Wednesday 15th October 2008, Bachte-Maria-Leerne, Near Ghent, Belgium
Last night Ian asked the acting campsite manager about maps of Ghent and the surrounding locality. There were none at the campsite but this delightfully eccentric man promised to bring us some from his own home today. Sure enough, first thing this morning he was at our door with street plans, maps of cycle routes and details of local activities. He told us we should stay a couple of days and wait until tomorrow to visit Ghent as there was a local market in the nearby town of Dienze today that was worth seeing. We followed his advice and have spent a really wonderful day. It has been very relaxing and exactly what we needed.
We cycled to Dienze, up past the château, across the fields and along beside the river Leie. It was quite perfect as our tyres rustled over the fallen yellow leaves while others swirled and tumbled around us. In the fields were brown and white cattle and a huge horse came to peer over the hedge at us as we passed. The cycle track climbed a steep wooden bridge over a canal to run along the top of the riverside embankment which we followed towards the centre of the town.
Leaving our bikes beside the church we joined the crowds in the main street where a huge market was in progress. The feel of Belgium, even in the Dutch speaking area, seems more like France than Holland and the market was very like those we have seen in French towns. It sold everything imaginable from hardware to software and even underwear. It also sold clothing, table linen and bedding. Vegetables, meat, fish, dairy produce, bread and cakes were sold alongside spit roasted meats, charcuterie and of course, sweets. Belgium is the country for sticky sweets - Belgian buns, waffles and chocolates - and a provincial market is the place to find them all.
Today's treat for Ian has been joining the stall holders and customers in one of the crowded cafes for hot Belgian chocolate. He was given a mug of really hot milk and a pot of chocolate drops to melt in the mug until the drink was just the right consistency. With it he had a chocolate croissant.
Later we found the local library where we accessed the internet for an hour. By the time we came out the market had completely disappeared and the street was spotless!
The campsite man had pretty well ordered us to visit the museum as there was a painting he wanted us to see. It's his favourite and the artist lived locally. It was a very enjoyable experience. A slight rain had started so it was the perfect way to spend the afternoon. The museum houses paintings and sculptures by local artists, past and present. Their works cover mainly portraits and landscapes. The one we especially needed to see was indeed worth the visit, Bietenoogst by Emile Claus it is a huge late nineteenth century canvas in bright, clear colours depicting peasants digging up sugar beet. Its style, tones and composition reminded us of the renowned "Angelus" by Jean-François Millet. Unfortunately the museum confiscated Ian's camera when we arrived so no pictures.
Back at the campsite this evening we were closely interrogated to make sure we really had seen everything the museum had to offer! It is so very refreshing to chat again with someone who sparkles with enthusiasm and has a mind that is bursting with ideas he simply has to impart. His conversations are conducted in a gabbled mixture of English, Flemish and French and it is not easy to follow but we ache with suppressed laughter.
The museum also had a contemporary section on textiles and traditional collections of local significance. The area was especially important for spinning and weaving, particularly back in mediaeval times when the industry made Ghent and its environs immensely wealthy.
We cycled home through a slight, refreshing mizzle. "Home" in the circumstances, is wherever Modestine happens to be. Sometimes we almost forget where home is as it changes almost every day! Which campsite or side street did we leave our home on this morning? Which town are we in? Hey, which country are we in?
As the tiny wheels of our bikes shuddered and bumped across the cobbles outside the entrance to the château we noticed the gates were open. The castle was closed but for a euro we could wander around the grounds which were really wonderful. This, like so many of the Loire châteaux, was rebuilt as a residence rather than for defence and it is really pretty. Surrounded by a moat it has four round brick towers topped by tall slate roofs. It is said to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Belgium, reconstructed during the period of Spanish occupation during the 16th century and supposedly reflecting a Spanish influence in its style, intermixed with the brick gables of Flanders. It struck us as more French than Spanish however. The gardens too were very pretty, the flower beds bright with dahlias and the leaves on the trees beside the moat were scarlet and gold.
Thursday 16th October 2008, Bachte-Maria-Leerne, Near Ghent, Belgium
This morning we were up before daybreak and ready to catch the hourly bus into Ghent. We arrived back home this evening very weary just as night was falling. The days are definitely getting much shorter.
Ghent was far larger than I had expected with a population of around 250,000. Once cities reach that sort of size they start to lose their personal charm that comes from everywhere being so compact with the main sites close together. The main centre of the city is reasonably compact with several massive churches all within sight of each other as well as the Town Hall, the Cloth Hall, the Castle of the Counts of Flanders and many merchants' houses in typical Flemish style. The entire centre of the old town is cobbled which makes for uncomfortable walking and despite claims that it is a pedestrian friendly city we found it anything but. Tram tracks cut their way through the pedestrianised areas, as did cyclists, delivery vehicles, buses and very many cars.
Holland is the only country we have visited where most of the churches are kept locked or there are quite high entrance charges. Inside the interiors are starkly bare. Here in Belgium though, the churches are freely open while inside they are often filled with beautiful religious paintings, frequently by Flemish artists of world repute. Such is the case with the gothic Cathedral where the brightly coloured mediaeval Flemish triptych of the adoration of the Mystic Lamb is the work of the two Van Eyck brothers.
Near the cathedral is the massive, gothic, stone church of St. Nicholas with its flying buttresses. Since we have now promised to notify any photos of St. Nicholas churches we encounter to the American website collecting churches dedicated to this saint, we made a point of investigating it for them.
Ian just loves exploring cities and ticking off the sights. Armed with his map and guidebook he set off through the city photographing everything as he went. I followed on somewhat less enthusiastically, particularly when it involved a long walk to look at religious almshouses way off centre simply because they are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Back in the centre again we strolled by the canal with its mediaeval merchants' houses.
At lunch time we realised there is a general dearth of pleasant eating places in the city. Most restaurants serve full meals with prices to match but eventually we found somewhere that was fairly reasonable. By this time we had seen the main places of interest in the historic centre from the outside and some from within as well. So we walked up through the university quarter, peeped in at the library with its massive book tower designed by Henry Van der Velde which contains some 3,000,000 volumes, and made our way on to the museum quarter. The afternoon was spent in the Museum of Fine Art. It was the very best part of the day. Ian loves plans, diagrams and architectural engravings, so he happily spent much of the time in the special Piranesi exhibition. Meanwhile I explored the paintings, starting with the Flemish masters – Pieter Breugel, Hieronymus Bosch, Van Dyke and Rubens. I also discovered many works by more recent local painters, including Emile Claus whom we first encountered yesterday, represented by a wonderful impressionistic view of London. I was also delighted to find again some of the works of Henri Martin, active in the early 1900s. We first discovered him in 2005 down in Toulouse and were immediately charmed by his works.
The day has been interesting and, thanks to the museum, enjoyable. However we found the city a frustrating and unfriendly place for visitors to move around in. It is one of the few major cities we have visited where there is no attempt to provide panels or explanatory texts in anything but Flemish. The transport infrastructure is good and, for residents, cheap. It is complicated though if you are trying to work out for yourself how to get about in the city and where to obtain tickets. Most people have season tickets or don't bother to pay. Fortunately we made a great effort to ensure we had the correct tickets to return home. It was just as well as we were stopped and asked to prove we'd paid. Several fellow travellers without tickets were herded up and removed from the bus. Fines are apparently quite high.
Friday 17th October 2008, Jabbeke, near Bruges, Belgium
Passing through a village this morning we recognised the name of Vinkt. It was one of several places in Europe selected for the annihilation of its residents by the Nazis during the Second World War. As in Oradour in France, the villagers were rounded up and massacred. Their names are inscribed on a monument in the churchyard. Most were quite elderly when they were cold bloodedly murdered in 1940, just before Belgium surrendered to Germany. The oldest was born in 1851 and the majority were born before 1900.
Otherwise, today has been really good. Bruges is so very different from Ghent, which we had found too large and impersonal. Bruges is smaller and every inch of the centre is crammed with beautiful and interesting buildings that keep leading you on from street to street. It isn't just architecture either. There are even more outlets selling Belgian chocolates than there are splendid churches!
It has been cold but sunny so, having parked outside the city, we walked in through the town gate and spent most of the day exploring the streets and squares. Bruges has always been an enormously wealthy city, and back in mediaeval times it was a major centre for trade and commerce, and it had a monopoly of the English wool trade. England's first printer, William Caxton, originally set up his printing press in Bruges, producing several incunables, including "The game and the play of chess" in about 1475.
Bruges wears its wealth of history on its streets. There is no need to seek it out. It completely surrounds you. Most of the buildings are either freely open, such as the splendid gothic Cathedral of Sint Salvator, or allow visitors to explore the ground floor, such as the Town Hall, hung with 16th century portraits of city worthies. Several canals wend their way through and around the town and it is possible to view the buildings from the water – a very pleasant way to spend a sunny hour or so.
We passed through Bruges, stopping for lunch, many years ago, taking Ian's elderly mother to Brussels to visit his sister who was living there at the time. She had eagerly accompanied us around main sights, thrilled with the beauty and splendour of the buildings surrounding the two main squares. Seeing the buildings again brought back vivid memories of that happy day.
Because of this she was in our thoughts as we investigated a temporary, free exhibition of photography – really an excuse to see inside the building but coincidences happen in the strangest of circumstances.
This is near the area of the battlefields of the First World War and a photograph in the exhibition caught our attention. It showed one of the hundreds of thousands of WW1 Commonwealth War Graves scattered across Northern France and Flanders. We were astonished to realise that it is quite probably the grave of Ian's great uncle! The name, Arthur Tickner, and date both match our recollection of the details on a medal we inherited when Ian's mother died. Such medals were given to the families of fallen soldiers during the 1914-18 war as a tribute to their bravery. Ian's mother had in her turn inherited it from her parents. We have no information as to where or how he actually died however, and the medal has always been something of a curiosity. Now we have a probable photograph and the name of the cemetery in which he might lie. All we lack is time. We need to take the ferry home soon and the war cemetery of Vimy lies near Arras, away to the south. So it must wait for a future visit, once we have checked the medal to ensure it really is the same A. Tickner who died in 1918.
For the rest of the day we explored the canals and side streets lined with their brick gabled merchants homes until my dodgy ankle could cope no longer with the uneven cobbles. This was Ian's chance to indulge in warm Belgian waffles smothered in icing sugar as we found somewhere to sit down. We also browsed the attractive souvenir shops selling dainty Belgian lace and embroidery, and the dozens of chocolateries, their windows filled with confectionery concoctions that were complete works of art. Several shops had Halloween figures and tableaux made entirely from chocolate while inside, ladies with dainty tongs filled exquisite boxes with selections of fondant cream or liqueur-filled dark chocolates for American and Japanese tourists. They just couldn't sell them fast enough.
Once we had finally rejoined Modestine we headed for the nearest open campsite we could find in any of our lists. It turns out to be very pleasant, set beside a lake midway between Bruges and Oostend.
Saturday 18th October 2008, Gravelines, France
Ypres lies at the centre of the WW1 battlefields just a short drive from where we were camping. So, most of today was spent exploring the city and its history. Like Bruges it had been a wealthy woollen town back in the middle ages. Unlike Bruges, it had been reduced to rubble during the long, futile battles of the First World War that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, most of whom could have had little understanding of what they were fighting for. Life expectancy on the Western Front was around two weeks and over 60 percent of those involved in that war never returned home. Instead they lie buried, either in special cemeteries or simply where they fell in the flat fields of Flanders. Of those that did make it home, most were usually very seriously wounded, either physically or psychologically.
Ypres was a walled city with several town gates. After WW1 the Menim gate was rebuilt as a monument to the fallen soldiers who had no known graves. Their names are inscribed on the walls and every evening people gather at the gate as they are solemnly remembered by a bugler sounding the Last Post.
During our travels around the Baltic we have commented frequently on the destruction caused to beautiful cities by the battles fought there during the Second World War. Polish cities were particularly badly affected and cities such as Gdansk have been faithfully rebuilt almost exactly as they were. Ypres is an example from the First World War that was totally destroyed and later largely rebuilt – a generation earlier and over a longer period of time. The buildings on the main town square look unchanged since the 15th century, whereas they have all been rebuilt since 1920.
Around the town we heard many English voices and tours of the battle fields are a booming industry here. Some are more tastefully achieved than others. "Over the Top" seemed rather a crass name for a tour company. There are also numerous memorabilia and souvenir shops rubbing shoulders with Belgian chocolate and beer shops.
We spent some time at the Menim Gate. Fifty-six thousand names, arranged by regiment, cover its surface and there are printed alphabetical listings to help families identify particular names. Searching for our own A. Tickner we discovered two more of them on the gate! So we cannot assume the name we saw on the photo in Bruges is Ian's relative and will need to check when we get home.
From the gate there is a walk along the town ramparts, above the moat, to one of the many cemeteries for British and Commonwealth soldiers maintained by the War Graves Commission. This is a small, beautiful and peaceful place but there are literally thousands of such cemeteries across Flanders and Northern France. The figures are truly staggering. Over 750,000 British and Commonwealth personnel lost their lives fighting on the Western Front: 200,000 in Belgium and 500,000 in France; of these, over 300,000 have no known grave.
Towards late afternoon we needed to seek out somewhere for the night. Unfortunately the only campsite we could discover was over the border in France, midway between Dunkirk and Calais. The drive was unpleasant with the setting sun almost blinding us but we arrived just before dark. It is exactly what we expect from cheap French campsites, but at least it is cheap, so we don't feel cheated. We'd have preferred to pay slightly more for lights in the toilet block, loo paper, somewhere to wash dishes and clean, segregated sanitary facilities – I hate sharing the showers with men who snuffle and gargle as they douche away. I prefer not to know about it.
Once darkness falls and we close out the world around us it doesn't really matter where we are. We have now passed through twelve different countries since we left England in July. Different languages, different customs, different currencies, different politics. Our home though has been exactly the same throughout. So we drew the blinds against the cold, dark, damp evening, and warm and bright inside Modestine, we cooked Moroccan chicken with couscous and watched a DVD with a glass of wine.