Monday, 31 October 2011

Happy Halloween

As part of my photo scanning process (stalled, but not forgotten) I found this photo of me at age four or five, dressed as a 'bride doll'.  Given the fact that I've been a 'bride' three times now, I think it's an absolute hoot that I started practicing so early, but I do remember that I had an actual bride doll at that age.  She was far more elegant than any I find on the internet just now, or perhaps I just remember her that way.

The headdress was made using a sort of choker-style cloth necklace Mom had that was beaded with costume pearls.  She somehow stuffed netting into it to shape the veil.  She was good at things like that.  They call that 'up-cycling' now or something, don't they?  Then she whipped up a top from some white taffeta and threw together a net skirt.  I think the waist line was pretty itchy, but it was just for one evening, after all.   When ever it was time to get 'gussied up', Mom's stock hairstyle for me was the dreaded Shirley Temple curls.  I hated them then, but they make me laugh now.

Try not to eat all your Halloween candy yourself!!

Sunday, 30 October 2011


Blaarmeersen is the name of the campsite where we parked.  Since this is only my second experience, Wales being the first, I'm not sure I can rate it fairly.  Also, it was nearing the end of the season.  

We decided however, after finding it wasn't just us that struggled with these issues, that they really should spend more money on increasing the areas of hard-standing and on more places to access electricity.  Other than this, I thought it was a lovely location - quite suburban, actually - and pretty convenient to visit the places we wanted to go.

Apartment life is far more common in Europe than
in Britain or the US, obviously.  We thought these
looked very pleasant, overlooking the canals, the woods, etc.

As I mentioned before, Carrefour tended to be our main food source (certainly not the shop on the site, which had ree-dik-u-lus prices!) but food still cost more than I expected. 

We never did manage to cycle into Ghent when the market was on in the main square as we intended, so perhaps the location wasn't so convenient for everything

Blaarmeersen was much more than a campsite, however, it was a sort of all round fitness centre, with running paths (the TrimTrak), rowing, cycling and even a velodrome, for track cycling. Bill said he was only vaguely aware of this when he booked.  We came to realise that it was in fact a very nice community resource aimed at keeping people active in some way and it was well used by the local population for all sorts of sports.

I loved these little 'jungle gyms' scattered around the TrimTrak.  These,
together with the signage, made me think of faeries.  Then again,
I probably had faeries on the brain...

We thought maybe the name meant 'blue lakes' or something, there were several lakes on site, but I now know that 'meersen' is Dutch for marshes - very apt!  The fact that blaar means 'blister' is probably neither here nor there.

We were given tourist brochures and a map of the TrimTrak upon arrival, but I confess that I never did master the whole TrimTrak route.  It was only about 5K (c. 3 and a bit miles?) once you were on it but we're not talking a circle here, rather like hidden paths - some paved, often not - weaving between different features on the site.  However, once found, it was really lovely.  There was a day or two when I thought I was having shin splints or over-use injury from walking on the famed cobbled streets and so rested up.  Other than then I walked or jogged on the TrimTrak most days when we didn't go sight-seeing. 

Bill told me these were 'coots'; as in bald as a...  Instead they look like
they are wearing cute little hats, that's what I think anyhow.

Bill, on the other hand, went for a run every morning (leaving me in peace with my coffee) and even found a half marathon to do one weekend.  After he got back and showered we went along and watched some of the slower folks painfully trudging their way in at the end of a marathon.

I learned a couple of things on this trip relating to motorhome life, one of which was that the adage 'location, location, location' applies equally to non-stationary abodes.  Our camping area was a square off which there were little alcoves surrounded by hedge - 10 or twelve along three sides.  We tried a couple of places but the mud was a problem in one, the electrical hook-up a hindrance in another.  We ended up in the South West corner under some huge oak trees. 

In hot weather this would have been advantageous but it was typically autumnal, with some rainy days but on the whole more bright ones and moderately warmish temperatures.

However, the sun never invaded our corner, clothes didn't dry, our box felt damp without the heat on.  Acorns fell on the roof a few times, scaring me to death til I learned what it was.  Invariably the clatter came when Bill was out and I was half convinced I was under siege until a neighbour complained to Bill about being woken in the night by this.  We, on the other hand, were woken one night by a leak in the roof at the foot of the bed!  We subverted the water with a bin bag and my trusty duct tape (for a craft project) and got back to sleep comfortably.  Fortunately, Bill was able to patch it and all was fine in that respect for the rest of the trip. 

The three  'hot' slots on the north side (south-facing) of the square were all occupied by clever Brits who were there for a week or so.  Whilst I huddled inside with a sweater or two, they were out sun-bathing.  No lie.

They did move on and we could have spent our second week on the sunny side, but we stayed put.  Should the occasion arise again, I know Bill and I will both agree it's worth the trouble to move, but on this trip the complications we'd already had around electrical power didn't seem to merit the hassle.   I fully admit that it was my own fault that I was cold; had I relocated to one of the many benches around the lakes nearby, I could have sat in the sun.  I just stubbornly wanted to be warm at 'home' and that didn't happen.

The other thing I learned was that cooking in a very confined space loses its charm within a few days.  We had plenty to eat, but deciding what and how to cook it, on the stove or in the microwave, to best effect and frugal approach, seemed rather tedious after a long day of walking. 

I made the mistake of opening several tins and mixing some beans and veg together which was fine for the first night, but by the third day Bill was fed up with that dish and I was not enjoying playing house in the box as much as before.  Part of the problem was that I delegated stocking the kitchen to Bill before we left. He was just hanging around wanting something to do, having packed his clothes and everything else about a month before, so I handed him my list. A mistake, as it turned out, but I don't really blame him. He was too excited to concentrate on the list and so we got loads of some things and none of others.    Another thing was that I hadn't planned in any more detail than I normally do for my full-sized kitchen and that just won't do.  Meal times were a little stressful, but we didn't starve by any means.

These are all problems that experience and planning can solve.  I now have input from experienced caravaner, cousin Sharon, which I will go back and study come spring.  I will enjoy making my lists of ingredients and menus then and I will stock the van myself.  Bill does all the other planning around our trips, I could hardly complain about making this small contribution.  

We did not eat in restaurants much and that is our plan for future as well.  After all, the main advantage of taking your own bed and kitchen is the savings one makes from food and lodging.  There was a restaurant on the site, but all from all reports, the prices were just as high as the exclusive places in Ghent city centre and the food was less than average in quality, so we that wasn't the temptation it might have been.

Funny thing is, I had similar problems with my clothing, though I packed it all myself.  I did pack very light, with only items for one week, true.  But I found myself wearing the same brown cardigan for the whole trip, entirely forgetting that a plum coloured one was folded up on my shelf, waiting, along with several scarves I completely forgot I'd brought.  I'd made lists to pack and check that everything went together and then didn't bring those lists of outfits, thinking I could dress myself without them.  Wrong.  I don't know if it was being cold or tired or what, but the brain was definitely on strike.  Next trip, I bring lists!  Lots of lists!  Then brain can stay at home and not be missed!

Neither of us could make it far on this plank, hung at each end on a chain. 
The next day we watched a kid waltz across like it was terra firma, naturally.

On a positive note, there were little cosmetic things that needed addressed  or gadgets  still to figure out.  Bill happily spent a few days tinkering with these issues and was in the main highly successful.  As we managed to buy well within the budget we set for purchasing the motorhome, if there are things left that he can't fix himself, we still have a fund to pay for repairs.

I was nervous about him taking things apart, but discovered that he actually did manage to put them back together, so I began to relax and trust him to make things better rather than worse. A huge relief and very impressive, I might add. I refuse to consider voluntarily replacing this van until we have got full use of it.  What we've agreed so far is that we wouldn't wish for more space, only more modern versions of the same, though we did admire the sleek modernity of this little van.  Their kitchen made us think of a centre island arrangement in a normal house!  Many of the rigs that passed through our area had those horrible disk aerials on them, not a feature either of us has the least interest in obtaining, thankfully.

So far as we can estimate what lodging and food would have cost us this trip without the motorhome; and given that we bought at the older, cheaper end of the market - for cash of course, it shouldn't  take too many trips before it pays for itself.  Then we'll see where we go from there.

Also, as a comparison, for our two weeks in Belgium we spent just under half what we spent for ten days in Italy, staying in hotels/B&Bs and eating out.  I really enjoyed our last Italian adventure, but look forward to trying this different mode of travel some more, for a while at least.

Saturday, 29 October 2011


I was looking forward to seeing Bruges, as a Belgian friend had recommended I see it when I visited him in Brussels about 15 years ago for work.  I was travelling on my own then and fairly daunted at not speaking Dutch or French; I thought I did well to survive four days on my own in Brussels and I never did make it to Bruges, until now.

Bruges train station

Bill and I had a discussion on the train about why we say Bruges (rhyming with rouge), when the Belgians say Brugge (with a hard g).  Not to mention that Ghent is spelled Gent in Gent and pronounced with a soft g.  Bill said Bruges is the French pronunciation, which I still don't understand, given that more Belgians speeh Dutch (Flemish) than French - though many are probably bi-lingual, which always makes me feel like a lazy old uni-linqual thing - and Ghent is in Flanders, where they mainly speak Dutch. 

Love Water & Bill (yes, that's true)...see below... 

For that matter, why do we say Paris when the French say Paree?  I can sort of follow why Indian names got distorted by the Brits, not having the same alphabet and all, so Mumbai became Bombay, for a while.  I still am not sure why we say some place names differently to how the respective inhabitants do.  I suspect it's something about dominant culture and that self-conscious feeling of getting it wrong.

We both agreed that Bruges is prettier, somehow tidier than Ghent.  However, the main square was still taken up with some sort of stage and sound system being erected, which really steals the olde-worlde feel of a place! 

Bruges calls itself the 'Venice of the North', but I'm not sure I agree in spite of the few canals.  There are canals in Ghent.  Flanders is apparently known for being a boggy, muddy place, particularly since some of the battles of the first world war.   I can also attest to this fact from the experience of parking our motorhome.

As usual, we were mainly taken by the buildings and we each took about a thousand pictures just of the little area along the canals.  

I noticed several place names beginning with 'Minne' - Minnewater Park being the first sign we came to after leaving the (very art deco) train station.  Google translate says minnewater is Dutch for 'love water', but I can't get Dutch or German to come up with anything affectionate about Minneapolis or Minnesota.  Swedish says that 'sota' is soot and Minnesota is memory sweep.  Oh well.  The Dutch language just must be more romantic, eh?  Then again, what's to love about a 'boplein'?  (Oh, wait, Minnebo is a man's name and plein means 'square'...)  And the Internet says Minnesota comes from the Dakota language for water that reflects the sky.  I but digress (never!).

The main street we found was crammed with tempting clothes shops, many British, - not that we went into any - and the place had the air and bustle of money.  There were also loads of little antique shops, not that we went into any of those either.  It would be slightly more dangerous given that we had a large box to drive back to Britain, with no duty to pay within the European Union.  I would like to have browsed, and clothing purchases have been some of my very best souveniers, but I didn't think it was fair to Bill, who's not big on shopping, and it's not what we came for.  Keeping those thoughts in mind probably saved me a lot of money!

Bill was telling me there is a British sort of joke about Belgium along the lines of 'Name three famous Belgians' [cue laughter]. I looked this up on the internet and it turns out one has to name ten famous Belgians (this is an interesting page about national stereotypes as purported on television).

Well, I can't yet name ten famous Belgians, but I can give you three names now: Bradley Wiggins, who is a household name around here at Tour de France time. True, he is a British cyclist, but he was born in Ghent, which should count for something. Also, born in Ghent was Victor Horta. Never heard of him? Me neither, but he is now as emblazoned on my brain as Alphonse Mucha.   Trust me, you're going to learn about this man soon!

Third, I give you Jan van Eyck, whose statue is in the distance in this photo. His is one of those names that swim around with the vague ideas I have about Rembrandt, Monet, Michaelangelo; I've heard of him but wouldn't recognise his work if it fell on my head. No, hang on! I do! I even blogged about one of his paintings. I might end up educated one day if I'm not careful... So, where were we?

We wandered up and down both sides of this canal for absolutely ages.  Most of the houses were in the old style, with the occasional colour surprise.

But now and then there would be something starkly unusual, like this funny window at the top

or this amazing building with the soldier at the top. 

For all that I tend to like old, traditional styles,

this was distinctly appealing.  Don't you agree?

It was also for sale, but though I found the website where it was listed at the time, I can't navigate it in Dutch well enough to find any details about it.  I wasn't planning on living in Bruges anyhow, lovely as it is.

Eventually we came to yet another square.

Also with the modern problem.  

By this time I was somewhat saturated with buildings anyhow.

The one place we did stop was at a small cafe to have a cup of coffee and a Belgian waffle.  I can report that they taste just like the ones you get in the US only (for a change) they are about 3 times larger and soft rather than toasty.  Mine was delicious and I was ready for a sit down.   At the end of our train journey back to Ghent we discovered that the return buses were from a different location and due to the canals there, it wasn't possible to make a straight-forward trip back to the campsite.  So, we had a much longer walk than we'd anticipated.  Never mind, I needed to burn off that waffle anyhow.  We rested up over the weekend in preparation for our adventures in Brussels and Antwerpen (I think that is much more fun to say than just Antwerp, don't you?).

Friday, 28 October 2011

First Impressions of Ghent

Our campsite in a suburb of Ghent gave us any number of choices:  a 20-minute bus ride into the city centre, a 30-minute bike ride into the city centre, a 2-mile walk to Sint Pieter train station.  Bill often did the cycle way into a supermarket, Carrefour, for food, but I only cycled into Ghent the once. 

Even though cyclists nearly always have right of way - over cars and even pedestrians, apparently; even though drivers were very patient (our helmets and gloves clearly marked us as tourists), I still found it quite nerve-racking.  Yep, I'm a big chicken.  Once we got into the city, I simply didn't have the cycling skills to weave between the unpredictable pedestrians.  So, we tended to take the bus into the city and either to walk or get the bus from the train station.

Ghent is a lot like other major European cities, with the lovely squares, the tall old buildings, the cobbled streets, the cafes on squares or along waterfronts, the many cyclists and the slightly dressier clothing styles.  

The tourist information said the city had an historical area and an artistic area.  We walked everywhere we could think of and took maybe a dozen or so photos (every minute), but there wasn't a clear distinction that I noticed between the different areas.

What I did notice right away was how much modern life was overlaid on top of history, sometimes not in a pretty way.  We experienced this all over Belgium. 

Ghent isn't a city most people seem to visit; Bruges is more the tourist town. 

Bill chose the place he did near Ghent because it was between Brussels and Bruges, which seemed fair enough.  

Ghent seems more just a place that people work and live, though there were plenty of tourists around, judging from the languages we heard. 

Even Wikipedia says that Ghent is a place most people overlook, but when all was said and done, of the four cities we visited, we decided we liked Ghent the best, though it might just be a case of familiarity breeding fondness or something like that.

Bill was initially struck by the Flemish architecture. 

Most of the buildings seem to have the triangular facade at the top and the (what I call) stair-step roof line, but there were plenty of variations as well. 

Bill decided that the load bearing walls were such that a nearly infinite variety of window arrangements were possible and if the front is only a facade then that too was quite flexible. 

They did talk about an old Guildhall that had been 'lost' behind a facade, mind!

We came back to Ghent several times during the two weeks we were in Belgium, so I'll probably show you more of it later.