ManVanNoPlan Visits Bruges, Blankenberge & Brussels in the second blog of our 2022 Spring tour of Europe.
Tuesday 8th of March 2022
Yesterday was bright and sunny but with a wind chill that brought the tears to your eyes if you were out walking or cycling. It had been -2 during the night but by the time we surfaced it was climbing to 10 degrees with no wind chill so it was very pleasant.
We had been the only van on the Aire last night so there were no queues to service the van this morning.
Once that was done we pointed Bessie in the direction of Bruges and with the help of Google maps we arrived less than an hour later. This is the third or fourth time we have been on this Aire and although it is relatively expensive at € 19 (€ 25 from the 31st March) you have all the facilities including electricity all within a short walk into what must be the prettiest small city in all of Europe.
Any time we have been here before the Aire has been virtually full but not today and there was only about 8 vans parked up including one other Brit in another Swift Bessacarr.
Fyne Editions had a record November and December and I have big plans to expand the listings, especially of diaries and notebooks and this is what has kept me busy throughout the first quarter of 2022 and hundreds of new listings have been added so check out Fyne Editions HERE. The series below is new for 2022 and features titles from 1940 to 2014 and they make great birthday presents as a £ 4.99, 101 page notebook is far better value than a birthday card that will probably be binned after a week or so! Click the nationality of your choice to see the full range…
After lunch we decided to walk into the city centre for a wander about in the bright and warm sunshine. Bruges is mostly pedestrianised but even the streets where cars are allowed weren’t that busy.
In the Middle Ages Bruges was allegedly the wealthiest city in Europe and that is reflected in the amazing architecture and well preserved ancient buildings. Bruges was spared any major damage in the two world wars and although the Germans dropped 6,000 bombs on it there was minimal damage to the important buildings.
While the main square, the Markt (below) is the focal point in the centre, the nearby De Burgh Square is arguably even prettier as the buildings here date from the 13th century. Opposite this square there is another square with trees and lots of chairs and we spent a long time just looking over at the magnificent architecture while soaking up the sun on our faces at the same time.
In the picture below you can see The Navigator checking out the menus of all the restaurants that line one side of the main square trying to remember which one she devoured a rabbit on a previous visit. Rabbit, along with a Flemish beef stew is a bit of a delicacy in this region and most restaurants have it on the menu.
We will spend most of tomorrow wandering about so decided to save our feet and head back to the van. On the way we stopped for a reviving drink in a little square, the Huidenvettersplein near to where you can get a 35 minute boat trip around the canals which gives a different perspective to the beautiful buildings.
Talking of boat trips, we were here in 1990 staying up on the nearby coast in our little 12ft Sprite Alpine caravan and came down to Bruges for a visit but it was a bit of a disaster as I had contracted Chicken Pox and was a very miserable itching grumpy person!
Unshaved, sun glasses and hat all trying to cover up the spots and look as though I’m enjoying myself. After this day we packed up and came home early only for me to pass it on to the girls one after the other! Thirty two years later and with the only noticeable difference less hair, we decided to have a coffee and beer as The Navigator wanted to sit in the sunshine but once seated, sat with her back to the sun. Go figure!
The bill for the two drinks was €10.60 which I’ll never see again so we sat for as long as we could to try and recoup some value from my investment in the waiter’s early retirement fund. We chatted to a fellow Brit here on a short mini-break who took ages ordering a pint, instructing the waiter that it was not to exceed 5%. It turns out he was served 12% Belgian beer last night and it rendered him unconscious!
As we left the little square we passed a very upmarket chip shop, Casa Patatas, which had pictures in their window of their specialities, Dirty Fries which was basically a carton of chips with a topping, or garniture as they called it. We were tempted (not difficult) and settled for the Belgian Stew topping with mayonnaise. It doesn’t sound right does it? Mayonnaise on top of stew, but trust me it was delicious!
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The jacket shown on the left is just one of a range of notebook titles celebrating the specific year a couple were married and we have configured titles from 1960 through to 2021.
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Wednesday 9th March 2022
I mentioned in the last blog that we were marking time at Langemark but in hindsight that was a disservice to Langemark which we thoroughly enjoyed. But we did want to arrive here on a Tuesday to spend a full day in Bruges because Wednesday is market day in Bruges and any self respecting Belgian market has a huge truck full of rotisserie chicken which we had for lunch the last time we were here and it was delicious then, and hopefully would be delicious today.
We set off for the City centre mid morning and took a different route from yesterday, the more popular way from the Aire and immediately the buildings are beautiful and everything seems to be upmarket, the restaurants, beer shops, chocolate shops, gift shops etc.
On our way to the main square we saw some archaeologists digging beside one of the main churches of Bruges and very delicately marking out the skeletons to be examined and catalogued.
Bruges is a wealthy city in a wealthy country and it shows. Tourists flock here from all over Europe and the horse & carriages and boat tours are kept busy all day even in out of season March. We had a leisurely stroll up to the main square to find the market was on there. It consisted of fruit & veg, flowers, cheese and other food stuffs in mostly vans with the sides lifted to form a counter, some small but a lot were 40ft trailers and there were two there with the rotisserie chicken, ribs and other meat delights for us carnivores. Bliss!
We watch a lot of YouTube videos of people touring in motorhomes and camper vans and for some reason they all seem to be vegans or vegetarians but not us! Although there were queues six deep to buy the chicken it was still just after eleven so we had a wander about some streets and lanes we missed yesterday.
After buying our chicken on skewers we headed back to the place we sat for ages in the sun yesterday and today we sat for ages in the warm sunshine with our lunch which was delicious and a bargain compared with restaurant prices in Bruges.
By the way she finished the whole thing, as did I mind you! After lunch we wandered about for ages taking in the sights until mid afternoon when we decided to call it a day, but not before having a tea/coffee with a shared apple pie and ice cream which was delicious. The young waitress was very chatty and explained to us the split in Belgium between those who spoke Flemish in the north (here) and the French speakers in the south and there seems little love lost between them.
Later back at the van we relaxed and put our feet up after a hard day pounding the cobbled streets. No meal tonight after overdosing on chicken at lunchtime!
Thursday the 10th of March 2022
Today we are leaving Bruges for the short hop of half an hour up to the coast at Blankenberge where we will make second attempt to get in the Aire there after finding it was full three years ago. As it turned out I had picked a different Aire but this one was a good choice thankfully.
We serviced the van before leaving the Aire at Bruges and had a chat with a fellow Brit who was a regular here down the years as well. It was an easy drive up to the coast although Google Maps did manage to take us off the dual carriageway and send us down some single track roads approaching Blankenberge.
We arrived too early to get on the Aire so parked up on the main road between Zeebrugge and Blankenberge to kill an hour. At noon we headed to the Aire to find we were fourth in line to get in and we did not get a choice of pitch as we had the last available space. There are forty two pitches and apart from us and one German van the rest were all Belgian motorhomes.
The price per night at Floreal Camperpark in Blankenberge is € 20 (£16.84) which includes electricity and all facilities. Talking of facilities, which looked new, the toilets were communal as were the showers which seemed to be frequented by couples at the same time! The building you see behind Bessie is the Floreal Resort Hotel where you can also use the facilities as well.
After lunch and a chat with our neighbour it was time to get the bikes out and cycle along the seafront at Blankenberge. You might not have heard of Blankenberge before but it is probably the biggest holiday town on the north coast of Belgium and it is a very popular place to have a holiday flat or mobile home.
I have to be honest and say it is not the prettiest of resorts but it does have a fantastic beach which stretches for miles. There was a lot of work going on to refurbish the pier and the esplanade but it was still an enjoyable cycle. The whole front consists of blocks of flats about ten stories high only interrupted by the odd street going down to the town. When you get to the very end of the esplanade there is an entrance to a massive marina and another long row of flats looking over it.
In the above picture you can see the fantastic beach with a tractor levelling it and scraping up any debris after the recent storms. The industrial port of Zeebrugge is only a few miles away and the huge cranes in the harbour can be seen on the horizon. Zeebrugge is also the entry point for canal barges to head down to Bruges and inland from there. Below is the massive marina at Blankenberge.
The choice if you want a flat here is a marina and inland view with the sun hitting your balcony most of the day or amazing sea and beach views with great sunsets. We cycled back to the Aire and sat out in the warm sunshine for the rest of the afternoon and I had a doze!
Friday the 11th of March 2022
It’s another warm morning with a cloudless sky and we had a walk to the huge Delhaize supermarket which is right next to the site, as is Seaworld which is straight across the street and another reason this site is completely full in early March and can charge €20 a night out of season. The price of diesel at Delhaize was € 2.28 (£1.91) but we are still running on diesel from Morrisons in Sittingbourne at £1.49.
After another relaxing morning we cycled back along the esplanade after lunch but this time we parked the bikes and had a walk along the busy main street before heading back.
It had clouded over in the afternoon and a strong breeze was coming in off the sea blowing the fine beach sand onto the esplanade. Yesterday we sat outside in the warm sun till about 6pm but today the rain came on just after 5pm.
The bike batteries were charged up to make use of the electricity supply before being put back into the garage as they won’t be needed again here as we are off on a big adventure tomorrow which I’ve booked as a surprise for The Navigator who has no idea what’s instore for her tomorrow apart from the fact is an all day activity!
CHECK OUT THE BORN & BRED IN... NOTEBOOK RANGE
Saturday the 12th of March 2022
The alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 7am as we are off to Brussels on the 8.51am train from Blankenberge today. I tried to find an Aire near Brussels while planning this trip as we had never been before but there was nothing suitable. However, I found out through Googling, as you do, that Belgian Railways have a scheme that allows those over 65 to travel anywhere in Belgium from 7pm on a Friday and all weekend with no time restrictions for € 7 return each, so for the princely sum of €14 (£12.12) we were off to Brussels this morning which is 90 minutes away on the train. Amazing value and so easy to book online in English.
The train was a double decker and we had the top carriage virtually to ourselves until Bruges and Gent where it became much busier. The journey wasn’t much to write home about (but I will anyway) as the landscape is completely flat but very well tended and prosperous looking. The track is being upgraded for quite a long distance but it was a Saturday so no work was actually taking place. The other noticeable thing about the journey was how quiet it was. Admittedly I haven’t been on a train much recently and it may be the same in the UK now but the train glided over the tracks with no noise at all.
In Brussels Central Station we had to queue to get out of the station as there were hundreds of people in fancy dress trying to leave the platform too and little did we know that they would end up being a big feature of our day as it progressed.
The first sight we saw was the impressive 16th century Cathedral des St’s Michel et Gudule (above). We passed it by without going in, in fact we would end up not going in anywhere as we wanted to see as much as possible in our limited time in Brussels. The fancy dress crowd were congregating in front of the Cathedral before marching on with a band at the front of their procession now.
The must see attraction in Brussels is the 17th century Grand Place and having been fortunate to have seen the equivalent squares in Madrid and Bruges recently, this one is certainly the most impressive. Having seen it on TV and pictures down the years it was smaller than I expected and not flat underfoot with a slope from to to bottom with uneven cobbles underfoot to contend with as well. Historic cities like Brussels and Bruges are all cobbled and make for trip hazards and sore feet by the end of the day’s sightseeing!
There was a lot of activity in the square and this was where we caught up with the band and marchers. The marchers were inside the ancient town hall meeting the mayor and the band were outside waiting to lead them off again. I asked one of the band members what the occasion was and it turns out this was a delayed Mardi Gras celebration that had previously been postponed due to Covid.
This annual carnival has been taking place annually since the 14th century on the three days before Lent and this was them belatedly celebrating the festival now that the Covid restrictions have been lifted in Belgium.
Like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid there are a myriad number of small streets leading off the square (rectangle actually!) so we picked one and exited and stumbled upon the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert, an upmarket and ornate covered shopping centre under an arched glass roof.
You won’t go hungry in Brussels and this is one of the many shops selling Waffles and although they tend to have sweet toppings there are places selling savoury toppings as well. Believe it or not we resisted the temptation!
We continued wandering about taking in all the sights until we found one of the biggest tourist attractions in Brussels, the tiny Mannekin Pis statue.
Manneken Pis, which is Dutch for ‘Little Pissing Man’ is a landmark bronze fountain sculpture in central Brussels depicting a puer mingens or naked little boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. It was designed by the Brabantine sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in 1618 or 1619. The current statue is a replica which dates from 1965. The original is kept in the Brussels City Museum. Manneken Pis is one of the best-known symbols of Brussels and Belgium. It is also an example of ’Belgianness’ and folk humour, popular in Brussels.
Unfortunately it was covered by a flag and couldn’t be seen when we arrived. As it was 11.50 we decided to wait and see if maybe it was uncovered at noon. Little did we know what was about to occur!
At 12 o’clock about half a dozen ‘officials’ turned up and started moving the crowd back a bit as there seemed to be a ceremony about to take place. In the distance we could hear the band playing and getting nearer and they eventually came down the narrow street we were on with all the marchers in their fancy dress along with half the population of Brussels!
Speeches were made, toasts were drunk and then the big moment arrived when the water was switched on and the little boy started ‘pissing’ and from time to time someone increased the water pressure duly soaking everyone standing directly in front of the statue.
It was a really fun thing to see and we had been very fortunate to be (accidentally) in the right place at the right time. We extracated ourselves from the excited crowd and wandered some more until we found somewhere for lunch and a much needed sit down.
In the UK we put stews etc inside a Yorkshire Pudding and in Belgium the same principle is applied to Vol-au-Vents which you see on a lot of menus in Belgium and The Navigator tried a chicken one and I had meat balls in a rich tomato sauce and both were delicious.
Suitably rested and refreshed we headed uphill and through the Jardin du Mont des Arts towards the Royal Palace.
We had a seat in the Royal park opposite the Palace for another rest and take in the surroundings. From there we headed back downhill for another wander about until we had a mid afternoon seat at a bakery outside the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert with cake and a free show by two saxophonists.
We had one final walk into the Grand Place to see it under different lighting conditions and although it had started to cloud over and cool down, the decorative gold on the buildings still stood out.
Back then to the Central Station where we boarded the 4.45pm train for the return journey to Blankenberge where we arrived to find more than a dozen Transport and Federal Police, both checking tickets and IDs as well as using a sniffer dog on everyone as we stood in line to be checked out.
My phone App showed we had walked over 16,000 steps and our feet had stood up pretty well to the cobbles of Brussels but by the time we walked back to Bessie it was time for a refreshing cuppa and a bite to eat before an early bedtime.
Brussels had been a great place to visit and we were lucky with the weather and being there with so much colourful activity taking place on the streets. As I said at the beginning we didn’t go in to any art galleries, museums or visitor attractions and certainly didn’t see everything but what we did see was memorable.
And speaking of memorable, the pictures above were a small selection of those taken on the day and to see all the pictures.
COMING SOON ON THE NEXT BLOG...
We head to further east into the Netherlands but will we see a mouse with clogs on? (One for the older readers there!)