return home, but we fitted Bruges in before we left.

It is not that far from Dunkirk or Calais for that matter and it is well worth a detour to see it, although it is admittedly overrun with tourists nowadays, and we were about to increase those numbers today.

The Aire is part of a huge parking area for the dozens of buses from all over Europe, including a fair number from the UK, and it is a well defined easy walk into the centre of the city past many historic and photogenic buildings along the way. Bruges is known as the Venice of the north and has a network of canals with packed tourist filled boats on them all day. There is a vantage point on the way to the centre and it is well photographed, and who am I not to join in the tourist activities…

The route to the centre is lined with restaurants, chocolate shops, gift shops and others selling a huge variety of Belgian beers and lagers. The restaurants have a fairly similar range of food on offer with the three most popular dishes being mussels with frites, Flemish beef stew and rabbit, which The Navigator has tried and enjoyed on a previous visit but I grew up watching every Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made, so eating rabbit is not not something I would ever consider, no matter how often I’m told “it’s just like chicken”.

Restaurants in the main square…

When we reached the centre there was no market to be seen, instead a huge stage had been erected, which we later learned was in place for a three night annual celebration with free concerts taking place here.

This is the main square – where the market usually is…

The market had relocated to another square a short distance away and we headed straight there to have a look. This square was equally as picturesque as the main square, but much smaller so it was only the food and flower sellers who were here so no crafts, gifts and clothing etc.

They take their markets seriously abroad and the trucks are specially made to accommodate whatever they are selling with the sides lifting up to reveal their wares with the majority being artisan food producers, especially cheeses and meats with the fruit, veg and flower sellers use traditional market stalls. In the above picture you can see the fantastic detail on the surrounding buildings.

One of the main shopping streets – how pretty is this…

The outstanding seller, for me anyway, is the rotisserie meat truck, a forty foot long homage to all things carnivorous. Against the back wall are the turning skewers of meats, mostly chicken, but with gammon pieces, racks of ribs and most other cuts of meats, along with a few ‘sides’ like potatoes and green beans oddly enough, either to be taken home, or like us, to be consumed in the shade on a park bench.

The best market stall by far…
A carnivores delight…

Having chosen what we would have, it was too early to indulge ourselves, even though the aroma of the roasting chicken was pretty tantalising so we headed for a walkabout. The Navigator was on a mission to buy a few things which was duly achieved and she was delighted to find her two favourite continental shops, Flying Tiger and Hema. With soft drinks purchased and the time approaching 12.30 it was time to head back and purchase lunch of chicken wings and potatoes which had slivers of ham and herbs on them. We have been away three weeks and if we have spend a better six euros, I’m not sure where. 

Getting wired in as we Scots say…

We then had another walkabout then headed back to Hema for a tea and a cappuccino, or, as my mother in law used to call it, ‘a cup of chino’. A large strawberry tart for only two euro was halved and enjoyed. Then it was time to head back towards the van, retracing our steps as there was something we had seen in a shop window this morning that we wanted to buy for our granddaughter. The shop was owned by Sue, a Yorkshire woman who had been in Bruges thirty five years, having married a Belgian. We chatted to her for about half an hour then walked back to the van.

Here is the video of our day in Bruges in 246 Seconds…

A quick top up with water and we were on our way heading for somewhere on the north coast, however before getting on the dual carriageway diesel had to be purchased, as we were close to running on fumes. Coming off a roundabout a Texaco garage appeared so I topped up at €1.51 a litre. A hundred yards later I turned a corner and passed an Esso garage with diesel at €1.39 and another few hundred yards further on a Shell garage had diesel at €1.41 a litre. Hey Ho as they say!

I should have headed for Ostend then headed west along the coast road towards France but instead hit the coast five miles from the French border and headed east looking for somewhere to stay, eventually finding a motorhome Aire at Nieuwpoort only to find it was full. Consulting the Park4night App, something I should have done before leaving Bruges, I headed back towards De Panne, the place we had hit on the coast an hour before, we found a campsite next to the Plopsaland De Panne theme park and about a mile back from the coast

At the market in Bruges, as well as buying lunch we bought a lump of roasted gammon which was reheated in the oven and made for a quick meal as it was around seven pm by this time. It was a lovely warm evening and we sat out enjoying the relax after a busy sightseeing day. The Belgian couple opposite us admired Bessie but said they were happy with their twenty eight year old van and so they should be, its not about the van but what you do with it that is the important thing.

Week 3 – Day 4 – Thursday 19th of July 2018
De Panne – 0 miles

When we booked in last night we only paid for one night, not sure what we were doing between then and the ferry in the early hours of Saturday morning. We were prepared for wildcamping again but decided to stay another night here, even though the four amp electricity supply was less than adequate and kept tripping.

It is my birthday tomorrow and The Navigator kindly agreed to splash out on a decent lunch to mark the event so we walked ten minutes back into the village to a restaurant that the young guy on reception last night had heard was good. He explained in perfect English he was a student in Brussels and was only here for the summer season so did not really know the area. He checked online and found out it specialised in meat, and at that I had heard enough, the meat restaurant it had to be.

The menu had a few token dishes for non meat eaters, and believe it or not The Navigator actually toyed with the idea of ordering salmon, before coming to her senses and joined me in ordering a t-bone steak. The salmon was probably never going to be any better than she could buy in Tarbert any Friday, so a t-bone which is way out of our everyday shopping budget was going to be a rare treat.

The steaks came served on wooden platters and they looked great, and were cooked exactly as specified, mine coming with a hot Provencal sauce, a  salad bowl, plate of chips and three sauces, thousand island, mayonnaise and tartar sauce were served for us to share, along with half a litre of red wine to wash it all down. The three sauces were cold, and although they sound odd to be serving with a steak, they really worked.

Birthday lunch…

On our way to Calais tomorrow we will be stocking up on Aldi and Lidl’s offers, especially on wine which is great value here. We did however pop in to the supermarket just across from the restaurant but nothing much took our eye and we saved the few euros we have left for tomorrow.

I spent the afternoon watching Geraint Thomas win today’s stage of the Tour de France, a remarkable performance in one of the hardest mountain stages in this year’s race, while The Navigator sat out in the sunshine multi tasking by reading and sunbathing at the same time.

The BBQ was not pressed into service tonight as our larger than normal lunch meant we were not that hungry.

Week 3 – Day 5 – Friday 20th of July 2018
De Panne to Silverstone – 221 miles

Although it was my birthday it was a travelling day so no alcohol would be consumed to celebrate the annual event therefore it was more or less a normal day. The holiday was over so the van was packed and secured for the journey as things like the bikes, tables and chairs etc would not be used again so they could be tied down in the garage. There was no rush as we had all day to kill before the ferry so after a longish lie in and breakfast we serviced the van to take on enough water to see us home before leaving the campsite.

De Panne is only five miles from the French border and I had intended to follow the coast road and stop at the little French town of Bray Dunes near Dunkirk where we had also killed time before a ferry three years ago coming back from our nine countries in nine weeks tour, but having been on this road before, and it only being six miles away, I gave my satnavigator the day off, relying instead on The Navigator. What could possibly go wrong?

In short it did! Before leaving De Panne we decided to stop at a nearby Aldi for some shopping and to see if there were any wine bargains, however it was not the biggest shop Aldi has and we could not get Bessie parked anywhere near it and ended up on a road signposted to Calais which was no real problem as that was where we were ultimately heading. The road we found ourselves on was the main dual carriageway between France and Belgium, the A16, and it was inland of Bray Dunes and Dunkirk so we carried on to Calais. Bray Dunes has a huge flat sandy beach, perfect nowadays for family holidays but it was the scene back in 1940 of the Dunkirk Evacuation. In his famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech, Churchill hailed the troops rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.

Bray Dunes beach in 2015

On the way the satnav was pressed into service for Plan B which was to take us straight to the big Lidl in Calais, near Cite Europe. It is also near to the entrance to the Channel Tunnel and that was the exit it told us to take off the A16 and that is how, in a bit of a panic we found ourselves facing the check in booths for the Tunnel before the satnav casually informed us to take a sharp right and head out of the Tunnel fenced off area to find ourselves in the Lidl car park.

After lunch we went for a ‘big shop’ to save stopping on the way up and also to stock up on all our favourite French foods and of course wine, although the wine I stocked up on was a white South African and The Navigator splashed out on a case of her favourite, an Italian red at €1.99 and €2.15 respectively. By this time it was early afternoon and we drove round to the motorhome parking area at Cite Europe and settled down for a relaxing afternoon. Later on, between rain showers, we had a walk into Cite Europe and the huge Auchan supermarket, the first time in at least ten years that we have been in it. At the height of the Booze Cruise years we drove down from Loughborough, stocked up on cheap wine at Auchan, had a meal at Flunch or a moules et frites in Calais town centre but that was before all the migrant problems and it is a very different place now.

We felt safe enough leaving the van in the parking area for an hour or so as it was surrounded by other vans killing time before later ferries, but I would not stay overnight there. Some may do, but I don’t think it is worth the risk.

Auchan was disappointing as there were no real wine, spirit or lager bargains, unlike all those years ago so we only bought a handful of things we liked that were not available in Lidl. It was a bit like a ‘big shop’ day trip to Oban in that Aldi, Lidl and Farmfoods are the Navigator’s first port of call and it is only if a recipe calls for an exotic ingredient that she will darken the doors of Tesco!

We set off for the port around ten and P & O put us on a ferry leaving at 11.45pm instead of 00.30am, which with the time difference meant we landed in Dover at 00.15am and with the empty roads of the M20 , M25 and M40 we sailed up to a layby near Silverstone where we had a good sleep, given it was almost 4am by this time.

Week 3 – Day 6 – Saturday 21st of July 2018
Silverstone to Carlisle – 285 miles

Week 3 – Day 7 – Sunday 22nd of July 2018
Carlisle to Ardrishaig – 186 miles

Visit STREPY-THIEU Boat Lift
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To put this blog post into context here is the route we travelled…

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