The festivities of the last week or so have rather made it all but a distant memory, but the week before Christmas I had time for just one final European trip of the year.
I stayed in a self-catering apartment in Zeebrugge – the port of Bruges. It was only a flying visit – but a good pre-Christmas break.
On Saturday after spending some time wandering around the Christmas Market in Bruges itself, I also had time to go and visit the coastal town of Knokke on the Belgian/Dutch border and walked along the beach.
While I was on the continent, I arranged to meet up with my old uni friend Jelmer and we decided to meet in Rotterdam. I drove in to the Netherlands through Zeeland – the South Western part of the Netherlands. This avoided having to navigate round Antwerp and its infamous ring road. It was lunch in Zierikzee on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland – not far from where I stayed for a weekend in March.
A late afternoon walk in Zierikzee. How could I have missed this part of town during my visit in March!?!
On to Rotterdam…
Then, back to the car for about an hour until I got to the railway station at Barendrecht, on the outskirts of Rotterdam. Meeting Jelmer at the station, we got the train in to Rotterdam Blaak in the centre of the city. We had not really seen each other since a few months after we graduated – the Scottish accent he has acquired since was really quite weird, coupled with hearing him speaking Dutch to an actual Dutch person (as opposed to trying in vain to teach us the correct pronunciation for a complicated word). After eating in Rotterdam, near what I am told used to be the Red Light District (!) we went back to his house, where for some reason I seemed surprised that the Dutch do Christmas trees. (I guess the Dutch – like the British – imported them from Deutschland).
It was after 10pm by the time I got back in the car, setting the sat nav for Zeebrugge. Late at night I decided Zeeland, with miles of unlit single carriageway road, would be quite dark – so I opted to go on the motorway and go round the infamous Antwerp Ring including the Kennedytunnel which is always on the Belgian travel news. How hard could it be?
Well – after spotting a sign for Brugge on approach to Antwerp I decided to ignore the sat nav and followed the road sign. Not a brilliant idea as it happened – Sat nav really didn’t like me effectively going the “wrong way” round the Antwerp Ring (surely the clue’s in the name, it’s a ring road, doesn’t matter which way I go, no!?) Actually, Sat Nav was probably right – the route I was now taking was leading to a toll road – so I decided to turn round and go the way sat nav wanted me to do (I don’t really want to take a toll road if there is a free alternative)!
The sat nav now being thoroughly confused, this queued a 20-30 minute detour through several Antwerp districts (Ekeren, Zurenborg and everything in between) and generally going around in circles. I drove through the damn Kennedytunnel at least 3 times, having eventually found my way back to the motorway, left the ring road 1 exit too early and then got back on the motorway but now going in the wrong direction…
Ironic really, that going round in circles should be so problematic, given that I wanted to be on the ring road ie a road which goes round in a circle, in the first place!
Eventually finding my way back to the motorway and travelling in the right direction, I managed to get clear of Antwerp and cross in to the province of Oost-Vlaanderen. Hooray! Just a long, straight dual carriageway following the Belgian-Dutch border all the way to the coast, then turn left when I get to Knokke.
Admittedly – getting lost is all part of the experience and if I was making the same journey during the day I’d used being lost as an excuse to find somewhere to park up and explore. That’s how I travel most of the time! But not at midnight on a cold, dark, wet and windy winter’s night.
It was 1am Sunday morning by the time I made it back to my apartment. How I love driving in Belgium! (Belgium generally is a bit of a pain – but France, the Netherlands and Germany – particularly off the motorway – are really very good to drive in).
Being a Tourist on Sunday…
I had a bit of a lie in on Sunday, before packing up and vacating my room. Before leaving Zeebrugge, I paid a visit to the Seafront museum which included entry to the Russian submarine (blimey that thing creaked like anything) and the old Belgian lightship “West-Hinder”.
Looking towards the lightship from on top of the submarine.
It was then on to the For Freedom Museum – all about the German occupation of this part of Belgium. The museum is located in the village of Ramskapelle, just outside Knokke. It’s not massive, but it is quite interesting and I was given a guide book to translate in to English for me, so I knew what I was looking at! I particularly enjoyed the displays of British & German World War 2 vehicles. Ramskapelle itself looked like a nice place, too.
Burg Square, Brugge
I drove in to Bruges itself, and cheated a bit – rather than park in the public car parks (which, needless to say, were all full) I parked outside the hotel I stayed at in May. Ok – It was a good 30 minute walk in to the centre, but a good walk does good when you’re spending hours in the car.
Once in Bruges itself, I visited the Christmas Market in the centre, and the Historium. Then it was time for lunch – I went to a restaurant just off the main square for a pizza – not very Belgian, but it was about half the price of any of the places on the square itself. This was followed by shopping for Belgian chocolate, Christmas cards for work (I did them all in Dutch this year – Prettige kerstdagen en een gellukig nieuwjaar), postcards to stick on my bedroom wall, etc.
As I emerged from the book shop, the Christmas parade was going past – that was interesting to watch: people in period costume, people on horseback, and a guy sitting on the back of a trailer playing festive songs on the bells (see videos below).
Before too long I decided it was time to make a move. I made the 30 minute walk back to the car, and set the sat nav for Calais. About 7-8 hours later, around 11pm, I was back home in Cirencester and getting ready for the last week at work before Christmas.
I’m posting this during the final hours of 2017. I’ve not yet decided where my next trip will be to – but 2018 will definitely involve: Driving to Germany for Itzehoe’s Weinfest in May; Driving to Norway and back in July/August for my cousin’s wedding; there will probably be a Dutch trip; Hopefully time to go to Greece too, even if only for a long weekend.
Watch this space for further updates on my exploration of Europe be it by car or by plane.
Until then… Happy New Year!